Sneak Peek: The Parting
NOTE ON THE TIMELINE
If you haven’t read THE NETWORK SERIES, I highly recommend you do so before you read this book. Everything will make a LOT more sense!
All five e-books in the series can be purchased by clicking right here.
The house in the middle of Letum Wood creaked while I stared at it.
To look at it, you’d think a gust of wind would topple the ancient thing. Almost a hundred years old, I’d wager, with wooden planks on the outside upheld by magic and a roof that could use some broom work and new shingles.
Nevertheless, within the broken exterior lay hidden strength.
I stepped over the threshold with one foot, then paused. The board groaned beneath my bare feet, more like a welcome whisper than a protest. Outside, the sough of the wind through the trees brought whispers to my mind. The trees spoke to me all the time now, and I welcomed their words.
She belongs to us.
It is right.
She remains with us.
Come, we welcome you.
While standing in the doorway, I tilted my head back to encompass the cottage with all its perfect imperfections.
Cobwebs in the windows.
The musty, brittle smell of crackling leaves.
Window panes with puddled bottoms and thin tops.
One window had been propped open, admitting a cross breeze from the front door. Each wall had several large windows, flooding the room with light. Glass panes were a luxury in this part of the forest. Most foresters—witches that lived in Letum Wood because they didn't have the currency or means to barter for basic supplies—couldn’t afford glass, so most covered their windows with animal hides or cheap fabric. A poor substitute in the winter.
Lingering amongst small luxuries like a smooth wooden floor and real windows remained the mystery of Isadora, the old Watcher who previously lived in this home. Her death and the death of her sisterwitch, Sanna, hung in the air, as if the forest missed them. They’d only been gone for months, but it felt much longer. Every now and then, I’d hear the trees croon their names.
The dragon witch is gone.
She still sees.
I realized with a start that I didn’t remember Isadora and Sanna’s full names. Isadora . . . something.
What would she think of me being here?
Isadora would set a wizened gaze on me, I’d bet, and offer cryptic advice from what she saw in the Watcher paths. Those differently-colored eyes burned bright in my memory today. Perhaps she’d think it fitting that I inherited her small cottage.
The floor, worn with age, lay bare except for dust and leaves. They cluttered the corners of an almost empty room, where a few pinecones had been discarded by gnomes that had clearly attempted to build a home out of the hearth. They'd abandoned it, but they left sooty tracks all over the place.
On the shelf across the way sat several delicate teacups. They perched on leaf-thin saucers, evenly spaced, as if they’d been waiting for someone to notice them. Their fragile, dusty appearance cluttered the fireplace. I advanced farther into the cottage, letting the warm fall air swirl in behind me. Leaves scuttled past my feet like skeleton fingers.
My best friend, Leda, appeared in the doorway behind me, probably from a transportation spell. Her voice dropped into the gentle silence like nails on a chalkboard.
"Isadora didn’t interview me for admission to Miss Mabel’s School for Girls in her cottage, the way she interviewed you,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been inside her home, even though I’ve seen the outside. It certainly has that old-world charm."
"It does fit you.”
Her head tilted to the side as she stepped up to stand next to me. Having her arrive in a peaceful moment felt like an invasion, but I let it go. Leda rarely showed up since Camille’s death, so I had to take advantage of the rare moment.
“Isadora didn't leave much behind, did she?” she murmured. “Think foresters raided it?"
“Gnomes too, I'd bet."
A table, bed, chairs, and other small furniture used to fill the place. Now, the lack of stuff felt like an open wound. If a forester had raided it, why didn’t they take the teacups? There was a black market for trading luxuries like them. I reached up to touch one of the handles. It grew hot under my hand. In the two seconds when I could tolerate the heat, I tried to budge the cup, but it wouldn’t move.
Odd. A magical protection spell. That explained why they hadn’t been stolen. Likely only Isadora would be able to remove those cups, and she had died in the war. Was there a time limit on such a spell? Could they ever be removed?
Below the mantle, splinters of wood scattered the floor. Chattering gnomes had probably broken the table apart and dragged it away. Small creatures, but mighty. Loud, too. Hopefully, they stayed away.
Leda followed next to me, nose wrinkled, as we stepped farther into the cottage. Three months had passed since the end of the war, and we were all a bit skinnier for it. The chaos that followed open borders and a lack of food made everything feel unsafe. Thankfully, this far into the woods, the trees protected me with an intensity I'd never felt before. Outside, the trees continued their hyper-focused sing-song.
She always comes back.
We sing for you.
You belong to us.
Leda returned to the front door, opened it a bit wider, then peered around the wooden edge. When she closed it, she frowned at the gap between the floor and the bottom of the door. A quick spell elongated the boards until they just swept the bottom, closing the space that was probably responsible for all the leaves.
She ignored me to study the rafters.
"It'll require some furniture," I murmured as I trailed my fingers along the edge of a shelf, between two long windows. "But that's easy enough. I can sleep on the floor for a while."
Dust collected underneath my fingertips. I sneezed, then issued a collection incantation. The dust gathered into a ball, zipped outside, and exploded into a puff that the wind swept away. I sent another one for the leaves on the floor. They spun into a reckless whirlwind, blew through the open door, and settled outside.
Leda made a sound of disapproval deep in her throat while she glared at the ceiling overhead. Her arms were folded against her middle as she strolled slowly, eyeing each crack in the wall. Isadora's wooden walls had been covered with some sort of plaster that she'd covered with a filmy, white substance that rubbed off on my palm. Whitewash. It would need to be wiped down. Because of it, the entire room felt like a burst of sunshine compared to the stone walls of Chatham Castle.
"Certainly enough space for your weapons," Leda murmured as she regarded an empty wall.
"One could hope.”
Leda eyed me, but my expression gave away nothing.
Viveet, my former sword, had shattered in the war. Just a few weeks ago, Merrick and I had returned from a hopeful—but fruitless—trip to the Southern Network to find the Southern swordmaker, Andrei, that forged Viveet. My hope for Andrei to reforge her had been in vain. No matter where we went, all we found was rumor. Andrei, for all intents and purposes, might as well have died in the war.
I'd taken all Viveet’s pieces, wrapped them in an enchanted burlap that would protect the metal from rusting, and hidden them in the forest. The next day, a sapling had sprung from the spot, as if the forest wanted to mark the place.
One day, I’d retrieve the pieces and reforge Viveet.
"Merrick should return soon," I said. “Papa sent him on a mission an hour after we returned from the South."
“When did he leave?”
“Two weeks ago.”
"Have you heard from him?"
She pointed to a fraying corner of the wall, near the ceiling, that revealed a bit of sunlight from outside. "Might want that plaster patched up. Do you know any home repair spells?"
"No. Do you?"
She rolled her eyes. "I'm not your magical encyclopedia," she muttered, then tacked on, "and yes, I do. When you live in a tiny house with too many children, you learn to control what you can. I'll lend you my grimoire."
She waved that off. Her tour of my new home completed, she stopped in the middle of the now-cleaned floor. Her brow raised.
"Well, the place looks like you. I'm sure you'll make it very functional."
Leda transported away without another word, taking her annoyance with her. The weight of the final battle—and all the loss that it had caused—had lain heavy on her shoulders. I let her go with a little sigh. In some weird way, she'd given the cottage her stamp of approval . . . without ever actually approving.
Unbidden, my eyes crossed the room to peer out the front window. My heart hoped to see a familiar pair of broad shoulders stride through the forest. Merrick's hair would be unbound—it almost always was, unless he had reason to braid it—and his face would be slightly grimy because he promised to visit me before he cleaned up. Because why wait a second more than we must? He could have to leave for another Protector mission at any moment.
Only Letum Wood lay within sight. No strong legs, arrogant smile, or bright eyes. A foggy morning had given way to a crisp, cool afternoon. Now the warmth faded as the sun began to sink, casting long shadows on the forest floor. Wind whistled past, stirring up the leaves outside with a cool kiss. The gusts brought a greater cacophony from the trees, like the ebb and flow of the tide. As if all nature operated by the same basic principles, no matter where it thrived.
You are with us.
She always comes back.
I gave the hope of seeing Merrick a few more heartbeats. Every day, I allowed myself a moment to miss him. Chances where I’d long for his touch, hope for his smell, and wrap myself in his memories. After that designated time, I would set him aside. Tonight was no exception to my routine.
“Twelve days," I murmured to the empty forest. “Twelve days since you've been gone. I already miss you."
I drew in a deep breath, locked up the longing, and turned to face my new home.
The trees sang as I stepped onto my porch, called for my favorite ax with a summoning incantation, and headed into the undergrowth to start my firewood pile.
Time to make myself a home.
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