The Language of Thorns – Leigh Bardugo

IN THE YEAR THAT SUMMER STAYED too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse. The tall grass withered to ash beneath the unforgiving sun, and animals fell dead in the parched fields. That year, only the flies were happy, and trouble came to the queen of the western valley. We all know the story of how the queen became a queen, how despite her tattered clothes and lowly position, her beauty drew the notice of the young prince and she was brought to the palace, where she was dressed in gold and her hair was woven with jewels and all were made to kneel before a girl who had been nothing but a servant bare days before. That was before the prince became a king, when he was still wild and reckless and hunted every afternoon on the red pony that he’d done the work of breaking himself. It pleased him to rile his father by choosing a peasant bride instead of marrying to forge a political alliance, and his mother was long dead, so he went without sage counsel. The people were amused by his antics and charmed by his lovely wife, and for a time the new couple was content. His wife gave birth to a round-cheeked princeling, who gurgled merrily in his crib and grew more beloved with every passing day. But then, in the year of that terrible summer, the old king died. The reckless prince was crowned and when his queen grew heavy with their second child, the rains ceased. The river burned away to a dry vein of rock. The wells filled with dust. Each day, the pregnant queen walked the battlements at the top of the palace, her belly swollen, praying that her child would be wise and strong and handsome, but praying most of all for a kind wind to cool her skin and grant her some relief. The night their second son was born, the full moon rose brown as an old scab in the sky. Coyotes surrounded the palace, howling and clawing at the walls, and tore the insides from a guard who had been sent to chase them away.

Their frenzied baying hid the screams of the queen as she looked upon the creature that had slipped squalling from her womb. This little prince was shaped a bit like a boy but more like a wolf, his body covered in slick black fur from crown to clawed foot. His eyes were red as blood, and the nubs of two budding horns protruded from his head. The king wasn’t eager to start a precedent of killing princes, but such a creature could not be raised in the palace. So he called upon his most learned ministers and his greatest engineers to build a vast maze beneath the royal compound. It ran for mile after mile, all the way to the market square, doubling back on itself again and again. It took years for the king to complete the labyrinth, and half the workmen tasked with its construction were lost within its walls and never heard from again. But when it was done, he took his monstrous son from the cage in the royal nursery and had him placed in the maze that he might trouble his mother and the kingdom no more. In that same summer of the beast’s birth, another child came into the world. Kima was born into a far poorer family, one with barely enough land to feed themselves from its crops. But when this child took her first breath, it was not to cry but to sing, and when she did, the skies opened and the rains began to fall, putting an end to the long drought at last. The world turned green that day, and it was said that wherever Kima went you could smell the sweet scent of new growing things. She was tall and lithe as a young linden tree, and she moved with a grace that was almost worrying—as if, being so light upon her feet, she might simply blow away. She had smooth skin that glowed brown like the mountains in that honeyed hour before the sun sets, and she wore her hair unbound, in a thick halo of black curls that framed her face like a flower blooming. No one in the town could dispute that Kima’s parents had been blessed when she was born, for she was surely meant to marry a rich man—maybe even a prince—and bring them good fortune.

But then, barely a year later, their second daughter came into the world, and the gods laughed. For as this new child aged, it became clear that she lacked all the gifts that Kima possessed in such abundance. Ayama was clumsy and apt to drop things. Her body was solid and flat-footed, short and round as a beer jug. While Kima’s voice was gentle and calming as rain, when Ayama spoke it was like the glare of noon, harsh enough to make you wince and turn away. Embarrassed by their second daughter, Ayama’s parents bid her speak less. They kept her at home, busy with chores, only letting her make the long walk to the river and back to wash clothes. So as not to trouble Kima’s rest, their parents made a pallet for Ayama on the warm stones of the kitchen hearth. Her braids grew untidy and her skin soaked up ash. Soon, she looked less brown than gray as she crept timidly from shadow to shadow, afraid of causing offense, and in time, people forgot that there were two daughters in the house at all, and thought of Ayama only as a servant. Kima often tried to talk to her sister, but she was being prepared to be a rich man’s bride, and no sooner would she find Ayama in the kitchen than she would be called away to school or to her dancing lessons. During the days Ayama worked in silence, and at night she crept to Kima’s bedside, held her sister’s hand, and listened to their grandmother tell stories, lulled by the creak of Ma Zil’s ancient voice. When the candles burned low, Ma Zil would poke Ayama with her cane and tell her to get back to the hearth before her parents woke to find her bothering her sister. Things went on this way for a long while. Ayama toiled in the kitchen, Kima grew more beautiful, the queen raised her human son in the palace against the cliff and put wool in his ears late at night when the howls of his younger brother could be heard far below.

The king waged a failing war to the east. People grumbled when he levied new taxes or took their sons to be soldiers. They complained about the weather. They hoped for rain. Then on a clear and sunny morning, the town woke to the rumble of thunder. Not one cloud could be seen in the sky, but the sound shook the roof tiles and sent an old man tottering into a ditch, where he waited two hours before his sons fished him out. By then, everyone knew that no storm had caused the awful din. The beast had escaped the labyrinth, and it was his roar that had boomed off the valley walls and made the mountains shudder. Now the people stopped fretting over their taxes and their crops and the war, and instead worried they might be snatched from their beds and eaten. They barred their doors and sharpened their knives. They kept their children inside and their lanterns burning all through the night. But no one can live in fear forever, and as the days passed without incident, the people began to wonder if perhaps the beast had done them the courtesy of finding some other valley to terrorize. Then Bolan Bedi rode out to tend to his herds and found his cattle slain and the grass of the western fields soaked red with blood—and he was not the only one. Word of the slaughter spread, and Ayama’s father walked out to the far pastures for news. He returned with horrible tales of heads torn from newborn calves, and sheep slit open from neck to groin, their wool turned the color of rust.

Only the beast could have managed such devastation in a single night. The people of the western valley had never seen their king as much of a hero, what with his losing wars, his peasant wife, and his taste for comforts. But now they bristled with pride as he took command and vowed to protect the valley and deal with his monstrous son once and for all. The king assembled a vast hunting party to travel into the wild lands where his ministers suspected the beast had taken refuge, and ordered his own royal guard to serve as escort. Down the main road they marched, a hundred soldiers kicking up dust from their boots, and their captain led the way, his bronze gauntlets flashing. Ayama watched them pass from behind the kitchen window and marveled at their courage. The next morning, when the townspeople went to the market square to do their trade, they beheld a terrible sight: a tower—the bones of one hundred men stacked like driftwood beside the well at the square’s center—and at its top, the bronze gauntlets of the king’s captain glinting in the sun. The people wept and trembled. Someone must find a way to protect them and their herds. If no soldier could slay the beast, then the king must find a way to appease his younger son. The king ordered his cleverest minister to travel into the wild lands and forge a truce with the monster. The minister agreed, went to pack a bag, and then ran as fast as he could from the valley, never to be seen again. The king could find no one brave enough to travel to the wild lands and negotiate on his behalf. In desperation, he offered three chests of gold and thirty bolts of silk to anyone bold enough to serve as his emissary, and that night there was much talk in the houses of the valley. “We should leave this place,” said Ayama’s father when the family gathered for the evening meal.

“Did you see those bones? If the king cannot find a way to placate the monster, no doubt it will come and devour us all.” Ayama’s mother agreed. “We will travel east and make a new home on the coast.” But Ma Zil was sitting by the fire on her low stool, chewing a jurda leaf. The old grandmother had no wish to make a long journey. “Send Ayama,” she said, and spat into the fire. There was a long pause as the flames hissed and crackled. Despite the heat of the cookstove where she stood toasting millet, Ayama shivered. Almost as if she knew it was her part to protest, Ayama’s mother said, “No, no. Ayama is a difficult girl, but my daughter nonetheless. We will go to the sea.” “Besides,” said her father. “Look at her dirty smock and messy braids. Who would believe Ayama could be a royal messenger? The beast will laugh her right out of the wild lands.” Ayama didn’t know if monsters could laugh, but there was no time to think on it, because Ma Zil spat into the fire again.

“He is a beast,” said the old woman. “What does he know of fine clothes or pretty faces? Ayama will be the king’s royal messenger. We will be rich and Kima will be able to catch a better husband to provide for us all.” “But what if the beast devours her?” asked kind Kima, with tears in her lovely eyes. Ayama was grateful to her sister, for though she wanted desperately to object to her grandmother’s plan, her parents had spent so long teaching her to hold her tongue that speech did not come easily. Ma Zil waved away Kima’s words. “Then we sing for her a bone song and we will still be rich.” Ayama’s parents said nothing, but they did not meet her eyes, their thoughts and their gazes already turned toward the king’s piles of gold. That night, as Ayama lay restless on the hard stones of the hearth, unable to sleep for fear, Ma Zil came to her and laid a calloused hand upon her cheek. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know you are frightened, but after you have earned the king’s reward, you will have servants of your own. You need never scrub a floor or scrape stew from an old cookpot again. You will wear blue summer silks and eat white nectarines, and sleep in a proper bed.” Ayama’s brow still creased with worry, so her grandmother said, “Come now, Ayama. You know how the stories go.

Interesting things only happen to pretty girls; you will be home by sunset.” This thought comforted Ayama, and as Ma Zil sang a lullaby, she fell into dreams, snoring loudly— for in sleep, no one could quiet her voice. Ayama’s father sent word to the king, and though there was much scoffing at the thought of such a girl making the endeavor, the only condition the king had set for his messenger was courage. So Ayama became the king’s emissary and was told to travel into the wild lands, find the beast, and hear his demands. Ayama’s hair was oiled and rebraided. She was given one of Kima’s dresses, which was too tight everywhere and had to be hemmed so that it did not drag in the dust. Ma Zil tied a sky-blue apron at her granddaughter’s waist and sat a wide hat with a band of red poppies upon her head. Ayama tucked the little axe she used for chopping wood into the pocket of her apron, along with a dry hermit cake and a copper cup for drinking—if she was lucky enough to find water. The townspeople moaned and dabbed at their eyes and told Ayama’s parents how brave they were; they marveled at how fine Kima looked despite her tearstained cheeks. Then they went back to their business, and away went Ayama to the wild lands. Now it’s fair to say that Ayama’s spirits were a bit low. How could they not be when her family had sent her to die for the sake of a bit of gold and a good marriage for her sister? But she loved Kima, who slipped Ayama pieces of honeycomb when their parents weren’t looking and who taught her the latest dances she’d learned. Ayama wished that her sister should have all that she wanted in the world. And in truth, she was not altogether sorry to be away from home. Someone else would have to haul the clothes down to the river for washing, scrub the floors, prepare the evening meal, feed the chickens, see to the mending, and scrape last night’s stew from the pot.

Well, she thought, for she had learned to keep silent even when alone. At least I do not have to work today, and I will see something new before I die. Though the sun beat down mercilessly on Ayama’s back, that thought alone made her walk with a happier step. Her cheer did not last long. The wild lands were nothing but parched grasses and barren scrub. No insects buzzed. No shade broke the relentless glare. Sweat soaked the fabric of Ayama’s too-tight dress, and her feet felt like heated bricks in her shoes. She quivered when she saw the bleached bones of a horse’s carcass, but after another hour she started to look forward to glimpsing a clean white skull or the staves of a rib cage splayed like the beginnings of a basket. They were at least a break in the monotony and a sign that something had survived here, if only for a while. Perhaps, she thought, I will just drop dead before I ever reach the beast and I have nothing to fear at all. But eventually, she saw a black line on the horizon, and as she drew closer, she realized she had reached a shadowy wood. The gray-bark trees were tall and so thick with thorn-covered brambles that Ayama could see nothing but darkness between them. She knew that this was where she would find the king’s son. Ayama hesitated.

She did not like to think of what might await her in the thorn wood. She could well be minutes from her last breath. At least you will take it in the shade, she considered. And really, is the wood much worse than a garden overgrown with pricklers? It is probably very dull inside and will do nothing more than bore me to tears. She gathered Ma Zil’s promise around her like armor, reminded herself that she was not destined for adventure, and found a gap in the iron vines to slip through, hissing as the thorns pricked her arms and slashed at her hands. With shaking steps, Ayama passed through the thicket and into the wood. She found herself in darkness. Her heart thumped a jackrabbit beat and she wanted to turn and run, but she had spent much of her life in shadows and knew them well. She forced herself to stillness as the sweat cooled on her skin. In a few short minutes, she found that the wood was dark only compared to the brightness of the wild lands she’d left behind. As her eyes adjusted, Ayama wondered if perhaps the heat had muddled her mind. The wood was lit by stars—though she knew very well it was the middle of the day. The high branches of the trees made black shapes against the vivid blue of the twilight sky, and everywhere Ayama looked, she saw white quince blossoms clustered in the brambles where there had been only thorns mere moments before. She heard the sweet call of night birds and the reedy music of crickets—and somewhere, though she told herself it was impossible, the burble of water. The light from the stars caught on every leaf and pebble, so that the world around her seemed to glow silver.

She knew she must stay cautious, but she could not resist slipping off her shoes to feel the ground, cool and mossy beneath her aching feet. She forced herself to leave the surety of the thicket at her back and walk. In time, she came to the banks of a stream, its surface so bright with starlight it was as if someone had peeled the rind from the moon like a piece of fruit and laid it in a gleaming ribbon upon the forest floor. Ayama followed its winding path deeper and deeper into the wood until at last she arrived at a quiet glade. Here the trees sparked with fireflies and the sky was the cloudy purple of a ripe plum. She had reached the heart of the wood. The stream fed a wide pool bordered by ferns and smooth stones, and when Ayama saw the clear, sweet water, she could not help but hurry to kneel beside it. The poppies on her hat had long since wilted, and her throat was dry as an old husk. She took her little copper cup from her apron and plunged it into the water, but as she lifted it to drink, she heard a thunderous roar and felt the cup knocked from her hand. It sailed across the glade and Ayama nearly toppled into the pool. “Stupid girl!” said a voice that rumbled like an avalanche off the mountain. “Do you wish to become a monster?” Ayama cowered on the grass, her hands pressed to her mouth to stop the scream that wanted to slip free. She could sense more than see the massive shape of the monster prowling back and forth in the dark. “Answer me,” he demanded. Ayama shook her head and somehow found her voice, though it sounded brittle as chalk to her ears.

“I was only thirsty,” she said. She heard a sharp growl and felt the ground tremble as the beast stalked toward her. He reared up on his hind legs, looming over her, blocking out the stars. He had the body of a black wolf and yet the bearing of a man. Around the thick fur of his ruff he wore a lariat of gold and rubies, and the twisting horns that rose from his head were marked with ridges that glowed as if lit from within by secret fire. But most terrifying of all were his gleaming red eyes and the hungry thrust of his muzzle, crowded with sharp teeth. Ayama’s thoughts filled with the gossip that had surrounded his birth. What beast had the queen lain with to create such a monster? What had the king done to earn such a curse? The beast towered over her like a bear about to strike. A weapon! she thought, and pulled the axe from her apron. But the beast only smiled—there was no other word for it, his lips pulling back to reveal black gums and the terrible points of his long teeth. “Strike me,” he dared her. “Cleave me in two.” Before Ayama could even think to comply, he snatched the axe from her hands with one thickclawed paw and dragged the blade across his chest. It did not leave any mark. “No blade can pierce my hide.

Do you think my father didn’t try?” The monster lowered his huge head and sniffed deeply at Ayama’s neck, then snorted. “He sends a peasant, covered in ash and stinking of kitchen fires. You are not even fit to eat. Perhaps I will skin you and offer you to the other creatures of the thorn wood to goad them with offense.” Ayama had grown very used to being insulted, so much so that she hardly noticed it anymore. But she was miserably tired, and miserably sore, and so frightened that the very bones in her body were quaking. Perhaps this was why she stood, opened her mouth, and in the piercing voice that had vexed her parents bitterly said, “So much for the terrifying beast. His weak teeth require soft-limbed ladies.” Ayama wanted to grab the words back, but the beast merely laughed, and such a human sound coming from his monstrous body raised the hair on Ayama’s arms. “You’re as thorny as the wood,” he said. “Tell me, why does the king command a stub of a serving girl to trouble me?” “The king chose me to—” In a breath, the beast’s mirth vanished. He threw back his head and howled, the sound shaking the leaves on the trees and sending white and pink petals fluttering from the branches. Ayama stumbled backward and covered her head with her arms, as if she could hide herself within them. But the beast leaned down so close she could smell the strange animal scent of his pelt and feel the warm gust of his breath when he spoke. “There is but one rule in my wood,” he growled.

“Speak truth.” Ayama thought of trying to explain her family and the offer of the chests of gold and silk, but the truth was far simpler than all of that. “No one else would come.” “Not the king’s brave soldiers?” She shook her head. “Not the perfect human prince?” he asked. “No.” The beast’s laugh rang out again, and it was as if Ayama could hear the grinding of bones in its echoes. But now that she had remembered her voice, Ayama found she was eager to use it again. She had not suffered miles of thirst and boredom and blistered feet to be laughed at. So she pushed her fear aside, summoned her courage, planted her flat feet, and said, blaring and clear as a trumpet, “I have been sent to ask you to stop slaughtering our herds.” The beast left off his laughing. “Why should I?” “Because we are hungry!” “What do I care for your hunger?” he snarled, pacing the glade. “Did you care for my aching belly when I was a child left alone in the labyrinth? Did you use that loud voice to petition the king for mercy then, little messenger?” Ayama twisted the strings of her apron. She had been but a child herself at the time, but it was true that she had never heard her parents or a single resident of the valley spare a sympathetic word for the beast. “No,” said the monster, answering his own question.

“You did not. Let the good king feed you from his royal herds if he worries so much for his people.” It was possible the king should do just that, but it was not Ayama’s place to say so. “I have been sent to bargain with you.” “The king has nothing I want.” “Then perhaps you might show mercy freely.” “My father never taught me mercy.” “And can you not learn?” The beast stopped his prowling and turned very slowly toward Ayama, who did her best not to tremble even as his bloody eyes fastened upon her. His smile was sly. “I have a bargain for you, little messenger, not the king. Tell me a tale that can make me feel more than anger, and if you manage it, I may let you live.” Ayama did not know what to make of such an offer. It might be a trick or simply an impossible task. The beast might be feeling generous or he might just be full after his last meal and in need of some idle entertainment. Then again, Ayama had spent much of her life neither speaking nor being spoken to.

She supposed it was possible the beast might simply long for conversation. She cleared her throat. “And you will cease troubling our herds?” The beast snorted. “If you do not bore me. But you are already boring me.” Ayama took a steadying breath. It was very hard to think with such a creature looming over her. “Would you sit?” she said, gesturing to the ground. The beast growled but obliged, settling himself by the water with a great thump that sent birds scattering from the dark trees. Ayama sat down on the ground a good distance away and arranged her apron around her, tucking her shoes back onto her feet. She closed her eyes to shut out the sight of the beast curled beside the stream, already licking his chops. “You’re stalling,” he said. “I’m only trying to make sure I tell the story right.” He laughed a low, ugly laugh. “Speak truth, little messenger.

” Ayama shivered, for she was not sure which of Ma Zil’s stories were true and which were false. Besides, the prospect of dying made it hard to think of anything at all. But just because no one bothered to listen to Ayama didn’t mean she had nothing to say. In fact, she had plenty. And if it was true that the beast was happy to be spoken to, then perhaps it was also true that Ayama was glad to be heard.


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Updated: 20 July 2021 — 00:04

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