Querying is so hard! I have it down to an art—my letter is honed, and my agent research skills are primed.
When I tried to query my first book, I got loads of reading requests from agents… well not loads, but at least 7.
I thought my latest book, which, according to my beta readers is much better than my first, would get some attention too. I haven’t gotten a single request for more material. The rejections I get are nice, even requesting that I submit again if I write anything else, but no one seems interested in my manuscript.
I rewrote my letter, and I’ve been adding and deleting from the initial pages, scratching the editing itch that has erupted all over the front of the book. I added two chapters and a preface (the preface is now chapter one) at the behest of people kind enough to review my book. The people that read the book favored the additions, but I worry that they aren’t as good as the rest of the story.
Even if I publish it myself, I don’t want to turn off my readers at the beginning of the book!
Here is my query, and my initial chapters. Any advice (especially blunt, honest criticism) is welcome. Would you continue reading? Did anything turn you off? What can I do better?
[Why I chose to query agent]. You might like my 90k word, YA fantasy novel, WALLS OF ICE AND BLOOD.
After her best friend Maple is kidnapped to a sentient ice fortress by an evil queen for her musical talent, Lin, a non-magical human who stumbled into this world through a mirror, disguises her appearance and her mind in order to enter the fortress and save her.
Tír nA nÓg, a land from myths, where earth, water, air, and fire are controlled by music, song, dance, and sculpting, exists as its own pocket of reality—reached by boats crashing on its shores and by a mirror hidden in an ancient forest. Lin passed through the mirror as a child to guide her blind soulmate, Patten. 8 years later, as a new queen begins kidnapping talented children from camps throughout Tír nA nÓg, a maths professor finds his way through the mirror too. When 16 year old Lin learns that Maple has been kidnapped, and that the queen’s servants are looking for human nurses to serve the queen during her pregnancy, she decides to help—as does the professor.
As the professor pursues avenues of communication into the fortress, Lin enters its sentient, icy walls, where the queen’s followers sweep through the halls, hissing and moving jerkily in layers of white robes. Lin hides her thoughts with mind tricks, but it becomes increasingly difficult as she meets Maple’s mischievous brother Puck, who informs her of a secret rebellion and of the queen’s nefarious plan to drain Tír nA nÓg of its natural magic. The fortress begins to realize that Lin isn’t who she claims, as she searches for Maple and an escape.
Though the novel has been written as the first in a series, it can stand alone. I believe it will appeal to fans of WINTERSONG by S. Jae-Jones, and THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman. I graduated with an honors degree in English from the University of Utah, and studied literature at Trinity College Dublin’s School of English. I did an internship in the editorial department of a small publishing house in Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, in 2013. I recently started a writing blog focusing on young adult fantasy: www.thevinedesignbygina.com/fantasywriters.
I look forward to hearing from you.
The Orphan’s Reflection
There was once a traveler in a foreign land who found an abandoned baby girl. The traveler returned with her to his country, and left her at a home for girls, comforted that he’d done a good deed. He never returned to see her, though when she grew old enough to learn about him from the caretakers, she thought about him often.
The girl grew at the home with a timid nature, and at any whisper of conflict her legs carried her away. On her eighth birthday, after an afternoon spent running from her problems, she stopped to breathe, finding herself standing at the foot of an old mirror in the woods.
A pulse of music flickered through the air, and it called to her.
Sometimes other strangers were summoned to touch their reflections, and feel the breezy hum of another world. They left the woods with a musical shadow playing in their thoughts ever after.
She expected to see her ragged state and almond-shaped eyes reflected back at her from the ancient glass nestled in the trees, but that was not what she saw.
She saw the face of a blind boy who had ears like a wild dog’s. He was lost in the woods too, but the trees behind him were different from the ones surrounding her.
The boy and the girl talked through the glass, and when he smiled at the sound of her voice, she reached out to touch him. But the girl’s hand stopped on the cold, solid wall of glass. His hand reached out too, and the girl described the mirror that separated them.
“I can imagine it when you describe it to me,” the boy said. She then described the trees that she could see, their clothes, and the fading sun on both sides of the mirror.
“I could describe everything to you, and you could see the world,” she said, voicing a dream forming in her mind.
When the girl declared that she would help the boy, the glass became mutable.
She stepped through the mirror. The air tightened and became like sand against her skin. She experienced plunging into still, cold water. And then she breathed her first breath of air from her new world.
Only the music that called her there knew that the fate of that world depended on the orphan girl. She had to stop running.
Lin gazed into the trees, where the most talented musicians stood on balconies. Like an archer, she scanned each trunk with dedicated focus.
Everyone tuned an instrument, creating a tangled whir of noise, awaiting the conductor.
Wooden stairs spiraled around the trunks encircling the massive amphitheater, the plaza. The stairs and terraces grew only minutes before Orchestra each evening as the sun began to set. When the chosen musician approached, each tree shaped itself into the right arrangement. Lin watched a set of stairs grow, and a zealous oboist take them two at a time to his platform.
The most talented Scoggins took positions at the front, near the conductor—on platforms in the trees level with his. The forest pulled them where they needed to go.
A current of energy connected everything, and it could always be felt coursing through the ground—a thread of life that fed off of the music. That energy led Lin into this world, Tír nA nÓg, eight years ago. It currently attempted to tug her away. She felt the pull trying to move her legs, but she fought it. Engelot was the only home she knew, and she wasn’t ready to leave.
She’d been fighting it for days, fearing the unknown. She knew she’d give in tonight. Her legs were tired, and resignation overcame her will to resist.
She continued scanning the trees, searching for the Scoggin who would care the most about her flight.
In this camp, Engelot, the weather was one of perpetual spring. The trees grew in vibrant shades of green, and fresh, regular rain made all the plants eager to grow.
In the eight years since Lin experienced other seasons, like autumn, she sometimes missed the crunch of leaves under foot, while living among other humans.
Dirt and sweat covered those around her, yet a familiar, pleasant smell of earthiness, of mushroom and floral hyacinth, invigorated her senses.
Lin admired the contrast of the bright green leaves and the Scoggins’ hair—all varying shades of red. The Scoggins’ movements made the trees look like they were swarming in fire.
At first glance, a Scoggin looked like a human with red hair, and olive skin with undertones of yellow, green, and gold. On closer inspection, Scoggins displayed a set of unique traits—the most visibly pronounced being their large, cone-shaped ears.
The most distinguishing difference though, once you got to know them, was that Scoggins could make trees and plants grow by playing music.
“Have you found our friends?” Patten asked in his deep, calm voice.
Patten’s shaggy, dusty brown hair made him stick out in the crowd, like Lin. His hair color, and the fact that he towered above the Scoggins. His furrowed brow shadowed his deep-set eyes where a white sheen masked his irises.
He stretched, which emphasized his wide shoulders, meant for climbing. He came from the mountain people, Goadens—connected to fire like Scoggins connected to earth. He carried a piece of clay in his pocket, and when he shaped it, it manipulated flames.
Lin glanced away from the trees and down at the noisy crowd. The plaza’s acoustics amplified the hum of conversation and tuning instruments.
Several patches of brown—Goadens, the fire people—and white—Belvens, the people who danced to move the air—floated among the thousands of bobbing red heads. Few humans ever came to Engelot. Lin knew they weren’t human. It was not unknown for an occasional brave soul from the port town Gimmead to venture into Tír nA nÓg, but few ever heard Engelot’s Orchestra.
Lin held Patten’s hand, and he squeezed hers.
Her eyes moved back to the edge of the plaza, steadily from tree to tree, Scoggin to Scoggin.
Lin found her mark.
Maple Ravenscroft stood high in the trees, above the conductor’s left. Lin’s stomach turned. Her heart fluttered like a flag in a strong wind. She would say goodbye to her best friend tonight. She planted her feet firmly in the midst of the plaza for the time being.
Even though she couldn’t make things grow like the Scoggins, she experienced the forest’s ever-present energy, rising up from the ground in pleasant tingles from her feet.
“Maple is near the conductor. Puck is… to her left, our right. Gorlim is on the ground, but much nearer the front,” Lin said, scouting each of their companions in turn: her best friend, her best friend’s brother, and the son of the hostel owner, who lived with them. She described the world to Patten.
The naturalness of describing the world to Patten, of helping him experience it, made her grateful every day. She loved him. Knowing that the forest steered her to him made it easier to give in to the pull of the forest again.
“What do you feel tonight?” Patten asked in a lower voice.
“Urgency to leave. I’m fighting it, but… tonight is the night. The forest never leads us astray,” she said.
Patten bowed his head solemnly.
“Does Maple know?” he asked.
“Not yet.” Lin swallowed. Her throat burned.
Maple would not take their leaving well. As children, as soon as Maple set eyes on Lin she decided they would be friends. Maple’s social, opinionated nature balanced Lin’s reserved one. At only 12-years-old, Maple debated Engelot’s council about the rules concerning how long travelers could stay in the camp, so that Lin and Patten could live in Engelot. She was more than a friend. She was a sister to Lin.
As Lin recalled all Maple did for her, guilt flooded her—causing bile to rise in her throat. She couldn’t delay their leave longer, and she didn’t know when or if she and Patten would return.
“I told Puck we’d eat at the Ravenscroft Tree tonight,” Patten said.
“I’ll tell her after we eat then,” Lin said, with a slight nod.
The conductor, in dark green robes, ascended steps to his platform at the front of the plaza. A hush fell over those gathered.
He raised his hands, and a low rumble sounded. All of the Scoggins held instruments in the plaza—violins, flutes, harps—the woodwind instruments and strings—some instruments unique in sound and shape, belonging only to this world—and all stood poised at the ready. This, Lin thought, she would miss the most.
The air thickened, as if the density of it kept everyone stuck in place. Sweet, harmonic tunes melded together. No one heard music like this in her old world. The melody bloomed before them, seamless—as if it always existed in the air, holding it together, and now the instruments released it.
The conductor moved his hands in a graceful rhythm, and each group of waiting Scoggins played when called upon. Wave after wave of notes made their way to Lin’s core. The music hummed through her, bringing warmth to her bare feet and cushioning her rapid heartbeat.
The song evoked stories of the camp’s trees, its people, and its history. Emotions of love and belonging, comfort, peace, and fun reverberated in the notes. Lin couldn’t see the Scoggins in the stories, but their same joy permeated those gathered.
Sometimes the power of the music brought Lin to tears. The music varied—sometimes ethereal, sometimes upbeat and exciting, sometimes producing paradigm shifts in the way she saw this world.
In all the years she lived in Engelot, the novelty never diminished. She woke up in Engelot each day looking forward to Orchestra, as did every Scoggin there. She didn’t want to think about what would happen after tonight, when she wouldn’t hear it anymore.
Her attention shifted above the plaza to the canopy of branches. She lost connection with the forest as a jolt of fear stole over her body.
A dusting of snow blew through the canopy, the leaves freezing stiff. The music masked the howling wind, but the trees blew forcefully back and forth.
It lasted for only a few seconds before the branches shook and the trees returned to their normal state. The tingle of the forest floor returned through her feet, bringing a rush of warmth.
This wasn’t the first time Lin noticed the ice. No one else seemed to. Despite her insistence, everyone reasoned it away as being a spell of the music. She turned to tell Patten. He smiled lazily. He wouldn’t be able to hear her. She would tell him when they left Engelot that night.
Maple performed the last solo of the night. Thousands of heads turned to her. She shone like the reflection of glass in a dim room. Lin forgot the ice as she watched her friend play the chimes. The sun fully set during her performance, illuminating sparkling stars in the night sky, and twinkling, colored lights in the trees. The chimes rung out over a sea of watching, eager faces.
When Orchestra ended, the trees around the plaza stood taller. The enormous calendar tree, where the conductor stood, grew a limb out of a branch, marking another day. Every night, another limb grew. When the branch filled, it shifted out of the way for a new one to start growing behind the conductor. Old, symmetrical patterns distinguished it from the others.
Lin found it amusing that the days mimicked those in her old world. Twelve months, with the same number of days in each, marked the calendar tree. She often imagined this world as a pocket inside of the one she came from. Same sun, same stars—just a hidden place. Both worlds used the same measurement of time, but Lin reflected that the humans who shipwrecked on the coast of this world brought language to it. Before the humans, there was only music.
With Orchestra at an end, groups of Scoggins started to disperse. Lin and Patten moved through the current of bodies, and made their way to the Ravenscroft Tree.
Lit bulbs that grew in flowers illuminated the paths of the forest. Different colored lights distinguished the paths. They followed crimson ones, floating a foot above the ground on long, thin stems.
The Ravenscroft Tree sat in a grove with three other trees, all so wide around that twenty people holding hands couldn’t meet their circumference. Like towers, they jutted into the air.
Patten and Lin waited outside. Maple arrived shortly after, her set of chimes in pieces, connected to straps and pockets that fitted around her body. All of the Scoggins carried their instruments like this. Maple usually carried a small set of chimes throughout the day. She used the big, cumbersome set for home and Orchestra.
“You were wonderful!” Lin tried to keep the growing anxiety out of her voice. She hoped Maple wouldn’t hear it.
“Thank you! I thought I’d freeze up, but the energy kept me going!” Maple smiled widely. Her heart-shaped face, big white teeth, and long, wavy hair—a mess of red and gold—exuded energy. Sometimes Maple’s beauty made Lin glad that Patten couldn’t see her. Boys flocked to Maple, but she never thought anything of it.
Without detaching every piece, Maple flicked some of the chimes that she could reach. The notes rang out in the space between the four giant trees, and the night air swallowed them.
In response, the bark on Ravenscroft Tree, above their heads, rippled and moved to form an archway with two giant doors. On the ground in front of the tree, roots emerged, forming steps. The three friends trouped inside.
They ran up the spiral staircase of rare marble that rose through the middle of the tree. With rare books lining the walls, the Ravenscroft Tree reminded Lin of a museum or an old palace library.
Eating with Maple and her family had been a rarity when Lin and Patten had first moved to Engelot—something to look forward to on holidays at eight years old. At thirteen, it became standard every few days. Now, at sixteen, they ate there almost every night.
The Ravenscroft family used to be bigger. When Maple was five, her mother died of an unknown illness. Lin had never met her. Maple talked about her all the time, trying to keep alive what she remembered.
She had two brothers—Puck and Isaac. Isaac, the oldest, lived in his own tree now, with his partner, Eve. Isaac was cordial with Lin and Patten, but the air stiffened, and became unnerving when she was face-to-face with him. He didn’t hide his opposition to travelers in Engelot—a view held by many members of the camp.
Unlike Isaac, Puck welcomed travelers. He held a mysterious nature, but his cleverness couldn’t be missed. He was always crafting, thinking, and creating inventive things. At seventeen, he already held the title of Engelot’s most successful instrument maker.
So now the Ravenscroft Tree, one of the biggest and oldest trees in Engelot, only housed three people.
When they reached the first landing, where the kitchen room grew, Patten walked over to the fireplace. The tree formed the fireplace using rocks and stones. Patten felt above the fireplace for a bowl. The tree moved it to his hand.
He took a handful of the chalky substance inside and threw it into the hearth. A fire burst into the grate. He took the clay out of his pocket and began to shift it. The fire mimicked the motions, licking flames following the movements of his hands.
Patten helped Maple’s father, Abel, cook in the evenings. Patten enjoyed the company of the older man. He missed his brothers and father in the mountains.
Lin took a moment to appreciate the fire, and the thumb-sized wisp of a steam spirit that scampered around the cooking pan, ready to help prepare food.
Mr. Krenkel, who owned the hostel where they lived, lit fires every day, but the hostel reacted to them each time—using roots to push more rocks, dirt, and stones between its wood and the burning flames.
The Ravenscroft Tree emanated an air of wisdom, being much older than the hostel, as if it couldn’t be surprised. Perfect patterns of rocks and stones lined the fireplace. wood never needed to ripple or move there. The Ravenscroft Tree lived in more of a pensive state than an active one, bringing the presence of a scholar to its inhabitants.
Lin kissed Patten’s cheek, and she and Maple continued up the stairs once more. Maple’s room sat in high branches. They passed many rooms, an open archway to a library, and a landing meant for dancing and art, before they finally reached Maple’s door.
They were both sweating by the time they reached the top. Maple sighed as she began to remove her chimes.
Floor to ceiling windows revealed only shadows outside the tree. Plants that glowed in the hew of an orange sunrise grew out of the bark on the ceiling, casting the room in a pleasant, warm light.
Maple constructed her chimes, took off the straps that bound them to her, and fell onto her feather nest. Then she turned to look at Lin with a familiar, mischievous gleam in her eye. Lin sunk into the nest, next to her.
“I know that look,” Lin said, shaking her head before Maple said a word. Maple laughed. Her laugh rang.
Lin wanted to save the last moments of normality left to them. Once she packed her bags their lives would change forever. She wouldn’t be spending her evenings sitting in Maple’s room, talking about their friends and the goings-on in the wider world.
She looked out the window and narrowed her eyes at some leaves fluttering in the shadows. She concentrated on her breathing so she could ignore the hot prickle of tears rising.
“Do you need to use the restroom?” Maple said with another ringing laugh, playfully swatting Lin on the shoulder. Her playfulness broke the spell. Lin laughed, which slightly eased her mind, and she pushed Maple’s head into the nest of feathers.
“Do you want to know what I’ve found out?” Maple said as though she’d just remembered something, emerging from the white fluff with long strands of her hair now tangled and sticking to her face.
“Go on,” Lin said.
“In Fionner—” Maple began. Lin interrupted her with a long moan.
“Not again. You’re obsessed with politics.”
“Just listen, Lin,” Maple said, covering Lin’s mouth with her hand. Lin rolled her eyes.
“King Finvarra, the y—”
“Youngest king,” Lin cut in again. “You’ve mentioned… once or twice… or thirty times.” King Finvarra, only a year older than them, obsessed Maple. She talked about him constantly. Maple continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted.
“—is breaking the tradition of marrying a human.” She paused dramatically.
“Why?” Lin asked, surprised enough to forget to be annoyed.
Lin learned that the King of Tír nA nÓg married another human after ruling for a year and a day. The tradition came with the monarchy, which began when humans arrived in Tír nA nÓg. Humans were impartial observers who could be objective about conflicts between clans. Maple once lent Lin a book on the history, just so Lin could understand her when she prattled on about current events.
“Well Finvarra’s obviously putting a stop to the terrible tradition. Do you know how it’s done? The king’s croons sneak into Gimmead at night and steal the most beautiful, unmarried girl, right out of her bed. It’s horrible! Could you imagine being taken out of your home in the night and forced to marry some stranger? Just sick! Also—it’s not a huge port town, so after a few generations, you’d be sure to get some inbreeding… Point is—last night Finvarra called it off.” Maple always spoke fast, but she enunciated her words.
“Humans don’t know about Fionner and the king?” Lin asked, baffled.
“The humans don’t know anything about us, or any other clans in Tír nA nÓg. They think we’re spirits or something,” Maple said, brushing off the subject with a wave of her hand. “I forget you don’t know stuff like this… What are you thinking? It’s hard to tell your reaction with your tiny little ears.” She moved to flick Lin’s ear, but Lin dodged her hand.
“Why don’t the Scoggins go to Gimmead and tell the humans about us—about Engelot and the rest of Tír nA nÓg?” Lin asked, now realizing why humans didn’t often venture away from the small port town, whose shores acted like magnets for battered ships from English and Irish storms.
“Humans cut trees down, Lin,” Maple said, as if the reason should be obvious. Lin didn’t ask her how she expected the humans to make shelter, when they couldn’t just make trees pop out of the ground and bend in whatever shape they needed.
“Was the point of all this to tell me that I’m not going to marry King Finvarra? Because I’m happy with Patten,” Lin said, smirking. “I don’t need a collection.”
Something appeared to be bumping along under the bark along the outer wall of the room, and then onto the ceiling. The wood contorted as a round shape, the size of a fist, passed underneath it. It stopped above Maple’s head, before the wood expanded, and a wooden spoon fell out of the tree. Maple caught it in the air before it hit her, and the ceiling resumed its normal appearance.
“Urgh, my dad wants me to help in the kitchen,” Maple said, rising from her nest, and pocketing the spoon. “He thinks he’s funny.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” Lin said. Her heart seemed to expand as Maple turned to leave. Maple didn’t notice Lin’s emotional overwhelm as she left for the kitchen with a skip to help Abel and Patten. Lin couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing her again.
Worries in Wine
The nearest restroom sat on an upper level, above Maple’s room. Completely smooth walls and floors stretched out to colorful, geometric stained-glass windows. A large wooden bowl grew off the wall.
Lin touched the wall in front of the bowl, and a trickle of water began to fill it from the bottom to the top. She splashed her face, waiting for the heat in her cheeks to subside. She leaned against the wall and let out a long sigh, attempting to compose herself. Where she would go after Engelot?
The forests’ current strengthened. Fighting its pull was like wading through sand. Lin had a hunch, one that she hadn’t even told Patten, that the forest pull protected her. Some inextricable link connected the ice on the trees and the current urging her away.
She took more long, deep breaths. When she realized she wouldn’t feel any better spending more time cloistered in the restroom, she started back down the stairs.
More often than not, Maple made the staircase into a slide. Lin walked, rather than ricocheting in spirals to the kitchen.
“Lin.” Caught off guard hearing her name while lost in thought, she stumbled. She turned to look into Puck’s room. Usually his door remained closed. “Come here for a moment.”
Puck stood from his chair. He grabbed another from against the wall and held it out for her. When she tentatively entered and took a seat, he angled his chair to face hers.
A dim light shone through Puck’s room, not as warmly lit as Maple’s. Pieces of instruments riddled the floor and shelves on the walls. Heaps of books sat stacked in meticulous piles. His nest was pushed into a far corner.
Every night, Puck brought instruments and tools home from his workshop near the plaza. Puck held the title of Engelot’s instrument maker, an honored position. Although younger than his predecessors, he possessed an evident knack for making them. He loved crafting them. On top of creating instruments with quality and sound unlike any others, he had a unique style, with flourishes in the woodwork. They were works of art. Seeing them made Lin wish she played one.
Puck tried to keep his mass of hair short. It grew thick in all directions. He smiled at her. Lin recognized his fake smile—the one he flashed at the Scoggin girls who followed him around Engelot. The half-smile highlighted all of his best features—his bright eyes, his high cheekbones, and his straight, even teeth.
Yet despite his handsomeness and welcoming nature, Lin didn’t trust him. She liked Puck, sure. They spent so much time together in the Ravenscoft Tree, conspiring with Maple. But she always remained on her guard around him. He tried to charm her on several occasions, always trying to push boundaries. She didn’t think that his accidental brushing of her skin when they were near each other was accidental at all. Being minor infringements, she never addressed them.
She watched him analyze Scoggins before he made their instruments, and then manipulate their emotions to spin a better profit. She discovered this last concerning habit when describing Puck to Patten. It didn’t appear as though anyone else recognized what he did. Over time, unsure whether his charm would reach her if she hadn’t analyzed his movements out loud, she became hyper aware of him.
“What’s your secret?” he asked her, his tone genial and sweet. He flicked his ears with interest, and Lin wondered whether he forced them to display nonexistent emotions.
“Why would you think I have a secret?” Lin said, trying to wipe her face of the feelings she had stifled in the restroom.
“I can tell when people have secrets. It’s something slight, in the face. It’s been on your face for several days,” he said. How pretentious of him to assume he could read her thoughts just by looking at her. She repressed another thought, pleasure that he watched her that closely. Did he always?
He reached over and touched her face, next to her eye. “There.” Intuitively, she leaned into his touch, a lightness spreading through her stomach. He stayed close to her, the smells of wood and rosin intoxicating. No. She inwardly reprimanded herself for liking the way he smelled.
She’d seen him flirtatiously charm other girls dozens of times. She thought of Patten downstairs and sat further back in her chair, crossing her arms. She scorned herself, mindfully contextualizing Puck’s manipulation. Did he just want to know what secret she kept? He would know soon anyway. She weighed the pros and cons of telling him, and decided it couldn’t do much harm.
“Look, Puck—It’s going to come out tonight, so don’t say anything until I can tell Maple. But Patten and I are leaving tonight,” she said. As soon as she said it, relief washed over her. She couldn’t keep her thoughts bottled up anymore.
“And why are you leaving?” he asked, like a teacher asking a student for an answer.
“The forest is… pulling me away. I’ve been fighting it for days. I can’t resist it anymore. It knows what’s right, and were I should be, and I have to listen,” she said, trying to articulate her thoughts the best she could. The dim lights flickered, as if the tree confirmed her words. Puck leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, emulating her posture.
“I wouldn’t worry. The forest constantly guides people to and from Engelot. It leads us to people and places that we otherwise wouldn’t pursue… It has plans. Like during Orchestra, you might need to be in a certain place at a certain time, but you don’t have to stay there afterwards. You’ll be back soon,” he said. Again, the lights in the tree flickered. A knot in her chest lightened.
“How do you know that?” Her voice cracked. Insulted at his arrogance, yet comforted in his prediction. But if the ice came after she left, what would she be coming back to?
“The forest still gives us agency. If you want to come back, it knows it, and you’ll be back,” Puck said. In that moment he seemed wise.
“The thing is,” Lin began, nervously tugging at a string of her hair. She debated telling him. His eyebrows rose the slightest bit, urging her to say more. Telling him about the forest produced catharsis. “I’m not so sure if I would come back. I sense something that no one else does—which is odd because usually it’s the other way around—but there’s something like ice… It’s been growing stronger and more frequent. Gusts of it… I see it at Orchestra. I’m frightened.” Lin hadn’t told anyone this—not even Patten. She hadn’t fully grasped the words herself until they were out of her mouth. Puck considered her for a moment. She wondered, if like Maple, Patten, and the others, he would dismiss the ice as an illusion during Orchestra.
“You’re only afraid because you know you have something to lose, and if the time came that you actually might lose it, you’d fight… You look like a coward, Lin, but you’re not. Don’t look at me like that. It’s true. Your first instinct is to avoid trouble. That’s how you got here in the first place. You’ll be back,” he repeated. This time he flashed her his real smile, much more terrifying than the one he used to charm people. It lit up his face like a mischievous pixie, and his eyes twinkled with a glint of something dangerous.
“We’ll see,” Lin said, standing. Puck followed suit. He touched the small of her back, guiding her out of his room, before shutting the door behind him.
Piles of food and place settings sat on the kitchen. Warm spices filled the air, and thin, wooden cups filled with wine were already placed in front of the plates. Roasted vegetables and skewers of deer meat were heaped on the middle of the table, which grew a formation the shape of a bowl.
In the steam coming off of the vegetables, the steam spirit happily danced. There were cooking spirits all over the Ravenscroft kitchen—of steam and smoke—that lived in the pots and pans made for cooking.
Lin instinctively put her arm around Patten and kissed the side of his face.
“Smells excellent!” she said.
“Wrong sense,” Patten said in his deep, rumbling voice.
“Ah, looks excellent,” she corrected.
As everyone piled around the long table, benches shot out of the ground on either side. In the hostel, a song had to be played to create places to sit, but the Ravenscroft Tree knew to create them without the hint of a tune.
“Another brilliant solo from my brilliant daughter,” Abel Ravenscroft said heartily, lifting his wine in Maple’s direction. Everyone followed suit, raising their wooden cups to the air. Maple blushed, but she smiled wide.
Abel had a crooked nose, and a beard that wrapped around his face with patches of grey among the ginger. He had kind eyes. Once, Lin had thought of him as stern and frightening, but now she found him good-natured. He had a soft spot for Patten, and often gave him fatherly advice.
“Thank you,” Maple said, knocking her wooden cup against Lin’s.
A smile of content crossed Abel’s face at the food piled in front of him.
“A good meal is the best way to spend an evening before a day of travel,” he said, being the first to fill his plate. He blew the steam spirit off of his vegetables, and it disappeared into the air.
“Are you going north?” Maple asked, sliding the deer off the skewer. “Can I come?”
“Not this time, Plop. It’s not pleasant business. Though if you keep up this persistence, I will take you on the next council trip.” Abel took a draught of wine and exhaled with satisfaction.
Everyone knew Maple aimed to follow in Abel’s footsteps. 12 members sat on Engelot’s council, elected for life. Abel was preparing Maple to join, to replace Eoin Bruggin, the oldest member of the council, and possibly all of Engelot. But Isaac’s partner Eve, experienced in politics from her own family, let it be known she also expected to take Eoin Bruggin’s spot.
“Is your meeting about King Finvarra?” Maple asked.
“Ah, the young, brash king! He hasn’t been listening to the scholars or any of the council from other camps…” He scratched the back of his neck, irritated.
“You think he should marry a human?” Maple pushed, itching for a debate. Abel cleared his throat.
“I just don’t think the mix woman can bring anything good,” Abel said, topping off his cup with more dark wine.
“That’s an unreasonable bias if I’ve ever heard one,” Puck said. Everyone except Patten looked at him, but Patten’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Puck normally didn’t get involved in political matters, at least not with those gathered around the table. He observed, keeping his thoughts to himself. Abel’s mouth briefly formed a comical shaped ‘o’.
“Not because she’s a mix, Puck. There are rumors flying around about her powers,” Abel said in defense, pointing a skewer at Puck in a matter-of-fact way. “I don’t have any problem with mixes, or humans. You all know that.” He looked around the table for affirmation. “I like Cooper and Finley well enough,” he said as if this settled matters. Puck eyed his father, but did not retort.
Mixes were combinations from different camps in Tir nA nÓg, usually the results of affairs with travelers. They were generally distrusted, though Lin wasn’t entirely sure why. Lin encountered some anti-human sentiment in Engelot, but not as deep as the disparaging attitudes towards mixes. She thought it might stem partly from fear. Having hold over more than one element would give mixes an advantage it any conflict ever arose.
Two of Lin and Patten’s best friends were mixes—Cooper and Finley. They stayed at the hostel with her and Patten when they passed through Engelot. Finley, half Belven, half Goaden—tended towards Belven powers, but he couldn’t supress his fire instincts.
Cooper wore the dark traits of a Merguin, but he was Scoggin too. He played the piano better than anyone Lin knew. Cooper loved Maple, and Lin’s certainty that the duo visited more often than other travelers so that he could see her became more incontestable with each visit.
They ate for a few minutes in quiet. The spices and flavors were rich and filling, but Lin could only pick at her plate. She wondered if she could weave what she needed to say to Maple into the conversation.
“What kind of powers does the woman have?” Maple asked. “What kind of mix is she? Usually mixes just have one prominent power, no?” She lightened her tone, to get her father off the defensive and spill more information. She hungered for anything to do with King Finvarra.
“Usually only one power manifests in mixes… They’re more common than anyone realizes. But you get oddballs that can use more than one element. This woman trying to marry King Finvarra—She’s a mix of Scoggin, Goaden, Belven, and Merguin—all four people.”
“I didn’t know that was even possible,” Patten said, frowning. “What is she? A mix born of two mix parents?”
“Supposedly… But that’s got nothing to do with what people are saying… Rumors are that she’s involved with Blood Magik,” Abel said. Everyone stopped eating. Ears pressed back in fear against heads. Maple gasped, and Puck recoiled as if the words had been shouted. Lin knew Abel wouldn’t have mentioned this if he hadn’t drunk two cups of wine so fast.
Abel didn’t normally talk about Blood Magik. No one did. Scoggins kept the dark topic out of conversations and out of minds, as if ignoring it would make it die out. Its meaning escaped Lin. In the few times it had been mentioned in passing, the subject was met with the same adverse reaction.
“Sorry,” Lin said. Everyone turned to her. “What is Blood Magik?” Patten shook his head, but Abel didn’t notice. He just opened another bottle of wine, which he poured generously into his cup.
“I’ve been working my whole life against it. Blood Magik is a way of saying “experimental magic”… but not like what the scholars do. Nothing like the scholars…” he took another long draught. “It involves darker intentions—.” He swirled the wine in his cup, mesmerized by it. He spoke again, into his cup.
Lin had only seen him drink like this once or twice in all the years she’d known him—only when he had undesirable business to attend.
“The connection of the forest is a natural, wholesome one. And each camp feels that same connection to the world. We Scoggins feel it from the trees, you Goadens,” he said, turning to Patten, “feel it from fire. Belvens feel it in the air, and Merguins feel it from the waters where they swim… Blood Magik breaks that connection with violent acts. It forges connections in unnatural ways… through sacrifice and manipulation.”
“Let’s not be rash. Are we sure that’s what this mix woman is doing?” Puck said, cutting off Abel before he could elaborate further. “It would make sense if her strong powers were linked to all of the elements.”
“She’s claiming that her powers are simply a mix of wind and water. I just… I just don’t believe it… She makes ice. Lots of it.” Puck turned to Lin, and they locked eyes for a moment. Was this related to the ice she had seen in the plaza? Abel continued. “There’s been unrest. The forest has been less responsive in the north. There are a lot of reasons to think a storm is brewing… And I won’t be able to rest if I don’t try to prevent it. But let’s not talk about this at the table.” Abel seemed to come to his senses, shaking his head a bit, and putting a stopper in the wine. “You’ll take care of Plops for a few days?” he asked Puck, changing the conversation.
“I won’t let anything happen to Plops,” Puck said, finishing his own wine, and ruffling Maple’s hair.
“I don’t need taking care of,” Maple said indignantly, waving away Puck’s hand. “Plus, Lin and I have things to do.”
This was the moment. The time had come to tell Maple about their leaving. An uncomfortable silence hung in the air after Maple’s remark. Maple looked at Lin, expectantly. Puck’s eyes gleamed, as if daring Lin to continue. Patten squeezed Lin’s hand under the table.
“We’re—Patten and I—we’re actually not going to be here,” Lin said. She looked down at her almost full plate. She didn’t want to have this conversation. The bravery Puck mentioned she had must be dormant. She could use it right about now.
“What do you mean?” Maple asked, a line of confusion wrinkling her brow.
“We’re letting the forest guide us south… It’s been pulling me for days. We’ve decided that it’s time we left Engelot,” Lin said, her voice becoming quieter with each word until she whispered.
Silence filled the room.
“What?” Maple whispered. It sounded like a plea. She looked helplessly at Lin. “When… When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know if we are,” Lin said. She summoned her courage to look up at Maple, and wished immediately that she hadn’t. A fierce anger and sadness shone behind Maple’s rising tears. Lin dropped her gaze back down again.