by Rachael A. Edwards (@RachaelAWrites)
Editor: r. r. campbell (@iamrrcampbell)
(Formerly, Mark of the Kismet)
Young Adult Dark Fantasy
Outlaw storyteller Alena Niehaus has never been one to follow the rules. At seventeen-years-old, her crimes of telling the forbidden stories of her homeland’s dark history earn her the attention of the Tsar, whose determination to have her executed chases her into hiding among Sloketzia’s frigid forests, legendary for the creatures that haunt them.
But hiding becomes impossible when the gods give Alena the ability to control the fate of everyone on the continent. As the new Kismet, Alena is to be worshipped and feared, but the power comes with a price: to embrace it would mean surrendering part of her soul to the spirit of the first Kismet, whose voice now lives within her. Determined to flee her destiny, Alena seeks passage to a far island nation beyond the reach of the first Kismet’s influence, but the Tsar becomes obsessed with enslaving her for her power and sends his heir, Dimas, to hunt her down.
To avoid capture at his hands, Alena must gamble, fight, and plot her way to the far-off land she believes will grant her freedom and peace. But Dimas draws ever closer, and the temptation to use her power only grows when that magic might be the only weapon Alena has to save herself and those she loves.
THREADS OF FROST AND FATE is a young adult dark fantasy complete at 81,000 words that takes place in a world inspired by Russian and Slavic folklore. It is told from the dual perspectives of Alena and Dimas, and is comparable to a combination of Susan Dennard’s WITCHLANDS series and UPROOTED by Naomi Novik.
First Five Pages
The story that fell from Alena Niehaus’s lips wasn’t real, but telling it could get her killed all the same.
The half dozen villagers who had gathered to hear her tonight didn’t seem to care. Her tale was the only thing distracting them from the hopelessness in their hearts, a hopelessness that ran deeper than their fear of the Tsar—the same one who would execute Alena for speaking one of the forbidden tales of their continent aloud.
She took in the rundown frost-covered huts surrounding the village, the frozen lake that was their only source of water, the hollowed-out cheeks of the men and women who had come to listen to her. This winter had been the fiercest in years, and it showed.
Alena’s stomach churned with hunger as the deer she’d hunted earlier that night sweetened the frozen wind with the scent of roasting gristle. Like the villagers, Alena’s muscles were weaker than they’d been in months, her collarbone more pronounced, her skin cracked and dry.
The villagers of Tulchek needed an escape. She needed an escape, and forbidden or not, Alena was more than happy to provide it.
“The Navi are said to be the fiercest creatures to roam our forests,” she said as she leant toward the two children huddled by the fire, the flames casting her face into shadow. Her own heart pounded in her chest, the goosebumps on her arms having nothing to do with the icy wind. “They are the spirits of women who went into the forests with the dream of never returning to their homes, favouring an existence shrouded in darkness and isolation rather than one controlled by the Tsar. For years, these women lived peacefully.
“That is until the first Kismet was created. When Zhenya was born, her ability to control our fates changed everything. The Tsar claimed her for his own – and she became his greatest weapon. The women in the woods were the first to feel her wrath.” Alena swallowed hard. Despite the hunger, despite the pit in her stomach, she found her pulse quickening as the story wrapped itself around her heart. Every pair of eyes focused on her, transfixed by her tale. There was Maia, one of the only people she considered a friend, and Esfir, the innkeeper who always made sure Alena had a room when she passed through. Their familiar faces filled Alena with a warmth she’d missed during her winter hunting in the forests.
But there was one person missing.
It had been three months since she’d seen Piotr, three months since she’d kissed him goodbye, guaranteeing to return. She sucked in a breath, her skin tingling as she let the forbidden tale distract her from the panic that settled in her chest whenever she let herself wonder why he hadn’t come to hear her tell her stories tonight.
“The first Kismet turned the women into ghastly creatures, too terrifying to ever be permitted in civilization again. It was the fate they wanted, one resigned to living in the forests, one of true isolation. But the Kismet had taken away their choice.” Alena’s skin crawled. The Navi might have been just a folktale, but the Kismet was as real as Alena herself. Whilst the reigning Kismet was not Zhenya, she was just as ruthless. And if the Strážny found Alena telling this tale, then it was her fate that would be on the line.
She sucked in a breath. “Now the Navi are said to slaughter anyone who dares trespass in their home, leaving behind nothing but bones.”
A shiver ran down her spine. It was just a story, a forbidden tale like nearly all the others, the kind outlaw storytellers like her had been whispering over campfires for decades.
It wasn’t real. The Navi weren’t real.
Somewhere nearby, a twig snapped. The children scurried into the arms of their parents. Goosebumps covering her skin, Alena scrambled to her feet, her heart fluttering nervously in her chest. “It’s alright.” She laughed, but it came out hollow. “It’s just a story. There’s nothing to fear. I’ve spent half a dozen winters in those woods, and not once have I ever seen the Navi.”
“Perhaps we should save any other stories until tomorrow,” Maia said as she placed her hands on her hips, gesturing to the children. “We want the little ones to be able to sleep tonight.”
Alena’s lips twitched. “You’re right, but don’t worry,” she placed her hand on one of the children’s shoulders, squeezing lightly. “There’s nothing to fear.”
But the little girl’s face had drained of colour. Fear twisted Alena’s stomach: the villagers’ sights had all settled on a spot behind her, their faces pale, their eyes wide.
“It’s them,” the child said. “The Navi.”
Alena knew before she turned that it wasn’t Navi she’d find. The footsteps were too loud, the clank of metal armour unmistakable. The men that came for them weren’t fictional creatures of legend hell-bent on revenge.
They were far, far worse.
In the distance, their flaming torches a beacon against the dark winter night, the Strážny marched toward Tulchek.
This shouldn’t be happening; she’d made sure the Strážny—the Tsar’s hunters—had completed their routine search of the village before she’d returned.
Fear pricked the back of her neck. “Get inside,” Alena hissed, her hand instinctively wrapping around the hilt of her dagger. “I’ll douse the fire before I leave.”
The villagers wasted no time. They ushered their children through the doors of wooden huts, the sides of which were half-buried by drifts of snow. Their panic rifled through Alena’s blood, the same panic that now clutched at her lungs, making it impossible to breathe. The Strážny approached too fast, their torches a blazing wall against the one place she could run to. If she ran now, she risked being seen.
The muscles of her legs twitched. Every instinct inside her told her to fight, and maybe she would have if it wasn’t just her life on the line. But if the Strážny found her here, the whole village would suffer. Maia and her brother Piotr, Esfir, the children who so eagerly listened to her stories—they would all be punished for harbouring a heretic. And even if the children were spared, they would see her punished for following her heart. They would see what the Tsar did to those who dared to hope.
Maia was still here. She wrapped a calloused hand around Alena’s wrist, her mouth set in a determined line. “Hide.”
Alena clutched Maia’s hand. “Where?”
The Strážny had reached the village outskirts now. The flames of their torches flickered through the dark, illuminating the silhouettes of a dozen men clad in silver and navy armour.
She was running out of time.
Maia doused the fire with an old snowmelt-soaked shawl left behind by one of the villagers, casting them in darkness. And then she slid her hand into Alena’s, pulling her toward the small hut she and her brother called home.
The door creaked open. A half second later, Alena was inside, her eyes scanning the familiar space once, twice, searching for Piotr. She’d stopped herself from asking the question that burned a hole in her stomach, too afraid that the answer would be one she’d heard too many times before. But now she couldn’t stop herself from saying the words aloud, a plea she knew Maia would understand.
“Is he alive?”
Maia slammed the lock in the door, her cheeks flushed. “Yes, but he won’t be—none of us will be—if we don’t hide you.”
Relief rushed through her, masking some of her fear.
Maia hurried to the threadbare rug Alena had given to her years before, ripping it back from the floorboards. “Get in.”
It took Alena a second to realise what she was looking at: a hidden compartment beneath the floorboards, just large enough for Alena to crawl into. A frown pulled at her lips, the world before her dimming. Memories of a similar compartment flooded through her mind, followed by the screams of her parents as they fought off the Tsar’s men, of their blood soaking through the cracks and the deafening silence in the hours that followed.
The urgency in Maia’s voice cut through her fear. With a curse, Alena slid into the compartment. The pounding of her heart threatened to deafen her as Maia slid the door shut overhead, trapping her in darkness.
When the first knock at Maia’s door came, Alena could only pray to gods that had forsaken her that history wasn’t about to repeat itself.