Prologue

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The child was too young to understand death. All she knew was that Mama would not move. The child prodded and whined and stomped her small feet. But nothing stirred Mama from her bed.

When the cottage darkened, the child slept on the floor rushes, collecting bits of dried grass in her brown hair. At dawn she rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands and cried at the pain in her belly. She could speak the word 'bread' but she could not find any.

She padded to the door and gripped the latch above her head. Without looking back at Mama, she ventured out in quest of bread.

Everything felt warm. The drying mud that clutched her toes; the breeze against her cheeks; the puddle of rainwater in which she dunked her face, gulping until it dribbled a dark streak down the front of her dress.

She wandered across the scant village, in and out of the scattered huts. No bread. No animals. No people either, except a few who slept like Mama.

In the last cottage she found half an apple and a wedge of cheese on a low sill. She devoured them on sight. The pain in her belly ebbed, but not enough.

Wandering out again, the child watched the stillness around her. She didn’t understand the quiet, only the feeling of wrongness it gave her. So her small feet turned away from the village and carried her across fields of flat emptiness. She found a road and instinctively followed it, walking until her legs ached and the pain in her belly sharpened again

When evening burned the sky pink as her sun-baked cheeks, she sat on the parched grass by the road and cried into the backs of her hands again. The sound of approaching horses meant nothing to her. Horses were not bread.

“Is that a child?” someone asked.

The child looked up at a very large man on a very large horse. He wore colors she'd never seen and things that sparkled like sunlight on water. She cried harder in fear of his strangeness.

“Yes, Sire. A girl, I think.” A smaller man on a smaller horse rode by the shiny man. He too wore strange colors, but nothing that sparkled.

“Alone,” said the shiny man, his eyes sweeping acres of nothingness behind her. “Must be from one of the stricken villages.”

“None in the villages survived, my lord.”

“None that caught the Fever survived. Clearly this girl did not catch it.” He watched her for a long moment. “Fetch her, Dorian.”

The child squealed and thrashed as she was carried to the shiny man and placed on his horse. “There now, little pet.” The shiny man held her firmly, one arm circled around her middle. He dug through a satchel at his side and withdrew a small golden loaf.

The child stopped thrashing. “Bread!”

The horse beneath her moved onward. The shiny man carefully picked the rushes from her hair. But the child noticed neither as she crammed her cheeks with milk-white softness, richer, sweeter, more satisfying than anything she knew.

“Next town is not far, Sire,” said the one called Dorian. “Shall we leave the girl there?”

With her belly quiet, heavy sleepiness took over. The child curled against the shiny man, cooling her face on his smooth tunic. She felt his hand rest atop her head; his fingers stroke her hair. Just before slipping under, she caught his soft reply.

“No. Not this one.”

Maelyn: The Nine Princesses - Book 1Where stories live. Discover now