Verse: Songs of the Summer God (High Fantasy, Magical Companion Monsters)
Wordcount: 4,425 words
Summary: Mellie was six when her brother died.
Please note this is the working/rough draft copy of the story! While it’s complete, there are issues with consistent tone, pacing, and my normal grammar kerfluffles. I am currently looking for Beta Readers, thusly, I’d love feedback if you’d like to leave some!
Mellie was six when her brother died.
Thelian was twice her age, old enough to qualify as adult to her eyes, and she worshiped the ground he walked on. He was everything she wanted to be when she grew up, strong and funny and brave and caring– and then in the middle of the marketplace the evil shadow of a Binder swept in and took that all away.
She was supposed to wait by the weaver’s cart while Mother bartered for new linen and Thelian went to fetch the sugar and spice from the grocer, but Mellie had wandered off to the tinker’s cart again. She knew they weren’t toys, but she was fascinated with the bits of metal and wire and the soft rhythmic tap of his hammer as he mended the pots. He let her try and fix the broken clockwork sometimes, but only the pieces without the itch of magic coming from them.
She knew better than to ask for those, even if they went itch, itch, itch in her mind. Mellie had to learn that before she could come to market, how to ignore the itch and how to tell people ‘no’ when they asked her if she could hear the stones. They’d practiced at home; it was her special job and she was very very good at it.
It wasn’t until the tinker’s hammer faltered that she finally noticed the screaming. She didn’t understand at first, but then saw the nebulous black cloud condensing into a huge catlike beast in front of Thelian. It looked him in the eyes for one long cold minute and then her brother fell.
Mellie missed what happened after that, the tinker dragged her to safety as the marketplace panicked and fled. It wasn’t until hours later that she found Mother again, who looked solemn and lost, her eyes red from crying and everyone around her offering condolences.
That night they left Thelian a traveler’s backpack by the newly build cairn over his empty grave. It was filled with the traditional offerings to make his journey through death was as pleasant as they could. Before they left Mellie placed a bracelet she had made from river stones and snail shells on top of the pile of dull gray rocks. She’d meant it as a birthday present, but there were no more birthdays left.
Mellie never went back to the market after that.
Months later she thought she saw Thelian out of the corner of her eye, his ghost watching from the tree line as she fed the chickens. He was gone before she’d even started turning and when she gathered up her courage to search, there were no footprints in the snow… but she could feel the faint itch of magic.
Mellie knew that sometimes the dead would come back to haunt the living. Her favorite ghost stories, the ones that had her peeking out from under the covers with Thelian as Father spoke, were about spirits who couldn’t accept that they’d died. Ghosts who haunted family and friends, crying, pleading, or screaming in rage, doing their best to trick the living into speaking to them so they could steal their souls and be reborn.
Kneeling in the snow, looking for tracks that weren’t there, Mellie knew she should still be scared, but she was furious instead.
There were rules for the dead, rules Mother had made her memorize after Thelian’s death. Mellie knew not to speak to the dead. Not to give them food or help. Not to talk about them in anything but the past tense, although Father said it was best never mention them at all. They were hard rules to remember, but she had done her best so that maybe Mother wouldn’t be so sad.
Now he was ruining all that work.
She wanted to yell at the emptiness in the woods where her brother should be, but that was the first rule and the only one she hadn’t broken yet. So she stood up and silently stomped back to the house instead.
She saw him again the next week and two weeks after that, always catching glimpses that vanished before she could be sure.
She almost caught him once, because of the chickens. It has been his chore to feed them and the hens adored him, always jostling for his affection as soon as he came in view. Once Mellie was looking for it she could tell when they were looking past her to someone else. That time she saw him close enough to see he was wearing the clothes they’d left him in the traveler’s backpack and a flash of stone on his wrist. Then he was gone and all she could see were the trees.
For a week afterward she had nightmares of black boiling mists and the itch of magic.
He never talked to her, never stayed beyond a glimpse, but he was always watching from the woods and… after a while it became normal.
Mellie didn’t talk to him, but she might have talked to the mule that pulled their cart to market or the chickens as she cleaned their pen. She sang songs to the wind and cried her heart out to the tree when her favorite hen died when a near-wolf tore into the pen. She told the cabbages about school work, the potatoes about the repairs Father was doing to the roof, and the leafy tops of the carrots about how the near-wolves had been found dead two farms over, ripped apart by something larger.
Then one day she was finally seven, not six and she found a bracelet on the stump by the chicken hutch, just out of sight of the house. It was made of ivory and wood, carved into tiny horses, running and leaping nose to tail in an endless circle.
And she knew her brother was alive.
Alive, because the dead didn’t act like this. Ghosts didn’t watch without wanting to be seen. They didn’t listen and ignore the chance to reply. They didn’t leave presents instead of asking for gifts.
He was alive and she was going to save him.
Mellie was a clever child, but not clever enough to find a way to learn what she needed to know without rousing suspicion. So after a frustrating day of dreaming up all the ways that wouldn’t work, she gave up and just told Father she had to know everything about Binders.
He paused in his wood chopping and gave her a tired, but measuring look. “Everything?”
“Everything.” She tried not to look as scared as she felt, but his expression softened and he finally nodded.
“Well then,” he picked up the axe and got back to work, “we start at the beginning…”
The summer of her seventh year was full of stories and legends, tall tales and guesswork that her father had spent a lifetime cobbling together. She learned how Binders and Goldens first came to the world of men and how the bargain with the Goldens had been made to protect them from the dark. That the wild bane plant with its tiny silver flowers and red-black leaves would keep both of them at bay, but the Binders had done their best to eradicate it. That the seeds of the creeper vine flowers, when carefully ground into paste and then dried to power over a coal fire would make them disperse back into mist.
He was very careful never to talk about Binders around Mother and Mellie followed his example. Her mother still seemed worn and lost, but determined not to lose her daughter as well– to either side. So she learned Binder lore from Father and practiced how to pretend she couldn’t sense magic with Mother… and planned her revenge.
With the summer farming lull came the yearly test for magic.
The entire ride into town Mother made her practice with river stones, perfecting the art of looking like she was trying to find the one white stone, without actually succeeding. Most children wish desperate for her magic sense and the chance to partner with a Golden, so disinterest would only make them suspicious. This is her second year taking the test and next year would be past the point where magic sensitivity normally appeared. The older children could ask to try again, just in case someone was missed, or if someone’s talent developed late, but she’ll only test again if she asks to.
The roads into town slowly fill with other farming families as they get closer. They can see the Duchess’s cloth standard raised over the watchtower, signaling that her representative is waiting for them in town, but as they draw closer they can see two pairs of Goldens and their partners standing by the roadside. The Goldens were massive beasts with the heads and tails of foxes and the bodies of richly maned lions. They seemed to draw all light towards them, shining golden and glorious in the late morning sun.
As they passed one of the Goldens gave Mellie a long measuring look and she clung fast to Father’s stories that they couldn’t hear her thoughts and the plots she’s hatching. The Goldens can speak to anyone’s mind, but listening is a privilege only shown to their partners, who have earned that gift. When they let her pass, she knows at least that part of the story is still true.
Testing for magic sense isn’t the only reason they’ve come to town. Children learn at home for most of the year, but when the yearly tradefair is held, they have classes for a week to make sure they’re learning what they should. Most of it is simple things, like math and letters, but as they get older the teachers also quiz them on history and their oath to the Duchy and the Kingdom beyond the Duchy. By the end of the week she can chant the king’s tree with the best of them, even if knowing who ninth in line for the throne isn’t going to help with farming.
It’s also a chance to see her friends again and play fair games and eat fair food, so it’s not all bad, but that last most important test looms on the horizon.
They line up the testing candidates along one line of square, facing the testing table. The crowd flanks them, cheering them on. If Mother looks pale and drawn, no one mentions it and Mellie tries not to look at her parents and draw attention to them.
There’s a shallow box on the table strewn with river stones sitting on a bed of sand. Some are magic, some simply look as if they might be magic, without the itch she’d never be able to tell which was which. Most have only a slight feel of magic to them, but one of the stones she can feel from where they stand in line. That’s the test stone, the one they’re given to hold and then told to ‘find more like this one’. Which is a lie, since none of the other stones are anywhere near that powerful. Last year she almost winced as they gave it to her, but she’d been more terrified of failing her Mother than the Golden.
They each get three tries to pick a stone they think is magic. If all three are right, no matter how strong the stones, they pass the test. But that’s why some of the stones are weaker than others– pick three weak stones and it shows how powerful you are. Those with weaker ability can only sense the three strongest stones, those without any sense at all will pick randomly.
Mellie has practiced that test since she was small and learned how to pick the stones from the box, sometimes right sometimes wrong, so that there isn’t the pattern that the magic sense kids have. She has to pretend not to know, even when the stones are strong enough that they give her headaches, like last year.
She never asked how Father got the stones they trained her with, or how Mother knew how to teach her to pretend, she only knows that it would break their hearts if she went off to become a Golden’s partner.
But if she did, she could use their help to fight the Binder… and when her name is called and she’s standing over the stones, for a moment she hesitates, torn between her choices. The Golden notices and she can feel it turning its focus away from the other children.
But being bonded means nine months of training at the capital city and she won’t have a choice of duty station. So she might have the ally to help, but she won’t be coming back.
The Golden’s mental voice is a like a banked fire, more heat than light and she does flinch and suddenly everyone is looking at her.
So she makes a big show of picking a very weak stone and acting like it was where the strong itch of magic was coming from. Then with practiced randomness she picks two stones without any magic at all, but that look like they should be right. When she presents them to the pair the Golden dismissed her with a huff and went back to watching the others.
The rest of the test proceeds without incident.
Her friend Shel is chosen, but she picks the strongest stones and Mellie can tell that Shel’s talent is much weaker than hers. Shel will go to the city for training, but not everyone who goes ends up partnered to a Binder. Some stay in the city and work there, some come back home, but always with the seamless iron bracelet that blocks their abilities. Even if they have weak magic sense there’s no sense letting the Binders get them.
“I’m so proud of you.” Her Mother said, eyes bright with unshed tears when it’s over, and Mellie smothered her regrets and hugged her back.
:This isn’t healthy.: Binder Yau complained, padding along beside Thelian, just corporeal enough to dance along the top of the forest loam. His mental voice was still unnervingly foreign and the boy’s shoulders twitched.
“I don’t care what you think. If you want me to keep finding the magic to feed you, then this is the bargain.”
:If you die it’s not much of a bargain.: Yau sniffed, pausing to dig his claws into a tree to mark his territory against living predators.
“I’m already dead, thanks to you.” Thelian slowed down as they neared the edge of the tree line. He knew the rules of the Dead and he had no doubt his parents would call the Goldens to hunt him if they knew he was there.
But he missed his sister.
:I would rather–: Yau’s voice turned to a startling loud yowl as the forest exploded around them, the trap that Mellie had spent half a year perfecting snapped closed. Thelian was thrown clear, propelled by Yau’s frantic magical push and tumbled out of range as the massive wooden spikes slammed into the ground on top of the half-formed Binder.
“Yau!” Thelian scrambled to his feet even as Mellie came charging in from the side, butcher’s knife in one hand and deathsbane powder in the other. Flower chains of wild bane ringed her wrists and her vest was armored in copper and bone.
Yau’s mental voice was incoherent rage and pain as the Binder dropped his hold on reality, dispersing into a thick dark shadow that flooded out of the trap and towards Mellie.
Undeterred, she threw the powder at the cloud –which recoiled in a shower of sparks– and swung wildly with the knife that dripped magical poison.
“Mellie, no!” Thelian tackled her from behind just as Yau solidified in front of her, his catlike face deformed with demonically wide jaws lined with hundreds of jagged teeth. Thelian curled into a ball around his sister, slicing his hand on the blade even as Yau ripped into his shoulder, trying to tear her away.
“I’m saving you!” Mellie screamed, frantically trying to get free as Yau yowled in fury, turning the air around them into a fire-hot whirlwind. “Let go!”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it– ” Thelian just held her tighter, even as the poison’s numbing cold started work its way up his arm. : She’s my sister! : He cried out to Yau, desperate.
The Binder’s roaring turned to snarls as he purged the last of the trap’s poison and the air around them stilled as he paced a circle around the siblings.
“Mellie, Mellie, let go.” Thelian was losing his grip, the cold creeping across his shoulders. “Please let go.”
She finally did, crying and hugging him still furious that he wouldn’t be saved.
“I know, I know.” He let her go, struggling to sit up and the Binder came up behind him supporting him even as it pouring healing strength down the link between them. “I just wanted to see you again.”
“I’m still going to save you.” she sniffled, glaring at Yau who glared right back, baring rows of gleaming teeth.
:I told you this was a bad idea.:
She tried twice more that year to kill the Binder before Thelian threatened to leave if she didn’t stop.
So she talked to the chickens about all the things he was missing because he was dead. She explained to the new younger mule how Binders worked and all the ways the Dead could come back to life. She laid out Yau’s weaknesses over and over and how easy it would be for her brother to free himself.
But he never did.
And when it came time for the tradefair again, she thought about not failing the test.
But Shel is due back this year. They always send the new recruits back to encourage the children left behind to try their best and their town hasn’t had someone chosen to partner a Golden in years. And Mellie knew that she’d have another chance to set her brother free.
“I need your help.” Mellie had cornered Shel when she came back again from the capital city, dressed in the muted whites and golds of the service. “I need you to save my brother.”
“Your brother’s dead.” Shel said dismissively, almost vacantly. Watching the folks around them pass by in the market as they nibbled on fried bread from the vendor’s cart.
“No he isn’t,” snapped Mellie, “I almost saved him, but I can’t fight it by myself.”
“Fight what?” Shel’s gaze was suddenly sharp and focused and Mellie flinched.
“The Binder,” Mellie whispered, shushing Shel when the other girl took a sharp breath. “I almost killed it, I was so close, but it’s got him under a spell. I can’t fight him too, but if you can help– “
“A Binder?” Shel snapped, keeping her voice low, “You’ve touched the dead– you’re cursed.”
“I’m not cursed!” Objected Mellie, “I told you, I almost killed it– “
“You’re dead, I can’t be talking to the dead.” Shel started backing away and Mellie grabbed her hand. “Sai!” She yelled, “SAI!”
“Stop it!” hissed Mellie, “I’m not dead, I told you, I need your help!”
: STAY. : Commanded a thundering mental voice, freezing Mellie where she stood as Shel tore free and ran to hide behind the massive glowing beast. : STAY DEMON, I COMMAND IT. :
“I’m not a demon!” Objected Mellie, “I just need your help!”
But it was too late, the other townsfolk had already started to draw away and her hopes came crumbling down.
:TELL US WHERE HE IS.: Demanded Golden Sai, pacing back and forth in front of the bench where Mellie sat, stubbornly refusing to cooperate. : SPEAK DEMON! :
“I am not!” Mellie snapped. “I’m not a demon, I’m not dead, and I’m not cursed. I just wanted your help!”
:I DO NOT CONSORT WITH DEMONS.: The Golden sniffed.
“No, you’re supposed to kill demons.” Mellie said, “and I want you to! My brother is out there, I saw him, I can save him.”
“Your brother is dead.” Shel looked foreign, cold and distant, and nothing like the friend Mellie remembered. She was still putting the Golden between her and Mellie. “You consort with the dead and demons and you tried to infect me!”
:IF YOU WON’T TELL ME WHERE HE IS, I SHALL FIND ANOTHER WAY. YOUR BROTHER AND HIS DEMON WILL DIE.: The Golden snarled and Mellie jumped up, furious.
“No! My brother can be saved!”
:NONE OF YOU CAN BE SAVED.: The Golden said dismissively and turned to face Father, who had just arrived. :WE ARE GOING TO THE WOODS.:
“Don’t listen to them– ”
And Mellie found she could no longer speak.
It took an hour before the compulsion wore off and Mellie could speak again. By that time they were halfway back to the farmhouse where Mother was waiting, thinking they were safe in town.
“I’m sorry,” she told her father, who was driving the cart as the Golden and Shel walked beside.
“I thought you were trying to protect yourself,” he said, tired and bitter. “I’d never have shared those stories if I’d thought you’d consort with demons.”
“He’s not a demon,” but it was reflexive, she’d always known her parents would never believe. “He could’ve hurt me, but he never did.” It’s the only proof she has to offer.
“What do you call this?” He turned his attention back to the road and they went the rest of the way in silence.
“I won’t help you,” Mellie stubbornly clung to that thought as the Golden tried to lead her into the woods near the farmhouse where she can feel the faint echoes of Yau’s magic. “I can still save him.”
:I DO NOT NEED YOUR HELP, DEMON CHILD, ONLY YOUR PRESENCE.: Sai bared his teeth and Shel grabbed an arm to drag her.
Father started at that, but the Golden glared at him until he dropped his eyes and stepped back. With one last helpless look at Mellie’s he turned to walk back up the hill to the farmhouse.
And she did.
The Golden sniffed the ground, leading them into the forest and finally stopping where Mellie had set her first trap, all those months ago. It was the faintest of the magic itches, but the strongest for the powders and potions she’d used to fight him. Sai circled the cleaning several times, finally coming to stop in front of the tree she’d used to anchor the ropes for the deadfall trap.
“He won’t come, he knows you’re here.” Snapped Mellie as Shel forced her to sit and tied her arms to the tree behind her. The ropes weren’t tight, but they held her shoulders snug against the wide trunk at an angle just shy of painful.
:HE KNOWS I AM HERE,: the Golden agreed, turning to look at her. :BUT TRUST ME, HE WILL COME.:
Then he touched his nose to her forehead and the pain started.
“I have to help her!” Thelian tried to break free from where he was pinned on the forest floor, but Yau just solidified on top of him until he could hardly breathe.
: You can’t help her. : Yau shifted his weight to keep Thelian trapped without crushing him. : She brought this on herself, she knew the rules– she just didn’t want to admit she was wrong.:
“She’s just trying to save me!” He objected, frantically.
: And she is. : Yau pointed out. : If she’d come to us willingly, what would you have done? If she’s called out in love instead of pain, where would you be? :
“She’s my sister.” Tehlian sobbed. He cried into inky black fur that didn’t quite exist. “I just want to save her.”
: And that’s why you have to let her go. :
They lay there until Thelian had run out of tears and Yau’s purring had smoothed his hiccuping sobs back into whimpers.
And when Thelian could walk, they did. Out of the forests away from the Duchy of Sandshore and out into the world.
Three days after they walked into the woods, Shel and her Golden walked back out and reported to the town council that Mellie had lied. Everyone agreed that it was understandable for her age —poor child— and her infatuation with her brother —dear girl— and that there were obviously no demons in the woods.
Her father was granted permission to retrieve her and found Mellie untied, still sitting with her back against a tree, looking out into the forest.
“He’s dead.” She turned to look at him, eyes old and eyes red from crying. “He’s dead.”
“I know, hon. My brother was too.” He scooped her up, even though she was too big for that, had been too big for years now, and he carried her home.
A lifetime later, when her children’s children were playing the fields Mellie felt the itch again. So she went to wait for death by the wood line, her back to the trees, working on her mending.
Yau melded out of the woods, drifting closer until he was standing beside her, eying the pile of clothing with suspicion. He was still more mist than cat, a dark void that leached away the sunlight.
She picked at a seam until the older mending unwound and carefully replaced the stitches.
:How did you know I was coming?: Yau sat down, watching Mellie’s grandchildren, tail twitching.
“You took my brother. You took my father’s brother.” She still wasn’t looking at him. “Thelian wasn’t the only one who knew how to sense magic. He was just the strongest of us and you knew that– that’s why you’re back. Thelian’s dead and you’re hoping my children have bred true.”
Yau was silent.
“Well they haven’t.” She said smugly, finishing up the mend and tucking everything neatly into the basket. “I married well– Not a shred of talent in any of them.” She turned to face the Binder, “I knew when you came back, if you came back, it would be because you couldn’t find anyone else. Which means you’re left with me and I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to control you.” She held up a wrist adorned with bracelets woven with metal, magic, and bane. “So come death, let’s walk together for a while.”
Yau looked out across the fields for a moment, tail lashing, then turned to look at her, his eyes blacker than the darkest night and his voice full of stars. :Well played.:
And her grandchildren lived happily ever after.