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I notice Genevieve’s face takes on a sad, faraway look.
“We all had dreams of what our lives would be. But every day changes those dreams. Some days alter our lives more than others.” Althea rises and nods, flicking a glance to me.
“Your life cannot be exactly as you planned it now, whether you try to leave or you stay. But there is more certainty for us in what lies in the distance, than what is just outside these trees,” I say.
Althea moves closer, wrapping an arm around Odette. She is silent, tears trembling on her long, dark lashes. “I do not like being made to feel ignorant by a servant. Yet you have a point."
I don’t respond.
“We are all here now, and regardless of what we were before,” Genevieve says. “We are all Destined. Servant or noble or princess, there are no class boundaries now.”
“A very pretty statement, princess.” Althea keeps her tone neutral, but there is a distinct edge to the glint in her eye. She moves to a fallen log, brushing away snow, and sits with Odette, her head close to the other girl. The lines are drawn. Sides have been chosen, though I wasn’t really aware of a fight.
“They will make things harder than they need to be.” Genevieve whispers.
Movement at the corner of my eye distracts me. A dark shape flits between the gaps in the white birch trees. I get to my feet, the sick feeling settling in the pit of my stomach like an anvil.
“Althea, Odette, come away from the edge of the circle.” My voice breaks, sharper than intended.
They look up, shock and anger on their faces. Althea waves a hand at me. “What has gotten into you?”
The motion flickers again, and they see it, their eyes round. Genevieve moves closer to me in the center. A pulsating boom, like wind snapping sailcloth, ricochets around us. The noise pounds at my ears, and I wince, covering them.
Laughter, high pitched and squeaking echoes through the circle.
“Sso fressshh... New blood and boness, ripe for the picking.”
The face peers at us through the trees, hidden in the deep folds of a feathered cloak. The voice is female, sibilant, and makes my skin crawl. Another figure appears in another gap.
“Look at them huddle, ssister. The fear is ssweet nectar, the anger iss a plum fruit. We sshall sshare it. Feasst on them.”
“Dine for dayss on the quartet.”
“You cannot touch us here.” Odette’s voice rings out, commanding and seemingly unafraid. Her face, however, is pale, and her eyes glisten.
One of them laughs, a hissing cough that makes my throat ache. “She thinkss we cannot ssmell her fear. Sso young. Sso foolish. Sstep a bit closer. We’ll show you a way out.” They laugh again.
“What are they?” Althea whispers. “I don’t remember hearing of such creatures before.”
“How can you tell what they are? I can’t see anything but their hoods.” Genevieve asks.
Raven-touched. The name brushes through my mind. I can’t determine if it is a memory or something else. I repeat it in a whisper.
“What?” Genevieve says.
“They are Raven-touched.” I tell her, louder this time. Enough that they hear me. “They feast and yet hunger still. They roam but can’t find a home. Caught between two worlds. They’ve traded much for a little magic.”
“Thiss one thinks she knowss sso much,” one cackles to the other. Even though the words mock me, I notice a black, crippled hand tipped with black talons dig into the bark of a tree. The hood slips back a little, revealing a gaunt, shadowy face scarred with darkness and age. “She doesn’t know enough if she thinkss to belittle usss.”
“I don’t belittle you. They asked, I answered.”
“Then you think yourssself smarter. No one speaksss of usss with such disregard. Here we come to offer you help. To take you from here if you so desire it. But you mock usss.”
Odette whimpers, and the glittering eyes move from me to her.
“Yess, pixie youth, we will help you home again.”
“They’re lying, Odette.” I grab her hand and squeeze. “Don’t listen.”
She turns a cool glance to me. “Of course they’re lying. I’m a pixie, Lilliana. I can taste deception. They reek of it.” Her glare turns to them. “Be gone, pests. You won’t find your dinner here."
One presses into the gap between the trees, hissing and baring blackened teeth, filed to sharp points. I hold my breath, but her body presses against the air as if glass cuts her off from our circle.
“You will not alwayss be sso well protected. We have long memoriess and much patience.”
“Come, sssister. Leave them,” the other backs away, flicking to the other’s side faster than a breath. “Their mountsss return for them.”
With a last hiss, the two lift their cloaks, growing smaller, and their forms shift into huge black ravens that screech at us one last time and take to the sky.
Beside me, Genevieve grabs my hand, her nails digging into my palms. “How did you know what they were?”
The memory is slick as a fish, fighting when I grasp at it. I shrug. “It was long ago. When I was a child. I can’t remember for sure who told me. Or why.”
“Interesting.” Althea says. She takes a step back.
Odette stands, fists clenched at her sides. “If this is only the beginning, the end becomes more precarious by the moment.”