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PART OF THE Sweet Inspiration ISSUE

‘Bears are our omens, the symbol of my mother’s family and the guardians of women. Thousands of years ago some girl wore this as an amulet’

Dive into the fantasy realms of Marjeta Petrell – replacement bride, shadow of a dead and perfect wife, and step-mother to a duke’s daughter. Out of her depth, alone and afraid, magic runs deep in her veins – Marjeta faces accusations of witchcraft, the looming threat of execution, and must navigate the unfamiliar court to keep herself alive. You can read an exclusive extract of Chapter One on BooksfromScotland below.

 

Extract taken from Cast Long Shadows
By Cat Hellisen
Published by Luna Press Publishing

 

From the outside, the Penitent’s Tower is squat and imposing; black stone and a bear pelt of mosses in orange and green. It stands alone on its nub of hillside and looks down on fallow fields. I first saw it at age sixteen as the caravan of coaches and horses and treasure brought me to your rolling lands. I was a replacement bride, an unexpected sister. I was in mourning fierce and wrathful, determined to hate this bittergreen country.

I would love you, I told myself. And nothing else. I would save you from a fate like mine.

I didn’t even know you and already I thought I could set you free.

The coaches had travelled hundreds of miles along the roads that webbed and divided the eight duchies of Vestiarik. I had come all the way from Petrell, far to the north east where the world was half underwater, where forest rose out of frozen lakes and where old gods still walked under old wood. The duchy of Jurie was warmer, greener, and the trees fluttered welcome, the lamb-lands sweet and grassy. The cities and villages we passed were bright as painted toys, rain-washed, smelling like rising loaves. My father took us through them all, burdening his wagons with trinkets and books. At night we would eat in the houses of farmlords and borderlords and riverlords, and we were welcomed. Everyone knew who I was going to be when I grew up.

I think you understand that much. We never had a choice. There was no chance for us to find out what we would become. We were bred and moulded and bartered. My sister was going to be your stepmother, and I was held in reserve, ready to be neatly tied to whichever family my father believed would best benefit the Petrells. I was never meant to come to you dressed in engagement gowns, sitting on a wagonload of gifts for your father. I was still weeping, I was still filled with guilt. And the closer we drew to your castle, the more I realised how out of place I was. The deep forests were gone here, the bears and wolves eradicated.

This was never my story.

It was the Penitent’s Tower that held me and made me hope I would find my own place. In all that gilded splendour it was the one thing that stood out, raw and rotten. I remember asking my lady-in-waiting what it was, and she told me that it was the tower where traitors were sent before they were executed. So, you see, you are not so civilized after all.

The tower is different on the inside. I am right at the top in the rooms below the conical roof, and though the windows are too small to slip through, I can see the whole of Jurie spread out around me like a map. It is so very beautiful, even now. There, to the north, the violet ridges of the mountains, their caps permanently white, their robes of aspen and apple falling down to their ankles, trimmed in gold and saffron. The seasons are changing fast, the nights crack with frost. It can get very cold up here.

I don’t suppose I shall have to worry long about that.

For the most part I try to look to the horizon and the distant forested mountains where I wanted to escape to. Better than to look down, dizzy, and see what is waiting for me. Below is the square, and the scaffolds and wood that the men are bringing hour by hour. The ground is silver wet in the morning and the faggots must be damp and black and soft as autumn earth. Perhaps that is a mercy. Is it yours? Do you want me to breathe in smoke and die unconscious, never feeling the flames? It would be like you to show mercy. But not so likely when you have Lilika whispering in your ear. I wonder what she tells you about me. Some of it is probably true, but there has never been a cat so good at snarling up the truth as your friend Lilika. How does she look to you, I wonder, through that blinded eye of yours? Do you see what she is?

There is someone knocking at my door. It’s amusing, these little pretences. Whoever it is, they will curtsy and call me pretty names even while they make my pyre ready. I can’t open my own door, but I can draw myself straighter and wear my duchess mantle and tell them, “Enter.”

“My lady,” the woman says, and she sinks so low I think she means to be mocking. But she looks scared enough. After all the rumours that fly through the Jurie palace, perhaps she truly believes I could change her into a toad or cast an ill-wish on her just by staring. It’s all ridiculous. I have never had any real magic of my own. Just little stolen trinkets that belonged to ghosts, and nothing more than the stitchery women have passed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of years.

The serving woman has brought me food and wine. I’m still not certain why they bother, but because this is my last meal inside the Tower, tradition dictates I be well fed. It is a way of erasing guilt. She sets out my lonely feast and pours me a glass of apple-pale wine while a guard watches from the doorway. “Is there anything I can bring you?” she asks. She doesn’t actually mean anything, naturally. But it is a gesture, and I will take it. After all, this is my last night to explain myself.

“There is a bundle of shirts in my room,” I tell her. “The Lady Genivia will know which I mean. And my sewing kit.” My ladyin-waiting Genivia was helping me make shirts for the poor before I was arrested. It’s not that I am particularly generous or kind, but I am well-trained. My mother sewed shirts for the men of our lands, and on the day of the dancing girl she would hand them out herself. It’s a fine tradition. It keeps my hands busy. “I will finish some, before—” I pause. Before what? There is no point. My hands tremble and I put them in the folds of my skirts so that this woman cannot report to you how scared I am. She will not stand in front of Lilika and tell her how the witch shook as the men dragged broken branches from elder trees into the courtyard below.

“And paper,” I say, my voice firm and calm. “And ink and a pen.” I will be allowed that. I gave no confession. There was nothing to confess. But it’s as traditional for the condemned to write out their final words as it is for them to be given a feast, as though tomorrow brings a wedding instead of a funeral. I have had my share of weddings. I’m done with the farce.

The woman nods and curtsies again before leaving me to my meal. Though my stomach is shrunken, and I don’t feel hunger much these days, I pick at the spread before me.

She returns with a small basket filled with these last requests of mine and moves to clear away the remnants of my meal.

“Wait.” I stop her with an outstretched hand, and she backs away from me, eyes wide, her breath coming in shivery little rasps. I would laugh. “Please,” I tell her, “Leave it for now. I may grow hungry in the night.”

She stares at me in disbelief. I can see her mind working and wondering what kind of callous bitch I must be to fear nothing, not even my own end. Lilika has told everyone that I have no heart. That I seduced men and used them, that I tried to kill you and left you blinded in one eye, that I murdered my own son. I like that part especially — how she condemns me for his death, and then in the next breath will tell her rapt audience that my son was proof of my witchery. “He was an abomination,” she whispered. “The duchess must have gone on all fours for dogs and bears to have birthed such a monster.” She who never saw him. My little wolf-child.

*

Once I’ve cleared myself a little space, moving aside the empty dishes, and refilled my wine for courage, I write your name.

Silviana.

I cannot call you dearest, as I think we have moved beyond meaningless rituals. But perhaps I should. Perhaps I should tell you that you were always meant to be My Dearest Silviana, and that it took many harsh twists to change the thread of our love to hate.

And I wanted to love you. It seems unlikely, given what has come between us, but that day I arrived at your father’s castle, I was determined to be something to you. A friend, if not a sister. Never a mother. The thought was too ridiculous.

I was six the day you were born. After a year of mourning, your father made plans for a new wife, and my own father — always quick to take any deal that worked to his favour — offered up my sister as a bride.

It was a deal quickly done. Despite my family’s reputation for certain unsavoury practices, there was no doubt that tying his duchy to my father’s was in Duke Calvai’s best interest. We held back the east. Useful in times of war. Useful if you planned to make yourself a King.

To my sister and I, still girls, and still in that strange land that only girls can occupy, the upcoming wedding was barely real. It would be years before my sister left to join your father in his far-away turrets and become the stepmother to a girl we knew only as a motherless, nameless babe. You were not a person to us, and I doubt you, as a mewling child, cared much.

You accuse me of witchcraft, Silviana, but it was no craft of mine that killed your mother or my sister. No spell that tied my family to yours. The words of men chose this day for us.

If there were spells that could have raised the dead, do you not think I would have called my sister back from the dark? I wanted her. Not you.

I never wanted you as my sister, but you were all I was given.

The last of the light is going, and I have only one candle to see me through this final night. This letter that was meant to be something of an apology that apologised for nothing; it will have to do as it is. Your forgiveness will not change what is done. I must work quickly. Though the autumn nights are long, it will be morning long before I am ready.

The sewing kit wood is satiny under my fingers, and the little latch opens soundless. There are skeins of silken thread and a tiny, enamelled box of amber beads each no bigger than a pill louse. And there, beneath the beads is a bear. It is also amber, but it is old and worn, the tiny sharp face blunted, the rough lines dimmed. I stole this when I was barely old enough to talk, and I have never given it up. Behind the bear’s head is a hole wide enough to take a thin leather cord. Bears are our omens, the symbol of my mother’s family and the guardians of women. Thousands of years ago some girl wore this as an amulet. Perhaps she was a priestess, or a queen. Or perhaps she was nothing.

It doesn’t matter who she was, it matters only that she was. I close my fist about the little bear, warming it until I can feel the fine threads waking under my skin. Clever Genni, to bring me this trinket in my darkest, loneliest hour. It belonged to my sister and it is all I have left of her.

 

Cast Long Shadows by Cat Hellisen is published by Luna Press Publishing, priced £12.99.

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