The rot hound struck in the dark hours of the morning. It took one of our horses and left a geld woman bloodied and wild, telling tales of a two-headed wolf with eyes like the last embers of a fire.
I had known this would come. Not the wolf but something like it, ill fortune made flesh. I took down the bone spear from where it hung above the hearth and fetched my shield from its resting place. The pull against my muscles echoed imperfectly: too long spent splitting wood, gutting rabbits instead of men.
Imri stopped me at the door, hand resting on the swell of her belly where Evahr’s child grew. My child as well, by agreement and custom; the affliction that beset our people had withered my womb, and so my sister bore for us. But I still did not know if I would see the mewling babe and think mine or ours or his or theirs, and I was not eager to discover the answer.
Is this it? she asked, hands darting quick in the gesture-speech of the mutelings. Is it what Titha warned would come?
“I don’t know,” I said. “The beginning of it, maybe.”
You should not go, she said. Not alone.
“There’s no one else. I will come back,” I promised. “Keep the fire, and keep the door shut. Let no one in.”
Imri nodded. I didn’t have to warn her to be wary; the iron chain around her neck was reminder enough. When I paid the price of blood and iron to bring her home, we had cut her collar, but the chain took its place—sign and symbol of how fragile the life we’d won remained.
How fragile, too, the illusion of freedom we had spun, and how quickly shattered.
The beast’s trail led me away from the coast, into a forest of dumbstruck birds. I sank through the silence like a blade, tasting the air with every breath, following the faint scent of rot. The bone spear dug against my shoulder, over the web of scars a grayling’s blood had burned. The woods were thick with the gray, and the wise wore iron when they strayed among the trees, but I had warred enough with the hidden; I bore bone like a banner of peace, and I saw no swift gray flanks or thin gray limbs among the trees. Only once, blink-quick, a narrow flint face, its eyes wet and black and staring. And then gone.
I scented blood and bent my course. Found a clearing. Found a body. Scar tissue knotted the man’s cheek, burned to obliterate the mark of our holding. Dalrig: cast out eight months ago for stealing from the holding’s winter stores, now torn bloody, his gut a lake of thickening red. I knelt to touch my fingertips to his skin; warm, and his blood still fresh.
Dalrig had an eye keener than a hawk’s. It hadn’t saved him. So I didn’t look. I listened—and heard the hot exhale of the beast, a breath twinned between two sets of teeth, the instant before it leapt.
I whirled, slinging down my shield. The beast caught against it, claws scrabbling hard on the wood and teeth snapping shut, one-two, over a breath I’d foolishly loosed. I thrust the bone spear between its ribs as it ripped at my breath. Something in my chest tore. I drove the spear deep.
It took long, writhing moments to die, and it loosed my breath only at the end. I choked on blood, coughed, felt wetness crackle in my lungs. A wrench tore my spear free. The wound bloomed with maggots.
A crow called, lighting on a withered branch west of me. I spat blood on the snow and bared stained teeth at it. “Go bleat your warnings, then,” I said. “Fly ahead so your mistress has time to choose a lie. I have my proof.” Proof we should have fled, when Titha warned us of what would come. The crow ruffled its feathers, croaked again, and flung itself skyward like an insult to the clouds.
Bent down on one knee, I set to skinning the beast with a knife carved of a stag’s antler and stamped with knots. A gift, passed from my elder sister’s pulseless palm to mine, the day she died. The day she warned us of what would come.
With the hound’s pelt bundled over my shoulder, I walked the left-hand road toward the sea, to Kalstavr, where Talgrun sat in the tall seat and took his tax of salt and silver—and of flesh. I passed no one on the long road, and I tasted something in the back of my mouth like old meat, going sour. Something I hadn’t tasted in five years—not since I last let my iron blade drink its fill, not since Talgrun had ordered my collar struck and my face marked with the sigil of the hold. That day I left war to Evahr and to the iron thralls, but I could feel it in my bones and blood like a killing frost.
The town teemed. By the water, white sails boasted against the gray sky, and men and women, true and geld both, thronged at the docks. The hold’s raiders returning: the iron thralls, and Evahr commanding them. Joy leapt up in me, bright like the silvered side of a fish and just as quickly lost to darker waves. Evahr would be a glad sight in Kalstavr. I would not be so welcome.
I pushed through the crowd and broke the front rank in time to see Evahr kneel at Talgrun’s feet. The thralls were the blade, Evahr the hilt, and Talgrun the hand upon the knife, and none must ever forget who knelt and who stood over them.
Talgrun spoke the ritual words, praising Evahr for the silver he’d brought and for the greater prize—four women wearing muteling collars, one already round with child. Three of the women clutched each other, thin fingers woven together, sides pressed against sides as if they could become one being and, thus diminished, be forgotten. The fourth stared openly at me, eyes dark as a seal’s, and touched two fingers below her left eye. I looked away. Looked instead at Talgrun and my husband, and the briar-haired old woman who stood beside them holding a weathered yew staff on which perched a ruffle-feathered crow.
“Tonight we celebrate our good fortune,” Talgrun said, ritual satisfied. “And feast these warriors of salt and iron. Today we are blessed.”
“Blessed,” the crone repeated, daring me with a look to challenge her.
I no longer carried iron, but I could never let a challenge go unanswered. “This day is not blessed,” I said. Evahr’s head whipped up. He mouthed my name, worry in his eyes. Concerned for Imri, no doubt; promise a man a child, and he chokes on a thousand small and sudden fears.
“Reyna Bonespear, why have you come speaking storms while we praise the sun?” the crone asked. She’d fed her name to the crows when she carved her staff; I wasn’t old enough to have heard it spoken.
I loosed the ties around the rot hound’s skin and jerked it, unfurling it on the rime-stiff mud at Talgrun’s feet. The two heads flopped against the ground. A worm wriggled in one empty eyehole.
“I slew this creature this morning,” I said, speaking loudly over the wind-in-the-rushes sound of rumors being born around me. Talgrun’s eyes lifted from the beast. I met his weary gaze and offered no respite with my own. “I told you we should not have stayed.”
Inside the long hall, the fire sparked and leapt like a flapping hand. Spring brought thaws at midmorning, which meant less wood heaped on to burn and less smoke to prick our eyes, but the air still held a thin gray haze. Talgrun took his seat in the boneback chair, spine to spine with a longtooth his grandfather had killed. He gestured, and Evahr shut the doors against the crowd, leaving only six of us to stand in the warmth of the great fire. Evahr and I, the crone, and three men with white in their beards and wisdom enough that Talgrun trusted them. Of the three, I trusted one.
No sign of Mad Hosfar, Talgrun’s strongest and wildest warrior, and I could not decide if I was glad of that. He’d broken more bones for Talgrun than anyone, but he’d stood with me beyond the narrow place, the day I cut free the graylings’ heart and brought it back to set at Talgrun’s feet. I would have counted him as a friend, if I weren’t so wary of him.
We weren’t six, I realized then, but seven: Talgrun’s wife, Ymaera, emerged from the door behind the throne, parting the curtains with fingers thin as fish hooks. The whole of her was thin, and a thumb if pressed to her skin would bruise, but she was called beautiful by some—and a true woman beside, with a voice like a lark’s and a womb that would quicken.
“Reyna,” she said when she saw us. No surprise at the salt-skin warriors back from the seas; only me. We’d once been friends, Talgrun’s wife and I, when I was her husband’s thrall and she wove my braids for battle, but now she held no love for me. I had never been certain what changed, only that change it had. “It’s been too long since you stood beneath the beam.”
Subtle venom laced the words, an accusation not quite voiced, but I bent my neck, bowed my head—saving rebellion and my breath for a more important moment. “My lord,” I said. “My lady. Forgive my absence, but there are things you must hear now.”
“You make a spectacle of yourself, Reyna,” Talgrun said.
I shrugged. It did not do to be more prideful than my headman, but I was never wise the way a woman should be. I had a warrior’s wisdom, and among the iron thralls humility earned no praise. “I came to tell my lord of grave things. It seemed unwise to delay,” I said.
Talgrun snorted. A lord had no need for manners. “This dog,” Talgrun said. He held out his hand to the side, and Ymaera stepped up to rest her fingers over his. “Where did you kill it?”
“In the woods,” I said.
“Beyond the stones?” Ymaera asked.
I hid my bristling. “Beyond the stones,” I admitted. The warding stones kept the worst of the graylings and their world from our holding; the graylings had not come past them in force since the war, five years ago. “But I tracked it there from our farm. It killed a horse but took no meat. Bit a laborer. Left Dalrig dead, and if our laborer has not yet joined him, her wound will already have festered.”
“Who?” Evahr asked.
“Sora,” I said, and pretended not to note the fleeting relief in Evahr’s eyes. Better ale-soaked Sora than one of the others. And better a geld than a true man or woman, though few would say as much aloud.
“There are always dread things beyond the stones,” Talgrun said.
“Dread things,” echoed the crone. She leaned on her iron-banded staff. Iron and yew, which the graylings would not touch, and carved with the eight-and-twenty knots. Like the stones in the woods; like the midbeam that hung above us, which Korohn had carved with his own hands. The crone was more a threat to the graylings than I and my spear ever would be.
“It came past the stones,” I said, voice edged as an ax now. “Nothing so wicked has come so far since Korohn set the beam. Not unless the graylings flushed it out.”
“Perhaps they did, to plague us,” Talgrun said.
“No.” It was a dangerous thing to shape such a word to a chief, but I looked him in the eye. As a thrall I had pledged to Talgrun. As a free woman, I pledged to the hold—a pledge signified by the knot tattooed beneath my left eye. It was my duty to speak so, however dangerous. “You did not pass through the narrow place, my lord; you did not see what lies beyond. You did not hear the hounds in the twilight when the wounded lay wailing for water and mercy.”
There was but one here who had been with me that night: the white-haired Nagrat. He looked grim in his remembering.
“The hounds came among the dying, drawn by their moaning, but they did not pause,” I continued. “They came into the camps instead. They killed those who’d killed that day, and graylings died as swiftly as men. The graylings do not hunt the hounds. They do not herd them. They fear them as one fears a plague, a storm.”
“What are you saying, then?” Talgrun asked. “This beast came hunting my iron thralls? Came hunting your husband and our warriors? Or a murderer, perhaps?”
“No,” I said, though Dalrig’s death made me wonder what bloodshed his past hid. “A hound does not come for a meal so small. It scented killing, a great deal of it, but it must have come too soon. The wind through the narrow place plays tricks sometimes. Time runs differently. He scented not what is but what will be.”
“Omens are the crone’s art,” Ymaera said. “So what say you, crone?”
The old woman cocked her head one way and then the other, and in the thatch her crow cackled a laugh. “She speaks of omens but stinks of rot,” she said. “Of things not new and dead but old and dead. Old wounds, old grudges, old corpses cold and pretty.”
She split her lips in a yellow grin. Evahr’s hand gripped brief and tight on my shoulder, as if I’d be fool enough to leap, to shed blood beneath the beam. Acidic anger pulsed in my gut, but I was long accustomed to its slow, liquid pain. I no longer bit at every provocation like a wounded animal.
“This is not about my sister,” I said. Our sister, Imri’s and mine. Titha. Cold-born, blood still as a corpse’s and yet living. The cold spoke prophecy, and since Korohn’s time we had listened. Until Titha’s final Telling.
“Not about your sister, you say. Yet the first words you spoke to me were ‘we should not have stayed,'” Talgrun said, settling back in his chair as if weary of me.
Perhaps I was growing more temperate as the cold leached years from my bones. I did not tell him that my sister had warned us—that she had died to warn us, and we had not heeded her. Two years now since Titha had spoken her prophecy, and still Talgrun listened to the crows and their mistress.
“Your husband has brought a bounty, and you will share in it,” Talgrun said. “Celebrate, and put this beast out of your mind. The threat is no more. You slew it, and a fine trophy it will make for your home.” Your home, not his. He did not claim it, as was his right: a final insult masked as a gift.
Perhaps I had not grown so temperate after all.
“We cannot stay here,” I said. “Titha warned us, and all she’s said has come to pass. She said the snows would take seven that first winter. She said the gods’ light would dance the night the next cold child was born, and Vieka nurses that black-eyed babe even now. And she said the old threat would come back, and the village would stand gutted as an elk after the wolves are done, and no more sons and daughters would be born in the holding, and no more youths would add their blood to the beam, and no more warriors would lay their salt and their silver before you. She saw worms in your eyes, Talgrun Longtooth’s-Bane, and maggots in Ymaera’s womb. The rot hound has come to remind us, and the time is near. So tell me, honored wife of my lord—are you with child? Or was my sister wrong?”
Ymaera said nothing but pressed her hand against the loose fabric of her gown, betraying the faint curve there.
“There is no doom coming over the mountains,” the crone coughed. “The child will be well. The prophecies of the cold ones are weak things born on wind. They have no meat. I see in the entrails. I listen to the iron and the yew. Which do you believe, my lord?”
“If you will not flee, then we must fight,” I said, before Talgrun could answer. “All of us, in all the holdings. If the old war comes again, we will have to stand together.”
“The old war? All the holdings?” Talgrun said, and shifted back. “You talk of kings, Reyna.”
There was a rustle among the elders, like an uncomfortable laugh hastily concealed, and I burned.
“Perhaps I do,” I said. To talk of kings: to speak of things too grand, too distant, to bother with. To invite by your careless speech those troubles that demand a king.
It was an accusation, and a warning. I must not forget that at Talgrun’s order, I could be ignored—or bled dry before the beam as ward and warning.
Talgrun shook his head. “There has been no king of the holdings since my grandfather’s time, and before him none since Korohn. And none who’d sit the throne at Agelfyrd, gladly or otherwise. Take your talk of kings and cold ones’ dreams back to your farm.” He lifted his hand and showed me the back of it. Dismissal, and one I could not refuse.
Still I stood for the life of a single breath, my limbs tensing the way they did before a fight. But Evahr’s hand was on my arm then, drawing me away, and I surrendered to him. I saw Nagrat’s face as I left, the one in three I trusted, and saw that he believed me.
The door opened before us. I looked back over my shoulder and lifted my voice, cast it like a net across the crowd and the council alike. “Titha’s warning will prove true, and soon,” I said. “We’d best be ready.”
And then I pushed out, ignoring the swarm of half-questions that came with me. Let them buzz and wonder. Those that mattered, the dozen grim-eyed men and women in the crowd who would follow my voice blind through an ice storm, heard and drifted swiftly away. We would have our own council, without the nattering of crows.
“Are you mad?” Evahr asked as we made the long walk home. I wore the rot hound’s pelt and carried my spear and shield. He hauled ax and shield, spear and mail shirt, oilskin pack and satchel of gold and silver loot—and the chain of the seal-eyed muteling who walked close behind and listened.
I ignored my husband and glanced at the girl. “You know our tongue?” I asked. I repeated it in the Slight Isles tongue, the stutter-speech of the holdings Evahr had taken her from. No response. I tried the old tongue and she reacted, but it might have been fear at the language, not acknowledgment of the question. It was the tongue of sorcerers, though its power was well faded since Korohn’s time.
“Don’t bother,” Evahr said. “We spared an old man and in turn he told us much. Including that their headman caught these mutelings wild in the forewinter. None of them so much as gesture.”
Is that true? I asked, hands flitting like swallows. No answer. “It’s too soon for another child,” I said. “Let Imri birth hers first before you get to rutting again.” My words were idly bitter, bitten with anger after the council. Evahr clenched his teeth and dragged on the chain, passing anger down the line as I had.
I thought we had agreed we would take no other muteling, nor ask of Imri what she would not offer. We had not said as much. But Evahr knew me, knew my mind, better than any living man. I thought it did not need to be said. I thought he understood.
“I don’t mean to—” He cut himself off. “You know I wouldn’t.”
“What if Imri doesn’t breed true?” I snapped. “Or if she spits out gelds and cold children—or mutelings, forbid it? You’ll be without a son to take over when you’re rattling your last. Can you say you haven’t thought of that? Why else claim her?”
“She was a gift from Talgrun. I couldn’t refuse. Not without angering him. I won’t—she won’t—I don’t know what you expect me to do.” Evahr gave a frustrated shake of his head. Looked away from me.
I rubbed the side of my neck, the spot where my skin was still scar-roughened from the iron collar that I had worn for a decade. Evahr had worn his longer, but the only scar it had left him was a patch the size of my thumbprint, at the base of his neck. Still sometimes I wondered if he had forgotten his collar was no longer there. That he did not belong to Talgrun anymore.
“We’ll be without a son, you mean,” Evahr said at last.
“Not you. We.”
I grunted. Some women stood over their husbands as they strove with a muteling, or even lay in the bed beside to claim some connection to the act. I’d taken the spear and trailed a honey-colored stag past the stones and to the mountain-foot, gone two weeks to give them time and time again.
I loved Imri; I loved Evahr; I hated that he loved her, and I hated that she did not love him, and I hated most of all that the chain around her neck made everything between us a broken, tainted thing. Since the gods had stained our skin and made gelds of most of us, the simplest thing had become impossible.
We did not speak again. Not until we reached the farm and found Imri waiting for us outside, despite her promises to me. She went to Evahr first, pressing herself against him. He wrapped his arms around her. She laid her chin on his shoulder and stared at the muteling he led, calculation in her eyes. But when Evahr stepped back, that calculation was gone. She did not care that I saw it; we understood each other, Imri and I, and always had. But Evahr would not.
I wondered sometimes if Imri had only offered to mother for us because she knew how it would bend Evahr’s distant tolerance into a fierce affection, rooting her in his heart. It was as calculated as the embrace; an act of survival. She knew that I would do anything to protect her. She knew that my protection might not be enough.
We did what we had to. And did not speak of it.
“We will have guests tonight,” I said. “Ten, perhaps. Make certain we can feed them. I’ll see to your prize, husband, and you can rest beneath your own roof, and wash the salt from your skin.”
“Until we sail again,” he said.
“Until you sail again,” I echoed. You-not-we. It tripped my tongue even after these five years gone.
I took the muteling’s chain. She would not stay with us in the house, before we trusted one another. More than one man found his throat slit by a muteling’s hand. No muteling was killed for such a thing; in the gods’ cruel humor, the gelds’ affliction passed over the mutelings, left them fertile. Hardly one child in three proved true, man or woman, and there were no wombs to spare to retribution. But for every death a muteling caused, she lost two fingers, one from each hand. I’d seen a muteling once with a pad for a hand, a folding palm and a thumb and nothing else, and she had triumph in her eyes when she looked at me. I drank to her memory, from time to time, when the names of the dead were spent.
I led the muteling to the workshop. One of the geld laborers was there, and I bade him strike her collar: a heavy thing that stretched collarbone to jaw so she could hardly tilt her chin, the lock iron and heavy enough to brain a man with it. He threw them on the pile of scrap. We had no collar to replace it, but he looped chain twice around her neck and locked that. She’d not be able to pass into Kalstavr without a collar and the mark stamped on it, but that would cause no trouble for a while yet.
“Better?” he asked.
She’d held still through it, and now her fingers reached up to poke and prod and feel her new collar.
“Temporary,” I said. “We’ll get you one fitted. Thin and light.”
She twitched a question with her fingers. Gesture-speech was not a language of distinct words but of linking thoughts and letting meaning shape itself in the gaps between. She traced a contour like Imri’s belly, let her nail tap the links around her neck—I’ll have a chain like hers?
“Perhaps,” I said. “You could have a chain that thin, if we trust you. But I cannot promise it.” And now I knew she knew our tongue—and gesture, too. “Do you have a name?” I asked. She shook her head. “Do you want one?” I asked. She hesitated.
A name was a powerful thing for a muteling or a cold child. Every one of us bore grayling blood within our veins, changed by our proximity to their world and their kind. For most it was a subtle thing. Our eyes a shade darker, keener in the night, our skin cool or faintly gray. The change was starkest for the cold, stilling their very hearts. Too inhuman to be made struck by the gods’ affliction but barren nonetheless, nearly sexless like the gray. The mutelings stood at the cusp between the worlds. Voiceless, like the graylings. Untouched by the affliction. But human enough to bear.
A name might tug at us from time to time like old scar tissue, but it wrenched at the mutelings and the cold; tore at them. The giving of a name was not a kindness to force one upon them.
“A nickname,” I suggested. “Something to call you, that’s all.”
Slowly, she nodded. There was danger in that as well, of course. A name called could turn into a name true with repetition, if it fit too well. “Seal,” I said. It belonged to another creature and would be slower to embed itself. Another nod; it would do.
What did you mean? she asked. Her words came slowly to her fingers, as if she were still reluctant to admit that she could form them. That your people should not have stayed here?
I leaned against the wall and considered her. I looked to the gelding. “Go see if my husband needs anything,” I told him, and he left with a ducked head. “My sister, Titha, was cold-born,” I said. “You know what that means?”
Born with still blood but moving breath. Cold flesh and black eyes. They see and know what is to come.
“And she saw more than most,” I said. “She said the old doom would come over the mountains again, and no living man or beast would remain in the holdings from the horn in the north to the dashing rocks in the south.”
The old doom?
Most did not teach history to mutelings, or anything else. There was no purpose to it; they were tainted wombs, that was all. Iron thralls were both more and less—born to kill and die, never to continue our lines, but we were taught the songs and stories to remind us of why we fought.
“In my grandfather’s grandfather’s time, there was a race of giants,” I said. “The gods—the gods of stone and field, hearth and flame, sky and sea—held them at bay. But the gods betrayed us. They set the affliction upon us to make us barren and loosing the giants from their bonds. The giants cracked through the old holdings like eggs. They bit down on bone and ripped at flesh and ate us down to the molars. We fled and fought and fled again, until we reached the mountains. There was no way to cross the mountains, it was said, but Korohn found a path through the belly of the greatest and caved the tunnel when his people had passed. That is why we call ourselves Summer Holders, in this place of winter,” I said. “We came from sun and golden fields, but we had to flee. And my sister saw the giants striding over the mountain peaks that we passed beneath—that we believe protect us. Saw, too, a two-headed wolf devouring the sun. And other things—but they all meant that we must flee from here.”
But you did not.
“We did not,” I agreed. “We remember the last war we fought, not the one before it. We remember the graylings, not the giants—remember them coming through cracks in stone too narrow for a blade. And we remember that we defeated them. We are wary of the woods now, not the peaks. Giants are a distant story, told by old women to frighten children.”
The muteling pursed her lips. She looked over my shoulder at nothing, blank wall rimed with dirt. A cold one does not see untruly, she said.
“This is so. But the crone says otherwise.”
I sighed. I did not know how to explain the history held between the lot of us. Evahr and I and Ymaera and Talgrun and the crone and Titha. A history of secrets kept and betrayed, of battles won and lost, of deals struck and power traded. The crone’s power was a thin, mealy thing, as bent as her staff. She feared losing it. Ymaera feared Talgrun discovering that the babes she’d borne weren’t his. Talgrun feared that he had erred when he gave me my freedom and my sister, and made a hero of me.
And Evahr was full of fear. For me, for Imri, for the future. And that was why I had never defied Talgrun but carried my anger at his inaction lodged like a knifepoint below my lowest rib.
“Talgrun will never flee Kalstavr, and he will never bend his neck enough to ask for help from the other holdings,” I said. “And there is no lord who’d be a king to save the world.”
If you stay, you die, she said.
“We die,” I agreed.
Then you leave.
The simplicity of it cut. “We leave,” I echoed. “With whoever will follow.”
And pray Talgrun didn’t kill us for trying.
I had spoken those last words in Kalstavr as a summons—a call to those who trusted me or who trusted the cold ones’ words. Some would be afraid to answer, but others would hear, would understand. They would come, and we would speak of what needed to be done.
I told Imri to cook for ten men, and then I sat in the yard, sharpening my spear and watching the left-hand road with wary hope.
Imri made food for twenty and proved the wiser of us. Fifteen came, in all. Most were freeholders of one sort or another, but a few wore the collars of the iron thralls, risking death even to sit at the fringes of our council.
“Careful,” I told Imri, whispering as she bent to serve. “I’ll start to think you cold, with your guesswork.”
Not cold, she signed. Just clever. She smiled, her face unblemished, unmarked. Mutelings and thralls did not bear the mark of the holdings on their cheeks but rather stamped on the iron of their collars; Imri’s chain was anchored with a flat iron circle at the nape of her neck, etched with the holding’s knot. Allowing her passage—but not belonging. I wondered if she would accept the sigil, were it offered. I had taken mine gladly, a triumph I had clawed after for years, but it was a prize any iron thrall could earn if they were skilled and lucky. No muteling could ever be free; not until all of us were free of the affliction.
Most gathered with us were fighters of one sort or another, scar-notched men who’d served under Evahr, or Nagrat under whom Ehvar had served in turn. Vieka and her black-eyed babe had come, and the old woman, Onesha, who’d been the one to tighten the cord around the last king’s neck when his reign was deemed done. These were the people who would leave the holding with us, if we could convince them—leave and seek a new home.
I knew Nagrat was a true man, and Vieka’s child was proof enough of her abundance, but I searched the others for the sign of the affliction: the red-wine stain that appeared in childhood, at the age when the last milk teeth were lost. My own stain looped over my shoulder, up my neck, across my jaw as red as blood. Others wore their stains on their arms, across their knuckles, knotted at the base of their spines.
All those I had been uncertain of had some scrap of red visible on their skin. Six whole men, one woman true, and the rest of us gelds. That pricked some part of me, the narrow sliver of myself given over to worrying at the curve of the long road instead of the steps straight ahead. There were not many of us, and fewer whose lines would continue; we might survive, only to wither in the first generation.
Don’t worry about winter if you’re starving in spring, I reminded myself.
When the meal was done, the room went quiet; the silence passed down the line to Nagrat and stayed with him, his to break.
“We all know why we are here,” he said, accepting the duty. “Not one of us spoke of it before we arrived. Not one of us had to. Everyone here knows Reyna. Knows Evahr. Knows me. Some of you passed through the narrow place with us. So I won’t waste time explaining why you should listen, and trust, and believe.” He looked to me.
“My sister died to bring us her warning,” I said. “Drank grayling blood enough to eat her through from the inside. Because she knew how much was at stake. The old doom is coming. We should have had years to prepare, to fight or to flee. Instead, it is nearly upon us.”
There was a murmur, discontent shouldering its way among the crowd. I raised a hand to still it. When silence won, I dropped my hand and considered each face in turn.
If we stay, we die.
And so we leave.
But it was not so simple as that. They had come; they had answered. But they were not ready to follow. No one had left the holdings since the days of Korohn—not willingly, not in numbers. Beyond the holdings lay the wild, the living winter that preyed on any warm thing, the beasts that even graylings feared. But it was not fear that kept this lot rooted here, this band of iron men and women more ferocious than wolf or bear.
No, not fear, but its opposite. They did not want to leave, because to leave was to run, to abandon the holding and their defense of it. And it was a far harder thing to talk a man out of courage than out of fear, when he had his teeth in it.
If we stay, we die.
I looked at Nagrat. At Evahr. Neither spoke. It was I who had heard the Telling, who had carried it to Talgrun as I had carried also the graylings’ heart. If we were to leave, I would have to lead them.
“Talgrun won’t act,” I said. “He listens to Ymaera; Ymaera listens to the crone. Without him, we cannot rally the other holdings, even if there was time. Our only choice is to leave, and leave quickly.”
“Leave?” said a red-bearded man named Kalgrim.
“Warriors and iron thralls do not flee,” I said. “Iron thralls and free men stand and they die for their holding. That’s what you are thinking, is it not?”
No answer, but the looks on their faces were confirmation enough.
I looked to the men I knew, the men who had stood shoulder to shoulder with me, in the days of the red raids over the water and the war with the gray, beyond the stones. “I fought alongside you. Evahr leads you now. Did I ever break? Has he ever broken?”
“No!” came the answer at once.
“Did I ever run? Has Evahr ever run?” I demanded.
“No!” they answered.
The chorus grew louder, crowded the rafters, and a grin stretched my lips, battle-hunger beating fast in my chest. “Because we stand, we hold, we fight. For the good of the holding. But there is no standing against the old doom. If we fight, the holding dies. Every muteling mother, every geld, every child. We are cowards if we stay, too wedded to our pride to protect our own.”
I looked at them each. Hard, well-blooded men and women: those wearing Talgrun’s iron yoke, eager to break it, and those with faces tattooed as mine was with the seventeenth knot, the sign of our holding. The fiercest of the holdings, the strongest. We who had lifted our beam half a league from the narrow place, unknowing; who had been harried by the gray more than any other holding and never broken.
“Talgrun is a coward. Too afraid to see the truth,” I said. “I will not stay and die a coward with him.”
“Nor I,” Evahr said. Ever my echo, ever behind me. But there all the same.
“Nor I,” said Nagrat, and then there were nods among the others.
Kalgrim crossed his arms. “Will we leave the rest behind, then? To die, or else be left without our blades to keep raiders from the shore?”
“We must take as many as we can,” I said. “But tell no one we cannot trust completely. If Talgrun discovers us, he’ll kill us before he lets us leave.”
“It’s too large an undertaking to go unnoticed,” Nagrat said. “We cannot leave overnight and expect to survive outside the holdings.”
“There is another sailing in a month’s time,” Evahr said. “We can mask our preparations. Gather more than we need for the sailing. Leave behind those that aren’t loyal, and bring our families in their place.”
A month. Too long, but they were right. Starvation would kill us as surely as whatever danger drew close over the mountains.
“One month,” I said.
“Where would we go?” Vieka asked, voice soft, her cold daughter watching with still black eyes from her lap. “To one of the other holdings?”
“The old doom will not stop at our holding,” I said. “We will sail, and we will not stop until we find safety.” There were lands beyond our shores and islands, or so the stories said—a cousin’s cousin’s friend had found them, or a stranger had washed ashore with stories of places free from the gray and the affliction. The sort of tales readily told and rarely believed.
Nagrat spared me further questions. “The rest will not be for all to know,” he said. “But for Reyna and Evahr and I to decide.”
“But we are not decided,” Kalgrim said. “You are no chief, Reyna. And we are not your thralls. Call the tally, and let all freemen have their vote.”
“You are right,” I said. “I am no chief. There is no headman here. And if we do this, none of us will make this journey as thralls. Let all have their vote. Let every voice be counted.”
Kalgrim hesitated before nodding approval. At the edge of the room, Imri’s lips twisted in bitter humor. No voice, no vote. But she met my gaze, and I spoke to her voiceless. My blade for you, I said in gesture, and she understood.
Evahr and Nagrat dragged the table to the center of the room and without ceremony cast their votes: two iron knives tossed onto the center of the table without hesitation. Evahr returned to me; Nagrat gave me a deep nod before returning to his seat.
The rest of them approached the table, singly or in pairs. One blade after another joined Evahr’s and Nagrat’s, then Vieka and Onesha’s iron thumb-rings. Kalgrim stayed at the edge, scratching his thumbnail against his jaw. Then, abruptly, he strode forward, throwing his blade down with the rest.
“So be it,” he said, more to himself than to me, and took his place again.
And then there was only my blade left to add, pale among the rest, final.
We would leave.
The night our sister died, she sent for me. I still had the habit of iron, then, clinging to the weak warding of the cuffs at my wrists, the blade at my hip. I went into the woods well-armed and watched graylings flinch and flurry in the trees. Dozens of them; many, too many, but they did not attack.
Titha’s home was a blister on the earth, a domed-over pit at the root of a tree far more ancient than our holdings. Moss grew over the roof, and that night three graylings crouched among the green, blinking wet black eyes at me, their knees bent up around their ears. They were the common kind, with the shape of a child stretched too thin and too long, their skulls ridged with mushroom caps, their feet and fingers splayed wide. The gills that slashed their ribs like wounds flared and rippled, tasting air, filaments and lamellae as dark as wine.
“I’ve no quarrel,” I said. “She called me.”
The closest of them touched two long fingers to its cheek, below its left eye. If it was an answer, I didn’t know what it signified.
Titha was inside, hunched kneeling by the fire. She held a wooden cup in one hand, blue-black blood viscous and shining in it. Her head hung low. The ground was scattered with red blood, her blood, and more dripped from the corner of her mouth.
She shuddered when I entered. I went to her, knelt, took the cup from her hand. Her lips blistered where the grayling blood had touched.
“I see,” she rasped. Her pupils were blown, fixed on nothing. “I see.”
The graylings moved above us, footsteps rustling. I pressed my brow to hers, breathed in the acidic stench of her exhalation. “Why do you do this?” I asked. I thought it was the same argument we had worried over for years; I thought we would have it a hundred times more.
Titha was the sort of fool who trusted truth to conquer comfort, and so she drank the blood again and again, listened to the wind through the gap in the stone, through the narrow place, and killed herself to bring us prophecy that only went ignored. I wanted her home with us, beneath my roof, but she stayed out here among the gray, more kin to them each day.
She turned her face, pressed her cold cheek against my blood-warm hand. “Reyna. You came.”
“Always, my love,” I said.
“You came for the Telling.”
“I came for you,” I said. “Rest, Titha. The Telling will hold.”
“It won’t,” she said. She shuddered again. “I took too much. Far too much.”
When a man sees his death, when he knows it, there is a certainty that girds his words, and I heard it then. When a man—or a woman, or a cold one—claims his death, it is an insult to deny it.
I was a warrior. I did not weep or plead. I pulled her frail body close, held her, shut my eyes and breathed in the truth until I lost the urge to fight it. I sank through rage and into the black water of grief.
“Titha,” I said, all I could manage.
She sighed against my shoulder. “I had to see it all,” she said. “But I fear it is not enough.”
She whispered to me what she’d seen, as she had so many times before, since the first night she came back from the forest, with blistered lips and a grayling’s thorn ring on her finger, babbling of bright stars and a white calf born in winter. Now she spoke of dark things, of rot and of ruin, of disaster come over the mountains.
Every word, I etched in memory; the Telling must be precise, syllable by syllable. Told true, beginning to end, or it was no Telling at all.
I listened, and remembered. And when the last word was spoken, my sister spat a glob of congealed blood on the ground and fixed her black eyes on me.
I laughed, wild and disbelieving. “There can’t be more. There can’t be more than that,” I said.
“This I Tell to you, and you alone,” she said. “You must not speak it to any other. Not yet. You will know the time.”
I had no more protestation to offer; it was spent. And so I did not stutter that such a thing—to hoard the words of the cold ones—was forbidden, since the first cold child spoke prophecy.
She leaned close to me, one hand hooked around the back of my neck, and she whispered in my ear. Her words were the hissing of snakes, of long grass stirred in the wind. “You will stand again beneath an unbroken moon, but bear no iron. You will flee across lands that have no name, and a thousand enemies will be against you. You will feast with death and treat with beasts, and walk among the bones of gods long dead. You will find a place in the hills, a place of summer, but not all will reach it, and it won’t be safe. Not until you drive your spear into the heart of a king.”
Then she was silent. She sighed, her weight growing heavier on me as weariness stole the strength from her. “Reyna,” she said. She pressed the pommel of a knife into my hand. Not iron; hewn from an antler, carved with Korohn’s knots, but different somehow. They seemed alive in the firelight, twisting like snakes. “Take this blade. Whisper your name to it; wear it against your skin. Forsake all iron. You must—” She did not finish, choking on her words as she coughed blood against my shoulder.
“I was a child when I was given to the iron,” I said. It had already been nearly three years since I last went with the red raids across the sea, since I took the mark and left the thralls, but still I clung to my old ways and weapons, afraid to discover how much of me was left without them. “I cannot forsake it so easily.”
“Thrall no longer,” my sister said. Her breath rattled wetly in her throat. “You must find another way, sister, and I will not be there to guide you. Forgive me. Please. I—”
But that was the last. Sudden, irrevocable. I held my sister’s body as her spilled cup dripped grayling blood to hiss upon the ground, and the graylings took up the sound, and then the hissing turned to low fluting call and it moaned through the trees, spreading shadow to shadow and trunk to trunk until it filled the night from the warding stones to the threshold of the narrow place, and I imagined it echoing further still, over their fields, beneath their unshattered moon.
My grief was silent. Was unobserved. I buried my sister in the cold ground and built her a cairn of stones, and no one saw me weep.
I could not be sure if it was memory that woke me in the night from uneasy sleep or a dream. Only that I had tasted blood and heard the calling of a crow, but woke to neither. Evahr’s hand rested lightly on my hip, the rest of his body canted toward Imri. I shifted, letting his hand fall, and he rolled toward her.
I watched a moment as he settled again, trying to name the emotion that stirred when I saw them like this. I still couldn’t. Perhaps there wasn’t a name for it.
I left them there and walked into the night air. It was a clear night, the jagged, wolf-bitten moon bright and full. On nights like these, the wards wore thin, but still I was surprised to see a grayling in the yard, hunched over. Like the ones waiting on my sister’s words, two years ago.
And then another emerged, long limbs pulling it spider-like across the ground, from the thatch-roofed shed where I’d left Seal chained. When it reached its fellow it stopped, turned wide black eyes on me.
There was something strange about it. Something different. There were whites around its eyes, and the fingers splayed in the mud numbered five, not four—or was it only a trick of the light? And its features—not so sharp, not so feral. More human, somehow.
It touched two fingers beneath its eye. I echoed the gesture instinctively, covering the knot tattooed there.
It shook its head and turned away from me. The two crept across the yard, into the trees. I was wise enough to check for their shadows, lest they had left them to linger and watch, but they were gone as well.
Imri’s touch at my elbow made me flinch.
You’re cold, she chided me, and threw a blanket around my shoulders. She nodded toward the woods, toward the spot where the graylings had vanished. They visit her. Why?
“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to betray how much the sight troubled me. The graylings spoke to the cold. They offered the mutelings no more regard than they did the rest of us, so far as I had heard, and while graylings were strange, their strangeness was constant. Their rules bound them better than iron or the warding stones ever could.
I don’t trust her, Imri said.
“Do you distrust her because of who she is, or because you worry Evahr’s eyes will stray to her?” I asked.
Do you worry? Imri asked, and there were more questions there than she had spoken. I knew what she was asking, and I couldn’t answer. She took my hand and pressed it against her belly. The babe within shifted against my palm. This is your child.
“How can it be?” I said, softly. Her grip did not relent. “It is mine because you are mine, but if I could make you free, I would. I cannot claim you. I cannot claim your child.”
It is yours because you are my sister. Because as children we hid together, and when they found me you promised you would bring me home, even as they closed a thrall’s collar around your neck. Because you crept among the thorns and shadows so you could whisper to me and learn our speech. You promised to bring me home, to bring us both home, and you kept that promise. This child would not exist without you. Without all of us. This is your child. And Evahr’s. And mine.
A muteling had no claim to her own issue. It had not occurred to me that Imri might want a child, herself, one that would not be taken away from her. Another dark current of fear I had not glimpsed or guessed at.
“I will never let anyone take your child from you,” I said. Including me, I did not say.
I know. She lifted my hand, touched it to her cheek. Kissed my palm. And then, dropping my hand to free both of her own, she shaped her words carefully. I do not trust her, Reyna. Be wary. For all of us.
She left me there, cold scraping at my cheeks and doubt biting at my throat. I stared at the dark doorway to the shed, straining to see any shift in the shadows. I did not return to bed for a very long time.
We were thirty-nine.
It was too many. Too many names I hardly knew to speak, too many faces only glimpsed in Kalstavr. A secret could not survive so many eyes, but I could do nothing to contain it.
Thirty-nine, and most of them gelds. Only one muteling, other than Imri and Seal; the few true men among us paid silver and skins for a year’s time with Talgrun’s mutelings when it came time to make an heir. True women had more freedom than mutelings, and what captivity they suffered was one of coddling. They had their pick of husbands, and of true men to sire their children. So long as they bore, they had gifts and praise and more comfort than any geld. Such a life bred complacency, not discontent. They would not risk the seas with us.
And so our tribe would wither in a generation, but that did not matter if we did not escape these shores at all. I put distant worry aside and nursed the more immediate one: with such a sprawling secret, we could not hope to go undiscovered.
There was nothing to do, though, except hope and chide the others into silence. And go into the woods whenever I could with my spear and my bow, bringing home game to skin and salt: food for the journey. The sea would be cold and cruel and wide, and there were no gods to make offerings to, to grant us fair winds and full nets. The gods were things of bile and spite, not blessings; not any longer.
I was returning from the forest with a brace of hares over my shoulder and a child’s rhyme stuck in my mind—under, under, down we all go—when I saw Mad Hosfar’s wolf outside my house, red tongue lolling between her teeth. Worry turned to cold fear. Mad Hosfar went where Talgrun bade him, and blood usually followed.
That he was here did not mean he knew, I told myself. Did not mean that Talgrun knew. Hosfar was a friend, after all—the way any man was when you’d passed blood debt back and forth in the course of a battle.
It was five years now since the graylings had come past the stones, a seething sea of them, stronger than the wards at the edge of the woods. They might have proved stronger than the midbeam’s knots and the blood that sustained them, but we iron thralls had driven them back before the graylings could test them. Back and back again—and then that hour of madness in the woods, when the very shadows seemed to strike against us, when we pressed them; pushed them to the narrow place, that sliver in the stone that joined their world to ours—and pushed through it, following them, their blood burning our skin.
We fought them in their own fields, an endless tide of them. And then we had broken through, just a few of us, Mad Hosfar and I and others now dead. We had survived, and that survival had forged something between us.
He would not readily break such a bond. It might protect us yet.
I hung my hares on the peg outside the shed and went to the wolf, bending down on one knee before her to rub her ears.
“Dayn vahra,” I greeted her in the old tongue, which some beasts still heeded. “What is your master doing here, old warrior?”
She snapped her teeth at me. A warning, perhaps, or just an ornery old wolf with more than a little of the wild in her. I stood and stooped to go inside, where I found my husband at the table with Mad Hosfar, drinking in silence.
Evahr nodded toward me, and Mad Hosfar stood and turned. He was a beast of a man, twice as broad across as I and twice as scarred, the backs of his hands rippled where grayling blood had flowed so freely during the three days’ war. His hair was white but for a few streaks of orange and left wild to make him look feral.
The child’s rhyme echoed in my mind, incongruous—Where tears are for drinking and wine is for weeping.
“You can set that spear down, Reyna,” Hosfar said.
I hadn’t realized I was still carrying it. Hadn’t realized I gripped it so tightly. “I’ll set my spear aside when I know what Talgrun’s butcher is doing in my home,” I said.
“Feythann,” Mad Hosfar said, peace in the old tongue, and laughed when I didn’t move. “Should have known a beast as wild as Reyna Bonespear would not heed the old words. Then let the new suffice. Peace, sister. I did not half-drown in grayling blood by your side all those years ago to raise a blade to you now, in your own home. Talgrun sent me, it’s true, and he means you to be frightened by it. But you’ve never been frightened of me, and I have my own business with you, so forget Talgrun for now.”
He lifted his hands to the side, letting his fur cloak fall back and showing me the empty scabbard on his belt. Showing me, too, Talgrun’s sigil, stuffed with its cord in his belt instead of hung around his neck as it ought to be.
I swallowed the fear at the back of my throat and set my spear aside. My hand felt empty without it, clutching at air. Where is Imri? I didn’t ask aloud; I knew better than to bare a weakness in front of an enemy, and Mad Hosfar might yet be that.
“Why are you here, if not for Talgrun?” I asked.
“He knows,” Evahr said, and I nearly reached for the spear again. But if he knew and we were still alive, Talgrun must not share that knowledge.
“I wasn’t there when you spoke before Talgrun and the crone,” Mad Hosfar said. “I’m glad of that, too. I wouldn’t have kept myself from telling the old woman to drink seawater. I knew your sister. And my mother taught me to honor the Telling. When your sister died, I told Talgrun to heed her. I told him he was a fool. And I knew the day would come that you’d leave without him. I’d pledge to you, if you’ll permit.” He drew the iron knife from his belt and held it hilt-out.
I stood a moment dumbstruck. Mad Hosfar had broken more men for Talgrun than I’d battled in my lifetime. I’d watched him carve through a grayling pack, heedless of the stink of his own flesh burning where their blood coated him. Pledge to me? I had led men, once. To glory and to death. But never as more than a thrall to my chief.
“No one’s pledged to me,” I said. “Only to the undertaking. So stow your blade.”
“I didn’t ask what the others had done,” Mad Hosfar said. “It’s you who brought us the Telling, and you who will lead us out. So it’s to you I’ll pledge.”
“Then pledge to Evahr. He leads the iron thralls. I have not drawn the blood of man or gray for years.”
“No offense to Evahr, but I don’t know him,” Hosfar said. “I’ve never stood with him as I did with you. Never walked through the narrow place and spilled blood under a strange moon. I know you. Take my pledge or deny it, but I won’t make another, and I won’t go with you unpledged.”
His hand was shaking, so slightly I might have missed it if I had not been so fixed on him. He’d worn Talgrun’s yoke all his life, for all that he bore the holding’s mark and not a collar. There were those, I knew, who wondered why he did not throw his knife at Talgrun’s feet and call him to the circle to fight for his place on the boneback chair. Hosfar would have won. But a man like Hosfar did not want to lead. More than that, he feared life without the yoke, without command to direct him.
I stepped forward and took the hilt of his iron blade. He bent one knee, pressing his brow to my closed hand, his breath parted by the blade.
“I accept your pledge, Hosfar.”
No more ritual than this. I was no chief. There would be no spilling of blood, no ale to drink, no recitations. This was all, and its simplicity lent it power.
Hosfar stood. I gave him back his knife, and he grinned, relief changing his posture from that of a man anticipating battle to one enjoying the company of friends. “Then it’s done,” he said. “Call on me, and I will be there. But in the meantime, I’m meant to scowl at you, and make sure you know to keep your place and keep your silence.”
“Why such urgency in the message?” I asked. “Why now? I know full well what my headman wants of me, without your growling.”
“His son’s entered his thirteenth year, and without the stain of the affliction on him,” Hosfar says. The stain always came before the thirteenth year, separating gelds from true men and women. The mutelings and the cold, of course, were known from birth—the mutelings silent even as their mouths stretched to wail, the cold quiet in a different way, and canny from the first. “He adds his blood to the midbeam on the morrow,” Hosfar continued. “Talgrun doesn’t want trouble on such a sacred day.”
“He wants us to stay away? Fine,” Evahr said, half-sneering.
“No.” I folded my arms. Evahr looked at me, surprise and question in his gaze, and I set my jaw. “If we shrink from him he will think we have reason to hide. When has my pride ever let me stand down from a challenge like that?”
Mad Hosfar laughed. “She has you there,” he said.
“Then we go,” Evahr agreed, conceding my point with a nod half amused and half worried.
“And pretend with the rest of them that Yari hasn’t got your eyes,” I added to Mad Hosfar.
“Hoi!” Mad Hosfar said, slapping his thigh. “Who am I to deny my headman’s wife when she demands the services of my sword?”
“Aye, your sword is legendary,” I conceded. “Though if your headman knew how you wield it, you might not be in his service long.”
“I’ll take my sword and my son with me when we go,” Mad Hosfar said. “And what Talgrun knows won’t matter anymore.”
He left, the old wolf trailing him, and Evahr and I waited through three qualities of silence—surprised, considering, and content—before either of us spoke.
“We’re fortunate to have Hosfar with us,” I said at last.
“I would not have expected it of him,” Evahr said. “And his visit still worries me. Talgrun may not know the full shape of our plan, but he would not have sent Mad Hosfar if he did not suspect.”
“Of course he suspects,” I said. “He has watched me since my sister’s death.”
“He’s watched you longer than that,” Evahr said. “He’s watched you since you slipped your collar and his leash. He’s always known you’d call him to the circle, sooner or later.”
“A geld cannot sit the high seat,” I said.
“A geld never has,” Evahr said. “But we have been but few generations since Korohn and the Retreat. The youngest babe to pass beneath the mountain is hardly in the ground, brittle though her bones were at the end. Our oldest traditions are young. A geld could sit in the high seat if enough pledged to her. If you had not laid down your sword—”
“But I did,” I said. “My sword and all iron. I’ll spill no more blood but that of beasts, Evahr, and certainly not for the glory of the high seat.”
“For the protection of your people?” Evahr asked. “For the protection of your family?”
I heard her enter behind me: Imri, her steps short as her belly had grown rounder. It would not be long, now, before she birthed.
“For my family I would drive my spear into the heart of the sun,” I said. “You both know that. But there need not be blood spilled by me or any other. We will retreat, that is all, and leave Talgrun what power he can cling to. There need be no war. No killing. And no more blades pledged to my name.”
I still believed that this could be a bloodless thing—this flight, this severing. But we had been bound to the holding with blood, and such bonds were not cleanly broken.
Of the twenty-eight clans to come through the pass with Korohn, fewer than half remained. There were five holdings that kept to the Accord, seven more than had broken it, scattered among the islands and the crescent cusp of the bitter sea, and who knew how many men and women in the tameless wild and the forewinter. But Kalstavr, the seventeenth holding, was the largest, and when its headman’s son—supposed son—came of age, there was no greater spectacle. I walked into the village to the beating of drums, the smoke of a dozen bonfires stinging my eyes.
A geld girl danced past me, twirling, stripped to the waist with handprints in white and red marking every place someone had manage to touch her. Not many, and she laughed as she danced past a gray-bearded man’s lunge.
“Remember when you danced like that?” Evahr asked, touching my waist. I shot him a look more pointed than the spear on my back.
“I never danced like that,” I said.
“It must have been a dream I had,” he said, goading a smile from me. “But I do remember you danced.”
Yes, I danced. On days like this, my feet slapping the ground, my blood quick. And on the day I laid the graylings’ heart shuddering at Talgrun’s feet, and he offered me any boon I wished. I asked for myself, and for Imri. And once I was free, I did not have to ask for Evahr; he came to me. That night, we danced.
Evahr’s eyes strayed toward the shore, where the sounds of fighting vaulted over the laughter and music to reach us. “Go on,” I said. “Try not to bloody your face too much. I like it pretty.”
He pulled me against him and kissed me, a crushing kiss as full of lust for battle as for me. “For luck,” he said. I gave him all I had.
Evahr left me, and I surveyed the crowd. Talgrun stood in the shadow of the long hall, cloaked in the pelt of a bear, the claws of a longtooth around his neck. Bare-headed, of course. No crown for Talgrun, no circlet, not so much as a cap against the chill in the air. It was ill fortune to even have the look of a king, and Talgrun was a superstitious man, in all the ways that did not matter.
Ymaera did not stand with her husband, and I looked for her amid the crowd. I found her watching the drummers with her daughter at her side. Since I’d flung my ill-tempered words her way, she’d stopped hiding the budding swell of her belly, and now she wore a golden chain below her breasts to emphasize her shape. Four months along, I’d guess, judging by how she’d carried Yari and Gann and Nori—and Fithra, who’d died of fever as a babe.
I wasn’t certain what bold or foolish instinct carried me across the yard to her. Nori saw me coming and tugged her mother’s skirt. Ymaera turned, saw me, stitched the sort of smile to her lips an adder wears.
“Reyna. I did not think you would come today,” she said.
“I come to honor my headman’s son,” I said. “He is my liege, is he not? It is my duty to honor the rite—even if your husband sees fit to send a mad dog to my home to warn me away.”
Her eyes flickered with something—surprise? Then Talgrun had not consulted with his wife when he sent Mad Hosfar to my home. There was once a time when not a thought passed through Talgrun’s mind without him whispering it in Ymaera’s ear. What had changed? What cracks lay between them?
Silence stretched, wide as a madman’s grin. We had slung so many sharp words at one another these past few years, nursed so much hate, but there had been a time I would have said I loved Ymaera. Before Talgrun took her to wife, before he’d even claimed the boneback chair for his own. We had been friends, until one day we weren’t. I had never understood what had happened, why she had turned so swiftly, so viciously against me.
All this time it had seemed impossible to forgive, but now...
“Is your babe well?” I asked.
Her eyes were gilt with suspicion, but still she smiled. “I’ve felt him quicken,” she said.
“A boy,” I replied, nodding once, still unsure what I wanted to say or do. I only knew that I grieved suddenly and keenly for the friendship we’d once had and wished that I could believe for an instant that my sister had been wrong.
“So the crone says,” Ymaera replied. Her hand cupped her daughter’s shoulder, holding her close. “What do you want, Reyna?”
I wanted her to tell her husband to gather the holding and flee. I wanted her to take my hand as she had when we were young and walk with me; walk away from this place. But she couldn’t. To admit that I was right was to sever hope of a living child. My sister had seen Ymaera birth death, birth rot and decay.
“I hope that Titha was wrong,” I said. “If you’ve felt the child quicken—”
“I have,” she said, too swiftly, too fiercely for it to be true, and my fleeting hope drowned.
I nodded. “Good health to both of you, then,” I said. A roar went up by the water. Evahr had won; his name snapped free of the clamor to confirm it.
“Good health,” she echoed, words hollow of meaning, and turned away.
I shook myself free of her, of the guilt of a broken friendship still clinging to me like cobwebs. She’d turned away from me long before today, I reminded myself, and whatever longing I had for the life we might have shared as friends, that branch had withered. Let her fate be in her own hands, then—and yet I wished I could call out to her, and that she would listen.
I had my own life. Evahr and Imri, our child, our homestead—or the home we would make, wherever the winds willed us. I would not trade any of that, not one inch of it, for her approval.
I turned, and my gaze caught against Talgrun’s. His expression betrayed neither anger nor surprise, but a thrum of nerves went through me. He held up a hand, bent two beckoning fingers.
I had never retreated from a fight. I approached Talgrun and dipped my head, all due honor to my lord; he laid his fingertips against the pommel of a sword not drawn in battle for years, as if that were a threat to anything more bold than a field mouse.
“Why are you here, Reyna? Come to spit more sorrows at me?” Talgrun asked.
“If you and your wife keep asking why I have come, on a day when all are called to come, I will wonder if you want me beneath the beam,” I said. “If you wish to cut my tether to your holding, you know the words and the ways.”
Talgrun shifted, mulling an answer, or perhaps only wanting me to think he was undecided. Behind him, men who’d drawn blades and blood far more recently than he stood with hands loose and eyes wary, mindful of the spear on my back and the tales they’d heard of me. I’d heard tales of them, too, and knew that if it came to it I could kill them all. Had Mad Hosfar been there, perhaps not, but even if he’d been willing to fight me, he stood vigil for Yari down below.
“Come with me,” Talgrun said. I looked, without meaning to, for Evahr, but he was still down by the shore. We should not have separated. Talgrun was already moving, and I allowed myself a single breath before following. There was no reason for me to falter—not if I was obedient, if I was loyal.
Though I wondered if either of us clung to even the barest shred of that lie. It was odd to think that I might, yet that same part of me that grieved Ymaera’s friendship longed for the days when my lord’s approval made me boastful. Talgrun was not a fool and not a wicked man; I had taken honor in his service, once.
He led me not to the great doors of the hall, banded in yew and iron like the crone’s staff, but to the recessed steps behind the long hall. The entrance to the underbelly, the tunnels carved with grayling blood, melted inch by inch through the stone long before Korohn came through the pass and drove the gray beyond the warding stones.
Talgrun took a key from a chain around his neck and opened the door. We both had to bow our heads to pass through it, and the tunnel beyond was narrow enough Mad Hosfar would have to turn sideways to shuffle through. In the room beyond, lit by a pair of braziers gone mostly to coals, a strange procession filed by: three muteling girls, none older than ten, bracketed by their minders.
The girls’ collars were no more than thin bands of iron; the smallest still plucked at hers, as if she’d only just had it locked around her throat in place of the anklets the youngest mutelings wore. Around their wrists they wore bands of gold. These were the girls chosen for Yari, then, returning from the ritual chamber to the crèche.
Imri’s child could be like them one day, iron around her throat. Any muteling girl would be forfeit, tax to Talgrun, and we could not protect her.
And I had brought them here. If not these, others—women, children. The one sliver of blamelessness I could cling to was that I had never brought a muteling in wild from the tameless waste or the forewinter who had not been chained before. But such a distinction was a thin frayed line I drew for myself and did not truly believe.
The girl at the end, dark-haired and dark-eyed, no marks on her arm, looked at me. She touched two fingers below her eye. Only for an instant, and then her hand dropped, her gaze returning to the floor as they passed us.
My breath hitched, as if caught in a rot hound’s grip. Seal, and the grayling, and now this girl—they knew me.
“Does something trouble you, Reyna?” Talgrun said. The girls vanished down the lefthand passage to the crèche, their footsteps whispers against the stone.
“No,” I lied. “Nothing.”
Talgrun walked not toward the muteling crèche or the ritual chambers, where Yari would be anointing his brow and his limbs with oil, but toward a passage, rougher than the rest, that I had walked once before. He was taking me to the heart. To the chamber where we’d hidden it.
Our steps echoed, as if dogged by ghosts. I was, curiously, unafraid. Perhaps it was logic. Talgrun was a leader but not much of a warrior. He’d held the boneback chair through strength of a different sort, and through the reputation of his father and his father’s father. He would not try to kill me like this, in a cramped space without his men. My spear would be useless—I would never get it off my back—but it was hardly my only weapon.
Or perhaps it was something else that brought me calm. Something like trust—or simply knowledge. He would not kill me today. Not yet. Not if he thought he could bring me back under the beam truly, to his service.
This was not the same corridor I had walked down those years before. The same stone, yes, oddly rippled where grayling blood had flowed. But the walls were lanced with iron now, bands of it bolted to the seamless stone. It made a lattice, like a net—like a cage. The gaps between the bands shrank as we drew close to the door at the end. It had been wood when last I walked here but was now metal from skin to core, held shut with three iron locks. Still I could hear the shudder of the thing behind the door, the slow, unceasing beat.
“Why bring me here?” I asked. “I’ve seen the heart. I brought it to you.”
“You are here because I told you to follow. I did not invite your questions,” Talgrun said, and I rocked back half a step, duly chastened. For all that I meant to abandon his holding and his authority, he was my lord a while yet.
Talgrun stooped. He trusted me, too, in the same way I trusted him. Enough to turn his back on me in the shadows here.
The third lock clicked open, and Talgrun braced his shoulder against the door. The hinges groaned; the door swung ponderously open.
The weak light of the braziers barely penetrated this far, but it did not matter. The heart had its own light, in nodules and veins webbed over the surface of it, pulsing with starlight.
The graylings’ heart was the size of two great fists pressed one to the other. It was not a thing of flesh and muscle, as the heart of a beast or a man, but of vines and thorns and roots, a snarled mass with dirt still packed into each crease and fold. It bled; years after I’d carved it free from that quiet, sacred place beyond the stones, the marks of my knife oozed blue-black blood that spattered to the pockmarked stone beneath its pedestal.
It beat. Its vines contracted in a pained spasm, and the drumbeat sound struck the walls and fell back to the center of the room. I tasted copper in the back of my throat. That drumbeat had chased me from the graylings’ fields and forest, back through the narrow place and past the stones, as I carried it. It was different now. It was weaker. The vines which had shone with light cast off dim radiance now.
“It’s dying,” I said.
“It’s nearly dead,” Talgrun replied, with the same pride in his voice, the same conqueror’s joy in his eyes, there had been the day I brought it. Not even his grandfather had claimed such a prize, had attained such a triumph over the gray.
We stood nearly shoulder to shoulder, watching the irregular spasms of the monstrous heart.
“Soon it will wither. Beat its last. And what will happen to the graylings then? The old tales say they will diminish. They will retreat. We have lived uneasily in this land since Korohn led us through the pass, pushed against the sea with the graylings ever harrying our flanks, but no longer. They will break before us. And they know it. They know the heart’s death will be their own. And that is why they plied your sister with false prophecy, Reyna.”
I looked sharply at him. “There has never been a false Telling,” I said. “The graylings do not lie. They do not deceive. And by their blood, we hear the truth.”
“They did not deceive, before we came,” Talgrun said. “But as their blood has tainted us, given us the cold and the mutelings, ours has tainted them. The graylings have changed, Reyna. Surely you, who wander so often beyond the stones, have seen it.”
I thought of the strange grayling in the yard, stealing out of the shed where Seal slept.
“There are miles still between that and claiming false prophecy,” I said.
“The graylings have always sought to drive us from their shores,” Talgrun replied. “They cannot do it with their claws and their fangs, and so they seek to frighten us with visions of the old doom. It is a trick they have played, Reyna, nothing more.”
He believed it. Perhaps the crone had told him. Perhaps he had invented the tale himself, to justify his failure to act. I understood. The old doom was a story to all of us living; none of us had seen the desolation that drove Korohn and his people to this place. We were safe here. We had our farms and our fields. We had good raiding, and iron, and the eight-and-twenty knots to keep the graylings at bay. If we fled, some of us would die. Perhaps many of us. Perhaps all of us.
There was more white in Talgrun’s beard and braid than when I had laid the thing at his feet, but he was the same man. A man I had fought for, would have died for. Who I killed for. It was not Talgrun who had changed. And he had been a good leader, then.
Was he a good leader still? Was I the one that had changed, and lost the ability to see that his judgment was right?
Or had the world changed with me, and left Talgrun grasping in the dark?
He was asking me to trust him as I once had. To follow him as I once had. But to do that, I had to name my sister a liar—or a fool.
“Titha died to warn us,” I said.
“And she was wrong. Don’t drag more good men to their deaths to chase her error,” Talgrun said.
He knew. If not the whole of it, he knew me, knew I would not be content to stay and forget my sister’s words. Knew, too, that there were those who would follow me. He was a wise leader and did not want war within his holding. I could bring such a war. Whether I could win it was another tale entirely.
Outside, barely audible, the horns blew. It was time. Talgrun did not move. I knew what he wanted. But I could not give him unflinching fealty as I once had, and he would read the lie in it if I pretended at such loyalty.
“You have given me much to think about,” I said. If I was lucky, he would wait for an answer. If I was unlucky, he would already hear an answer in my words.
I had not lived so long by trusting luck.
We packed into the long hall, and more thronged outside. The crowd made room for me and for Evahr; I was not certain which of us commanded more deference, anymore.
The drums beat; the harps sang. The bone pipes sighed. Yari stood in the shadow of his father and of the chief who called him son and seemed small beside them both. The mark of the holding was fresh on his cheek, the skin around it red. Ymaera, standing to the side, smiled at him. He smiled back for a fraction of a moment before he remembered that today, he was a warrior.
“Today, my son adds his blood to the midbeam, as every warrior and every thrall and every farmer must,” Talgrun said. He had a voice for ritual, sonorous and strong. I felt its pull. We all seemed to breathe together in the long hall, to fall into a unity that made us mighty.
The crone emerged. No bent wood staff now; she carried a blade instead, long and pointed as a needle, and a shallow wooden bowl. Yari, Hosfar, and Talgrun turned to her. Talgrun’s hand rested on Yari’s shoulder a moment—a gesture of reassurance or of pride.
“Who comes beneath the midbeam?” the crone asked. “And who stands with him?”
“Yari Longtooth’s-Bane comes before the midbeam, and I stand with him,” said Mad Hosfar. There was something brittle in his voice, something joyful and afraid. Be careful, I willed him. Talgrun sees much. Do not let him see your love. “I am Hosfar Ironclaw, called Mad Hosfar; I have shed blood on the shores and the seas and beyond the narrow place for him. I stand with Yari Longtooth’s-Bane.”
“Who comes beneath the midbeam?” the crone asked again; it was Talgrun’s turn to speak. Dropping my voice, I spoke beneath Talgrun’s words and the musicians’ soft playing and the crackle of the fire.
“We need to leave tonight,” I said.
Evahr cast me a startled look. “We aren’t ready,” he said.
“How much?” Evahr asked.
Then silence again, and then the crone: “Who comes beneath the midbeam, and who stands with him?”
And it was our turn to voice the response. Yari Longtooth’s-Bane comes before the midbeam, and we stand with him. We, the people of iron. The people of salt. The people of the sea and the people of the shore. We who came beneath the mountains. We who were born of summer. We who will return to the summer lands again.
It was like thunder; it was like the whole of a storm. For the space of those words, we were one. One people, one holding, one purpose, one will. The power of it was undeniable. And yet—
And yet I watched as Mad Hosfar took the blade and wetted it first with his own blood, drawing a line along his forearm, and then handed it to Talgrun. And saw the instant’s hesitation between both men. Whatever unity our holding could claim was cracked. Had been, long before my sister’s words sundered us.
Talgrun bled. And then it was Yari’s turn, and while Ymaera turned her head, the boy did not hesitate. He cut, and he held out his arm, and the crone clasped her wrinkled hand over his wrist to hold it over the bowl. She mashed his arm, forcing more blood free. Enough to pool at the bottom of the bowl. Then she dropped his arm, and Hosfar knelt to bind it.
Talgrun watched Hosfar. I watched the crone as she climbed the steps to the throne and beyond it, to the place where the midbeam canted, bending like the belly of an upturned ship. The eight and twenty knots wove the length of the beam and terminated here, at a burl in the wood, dark with a hundred years of blood.
She spoke words in the old tongue, words of blood spilled and oaths made. She held the bowl above the midbeam knot, and tipped it up. Blood spattered against the wood. For a moment, the only sound was the drip of blood against wood and stone.
The eight and twenty knots glowed with faint light. Every loop, every crossing. The blood flowed, wicking up the lengths of each carved cord, filling every groove. Far too much blood to be only from Yari’s wound, for it was the blood of all of us. Hosfar and Talgrun, Evahr and I, the men and women around us. Every geld, every true man and true woman. We had all added our blood to the midbeam and it shone now, wet and fresh as the day we spilled it.
The last and best protection against the graylings, against the rot hounds and all the other creatures beyond the stones, beyond the narrow place.
“Today, Yari takes his place as one of us,” Talgrun said, turning back to the crowd, his hand on his son’s shoulder, gripping tight. “We stand as one; as one, we stand against the darkness. We are bound together, and this makes us strong.”
His eyes passed over the crowd as they roared their approval. They stopped on me. For a few moments; no more.
For the space of a single, agonized heartbeat.
He knew he had lost my fealty. And he knew he could not bring me to heel.
We were out of time. We had to run.
We passed the word, never louder than a whisper. Tonight was all the whisper said. Some would balk; too soon, too real. It was as much blessing as bane. Every hesitation was one less mouth to feed, and our supplies were nowhere near what they should have been.
Evahr and I left as soon as we could without rousing suspicion—more suspicion than already swarmed around us, at least. I had never traveled the path between Kalstavr and our homestead faster.
Imri saw our faces and did not need to ask; she set to gathering our things, hampered by her belly. Evahr moved quickly to help. There was little for me to do. My belongings had been ready since the night we took the tally of our company, and a third body would only stand in the way.
I went out into the yard. Night had snuffed out the last of the sun. The broken moon was a split crescent in the sky. Through the trees, the light of the hired laborers’ fires flickered. We had thirteen on the farm, all gelds; twelve, since Sora had surrendered to her fevers. Several I liked; none I trusted enough to bring with us. I wanted to bring every one of them—every soul on this farm, in the village, every man and woman and child of the holding. But there were not ships enough. There was not food enough. And there were so many who would not follow.
Seal stood in the doorway of the shed where she still slept, night after night. Her days she spent in watchful idleness; we’d given no work to her, for though she ought to have been helping in the house, Imri had asked not to have her near.
You are leaving, Seal said as I approached.
We are, I replied, including her in the gesture.
She split her lips in a mirthless smile. I see. Too many of you barren.
I hesitated. I will not force you to come. If you would stay...
She wrapped her fingers around the chain circling her throat, tugged it once. I nodded. Stay or go, she was not free. So what did it matter to her?
Things could be different, somewhere else, I said.
Only if they are made to be different, she replied.
“Only if someone makes them different, you mean,” I said. She shrugged, folding her arms over her narrow ribcage. As if to say she didn’t mean anything at all by it, as if it did not matter one way or another.
She followed me without complaint. Imri and Evahr were at the door already, Evahr weighed down and Imri carrying only what he truly couldn’t. I took some from him and some from her; to my surprise, Seal stepped up to help. The four of us set out along the pass that would take us to the spit of shore where Nagrat was to have brought the ships we’d pack into, crammed shoulder to shoulder and wedged between what supplies we could scavenge in so short a time.
The land rose up in craggy hills, rising to the spine of the tallest hill before falling away to the shore. The track was thin, rarely traveled. Mist hung in the air, pressing like cold palms against our cheeks. Just mist, not the breath of the graylings’ land, slipping through the narrow place, but it called up all those memories and cast over the land the same strange quiet that lay over the graylings’ fields and forests.
I would always think of blood on nights like this. Mad Hosfar drenched in blood, the mist around us, him calling my name as we saw it: the gray tree that was not a tree; the heart that beat half-hidden in the folds of its bark; the creatures of root and vine that gathered in its shadows, pale as bone or black as night or bright with striations of red and blue and green, putting the lie to the name we had given them. The graylings were not one kind but many, myriad. We had seen their workers, their warriors, that was all. “Reyna,” Hosfar had said, awe and avarice braided tightly in his voice.
“Reyna,” the voice called now. But it was not Mad Hosfar, his voice like the roll of rocks beneath a beached hull. It was a woman’s voice, so twisted in pain I almost did not know it, coming from down the slope to our right.
“Here,” I said, seeing the shadow of her in the mist, moonlight tracing her outline, and that of her sons and her daughter. Ymaera, clutching her belly, groping through the mist half-blind.
“What is she doing here?” Evahr said.
I stepped forward as Yari’s grip on his mother failed, as she stumbled forward. I caught her, helped her down to the ground. She moaned. I pressed my hand to her belly, found it hard as stone.
“It’s coming,” she said. Too soon. Far too soon.
“It will be all right,” I said, in the meaningless tone of words spoken without the expectation of belief. “Ymaera, hush. How did you find us?”
“My father told me where to go,” Yari said. I tensed before I realized who he meant, what he knew. “He said to bring my sister and my brother if I could, that we would leave and he would be my father the way he should be.”
He was frightened. Marked with the mantle of a man but still a boy. I held Ymaera to me as she shook, as she clutched my hand. “I never felt it quicken,” she said, a broken whisper.
“I know,” I answered. Talgrun would know his wife and children were gone before long. Ymaera’s belly hardened with another contraction, and when I touched my fingertips to her skirts they were growing rapidly wet with blood. “It’s coming now,” I said.
“We don’t have time,” Evahr said.
“We don’t have a say,” I replied. I would not leave a woman to birth alone, and Ymaera could not move in this state. “Take Imri. Seal, too. Hosfar will be with the ships by now. Get his children to him. I’ll stay with Ymaera until it’s done.”
I will stay, Seal said.
“You’ve delivered babes before?” I asked.
Evahr wanted to protest, but I silenced him with a glare. “Get them safe to the water. And if I do not follow, you leave.”
“I won’t go without you,” he said, shaking his head.
He’s right, Imri gestured.
“I will find you,” I said, I vowed. “Always, and anywhere. Now go.”
Evahr’s mouth set in a firm line. He took Yari by the shoulder; Imri herded the younger children, casting a look back at me as she went. I met her gaze, held it. She went down the slope toward the sea; my spirit went with her. The rest of me stayed, Ymaera’s grip a vice on my wrist.
“Help me shift her,” I said. Together we propped her against a moss-strewn stone, and I moved to work her skirts over her hips. There was little light but the lantern we’d brought with us. I set it on the ground, and blood gleamed against the grass.
“You were right,” Ymaera said. Her face was pale. Too pale. “I knew you were right. I shouldn’t have listened to the crone. It is my husband’s. Talgrun’s. Titha told me—she said I must never bear my husband a child, she told me when I married him—and so I lay with other men, but I love him, Reyna. I know you thought I wed him because he held the seat, but I loved him. I wanted to give him a son. A true son. I should have listened to Titha. I was so angry with her—with you—”
It was the first she’d spoken my sister’s name since I’d borne that final Telling back to Kalstavr. She wanted me to offer absolution, but I had none. I wished I had, for the sake of who she’d been; of who we’d been to one another.
She shuddered with another contraction, then another quick on its heels. Blood gushed between her thighs. Seal leaned close and dabbed Ymaera’s sweat-beaded brow with the hem of her skirt.
Not long, Seal said.
“I only wanted my child to live,” Ymaera said, and I held her as she wept and as she bled. Her contractions came so swiftly now there was no telling one from another. She had stood at this threshold four times already, and she did not scream, but she moaned and she writhed as her body forced out its half-formed passenger.
Too much blood, I thought again, but did not say it. Something had torn inside. She would not live. I had stood in this moment so many times before. The moment of knowing loss before it arrived. And now, as ever before, I closed off my grief. I would welcome it in the night, when I was alone, let it into every piece of me. But there was no time for grief. No room for it.
Or so I told myself.
She cried out, spine arching. And then it came, slipping out in a fresh spurt of blood and fluid, slick with dark clots.
“Let me see,” Ymaera said. Her voice was weak. “Let me see my child.” I cut a cloth from a clean patch of her skirts and wrapped it. Held it where she could touch the edge of the cloth. I leaned over it, over her, and whispered in her ear as her eyelids fluttered.
“I was wrong,” I whispered. “Your child is well. Your children are all safe, Ymaera. I was wrong.”
“A boy?” she asked. Her lips barely shaped the words into more than a breath.
“A boy,” I told her.
“I can hear him crying,” she said, and her head fell back.
But it was not the cry of a child. Not a woman’s scream, either, but the scream of a man in sudden agony.
The sound birthed shouts. There was light down at the shore. Torches, and something brighter, something bigger.
The boats were burning.
I held the bundle in the crook of one arm and my spear in my hand, and I ran. I went down the slope in the dark, no lantern, no stars. But the night had never troubled me. I read the battle in an instant, old instincts supplying a tale of the moments I had missed.
Dead men and dying lay tangled on the trampled sand. Talgrun’s men had come from the direction of Kalstavr and caught our people between their blades and the burning boats. Hosfar was not there, or Yari—other faces were missing, and tracks led up into the hills, into the woods, into the questionable embrace of the gray.
But Evahr stood yet with his back to the flames, blood on his blade and on his brow, Imri behind him with a knife clutched in her hand like a claw. She was too far along to run—not easily, not fast enough to flee. That left only the skirmish on the shore, Evahr’s blade and her own ferocity to stand against a dozen men. Already half and more lay bleeding or dead on the sand, side by side with the conspirators they had come to slay, but even Evahr could not hold long against so many. I charged.
One of Talgrun’s loyal thralls leapt forward with a shout. Evahr’s sword caught him in the throat; he gurgled as he drowned in his own spilled blood.
The nearest man, mail-clad and blood-spattered, stood with his back to me. I could have driven my spear through his chest, mail and all. I wanted to. Instead I spun it in my hand, blade and haft reversing, and swept his legs out from under him as I ran past.
I came around in front of Imri and Evahr, Ymaera’s get in the crook of my arm and my spear a rebuke against Talgrun’s men. They held but did not surge forward again, eying me warily. I caught Evahr’s eye for half a moment. Five years since we’d shared the breath of battle, and I felt him like another limb.
“Talgrun!” I yelled. Where was the bastard? There. Away from the fighting—the slaughter. The crone beside him, bent-backed, her night-blind crow huddled against her shoulder.
“Where is my wife, Reyna?” Talgrun demanded. He stepped forward, the furred shoulders of his cloak making him seem broader and bolder than he was. “Where are my children?”
The heat of the fire lashed my back. “Your wife is dead,” I said. “And your children? You have no children but the one she birthed this night. Your son, Talgrun.” I knelt, and set the bundle on the blood-stained sand, and backed away.
For a moment, no one moved. Then the crone stepped forward, the hem of her robe dragging over the sand with a scraping hiss. Talgrun’s soldiers parted as she passed. With the narrow, iron-capped foot of her staff she reached out, caught the edge of the cloth bundle, and flicked it open to reveal the thing Ymaera birthed.
Not a babe, however early, but a twisted root, gray except where it was red and black with blood. It had the shape of a child, or the mockery of it, a bulbous head and spindly, broken limbs. And yet it moved. Opened a black, empty mouth, a soundless cry, thrashed in the startled way of the newly born. No bigger than a fist, but alive—in a way. Behind me, Evahr let out an oath, and Imri’s breath hissed between her teeth.
The crone stared down at the babe, horror on her face, and then at last I knew: she had believed her own nattering.
For a moment, she knew she had been wrong. And then her expression shut like a slammed door.
“The graylings have done this,” she said. “They have done this to trick us and to punish us.”
Talgrun did not answer. He was staring at the root-child, face empty and pale. “Destroy that thing,” he said. I lunged—too late. The crone lifted her staff, and drove it down.
The thing—the child—the grayling babe was small and frail, and one blow broke it. I could not say if it had been alive—or if it was alive, if it would have lived, but I whispered a last blessing in the old tongue for it. “Hray hlien, rusati,” I murmured. Run home, little brother.
Talgrun lifted his eyes to me. “You bring this evil to my home, Reyna,” he said.
“This evil was always coming. It isn’t too late to go, Talgrun. Your wife is dead; your people may yet live.”
He looked at me, and at the crone. For half a moment, half a heartbeat, I thought he might bend. Then he set his hand to the hilt of his sword, and I knew he would stand instead until he broke. “Take her,” he told his men. “Bring the others in chains. And find my wife.”
He started to turn away. I leapt. Blades reached for my flesh, too sluggish to cut more than air. The haft of my spear knocked aside a thrall I’d once fought beside, and then I dug my heel into the sand to vault the last steps to Talgrun.
My hand choked up the spear haft to hold it close to the leaf-shaped blade, and that I pressed against the notch of his jaw, my other hand gripping his white-shot braids. I yanked and side-stepped, pulling him off balance and around me, getting his body between me and his men. He held his blade impotently, too stunned and then too wise to try to get at me with it.
“You’ll let us go,” I said. His men moved hesitantly, blades bare and thirsting, unwilling to chance a charge. The firelight wreathed their limbs with light and veiled their faces. Beyond them Evahr kept Imri close, edging her toward the empty shore and the hills beyond.
“You are a traitor to your holding,” Talgrun said. “You will die for what you’ve done.”
“It isn’t my death you should concern yourself with,” I reminded him. The point of my blade dimpled his skin but did not break it.
Talgrun choked out a laugh. “You think I do not know that you have not shed men’s blood since Titha died? Not in anger or sport or war. Not one drop to stain the earth. But you’d murder me?”
“She would slaughter the stars to spare them,” the crone said in the voice of crows. She held the staff slanted across her body, and her eyes fixed on figments. The air seemed to shudder, pulse, broken by the beating of wings that were not here. “This ends in blood. Time runs in a thousand branching rivers from this moment, but they all run with blood. The only choice is whose.”
So this was the crone’s prophesying, the words she spoke in secret for Ymaera and Talgrun, hoarded in defiance of the Telling.One of Talgrun’s men murmured an oath I had not heard except in history lessons, a prayer to gods long forsaken, and the others stood transfixed.
“The river runs through the forest. Through the village. Runs to the sea,” the crone said, her fingers moving along the warped wood of her staff as if she read some wisdom there. “Through the narrowest chink it runs. You cannot outpace it. Echoes, echoes, you’ve sung them wrong. Isth, isth, hristh zaynon.”
I started at the old words, the old tongue. Under, under, down we all go. A child’s rhyme—or was it? I could not remember, suddenly, where I’d heard it. “Enough,” I said. “This is not prophecy—only nonsense, no wisdom in it. How can you hear sense in all of that, and be certain in it? The cold see death and death comes. This is a tangle of meaning and muttering, Talgrun.”
“Is it, Reyna?” he asked. He was oddly relaxed in my grip, his voice soft and meant for me alone. “Can you see a path that does not end in blood? Perhaps my eyes are failing me with age, with the dark, but I cannot.”
“Let us go, and there need be no more blood,” I said.
“If I let you go, I am slitting my own throat,” Talgrun says. “None will let me sit the boneback chair with weakness like that on me. So let my blood stain the sand of the shore, and yours with it. And Evahr’s.”
Imri they’d spare, to bear for the holding. A thousand rivers, but none broke free of that. Evahr dead, and Imri caught, and the rest of our company scattered and soon to die. I could see no other path—save one.
“Let it be my blood alone, then,” I said. “Let them go, and I’ll lay down my spear.”
He looked to the crone. She could not have heard, over the rush of the sea and the boasting of the flames, but she nodded.
“They live,” he said.
“On iron and salt, sea and shore, on the knots and the blood, the beam and the memory of home,” Talgrun said, knowing I would accept no less than the whole of the vow.
My spear point dropped from his neck. I stepped back. He held up a hand, stilling the sudden movement of his soldiers. “Hold,” he said.
I met Evahr’s eye. “Go,” I said, and the look in his eye told me he knew exactly what I’d done.
He wanted to argue. He wanted to fight. He was a man of blood and iron. But Imri held his wrist. I fixed my eyes on that contact, hand to wrist, pale skin to that blasted by sun and wind. He would protect her. Protect the child.
Our child. I no longer wondered.
Stay alive, I signed. Stay alive for me.
Every breath for you, Imri replied, eyes shining. Evahr did not speak. I knew that broken look, the impossibility of speech. I heard all he would have said, if he had the words for it. I did not love him because he said the right things or said them well. He spoke his love in the acts and actions of devotion. I had never wished it otherwise until now, with only this silence to mourn me.
“Go,” I said again, to both of them. “Run.”
Evahr had never once broken, never once run from battle. But run he did, Imri with him, his hand on her arm to bear her up. Down the shore, up the empty slope, toward the forest. Disappearing into shadows. Vanishing from sight and from the tug of this bloody current, from the crone’s prophecies and the promise of blood—or so I hoped.
“Your spear, Reyna,” Talgrun said.
I lowered my spear to the ground, setting it in the sand beside me, and drew my knife from my belt. I ran my thumb over the knots as I turned to Talgrun. “With my blade I once pledged to you,” I said. I held its pommel out to him. “My blood is yours to take.”
He took the knife from me, his expression impossible to read, and nodded.
Palms flat, I retreated, and rough hands caught me, held me fast. In the distance, in the direction Evahr and Imri had gone, there was only the night, and the sound of rushing wind.
Talgrun’s men brought me to the center of Kalstavr, to the muddy yard before the long hall. They bent my arms and bound them with iron and forced me down to kneel beside the brazier that beat back the dark. Talgrun came then, each step marked with the clink of chains, the gold and silver that crossed his chest, that ringed his wrists and arms. His grandfather had worn no gold, only iron. Once I had thought that made him the better chief of the two.
He might still have been the better of them, but now I knew that iron and blood were not what made it so. The crone walked beside Talgrun, her prophecy faded and her presence somehow thinner for it, as if the light might pass through her if it struck the right angle. I wanted to raise my eyes to hers, to show her I was not afraid. But fear had found me. It started as a shiver at the very edge of my hand, creeping upward. I fought the urge to run, to fight, to do something—because it would accomplish nothing but my death, and I wasn’t yet ready to die.
Talgrun drew forward. “Reyna Bonespear, you have betrayed your holding,” he said. He reached out; one of his men placed an iron rod in his hand. I forced myself to look only at him, at the lines of his face. Not at the rod as he plunged it into the glowing embers of the brazier. “My wife is dead. My children have been taken from me.”
“I didn’t kill Ymaera,” I said. “She came to me. She came to me because she knew that I was right. That the holding was in danger. It still is.”
He twisted the rod. The embers shifted, spat sparks. I swallowed around the stone in my throat. “You poisoned her with your talk of kings, your talk of storms and of legends,” he said.
“Legends?” I asked. “Is that what we’re to call the old doom, now? A legend?”
“A story told to explain how we came to this land of strange creatures and cold nights. To comfort us, by pretending there is a land of sun that will welcome us home,” Talgrun said.
I looked to the crone. She could have mouthed these words for him, they were so much her own.
“Have you ever wondered, old woman, whose secrets the crows whisper to you?” I asked. “What spirits speak to them, and what they want from us?”
“Not spirits,” the crone said, voice dead as driftwood. “I hear the whispers of the gods, and they speak only truth.”
“Gods?” I said, spitting out a sound as kin to laughter as Ymaera’s issue was to a child. “The gods forsook us.”
“We forsook the gods,” the crone said, wrapping both her withered hands around her staff. “And so were stricken with our affliction. Our skin marked, our wombs hollow. And because we ceased to make our sacrifices, give due obeisance to our gods, we fell under the sway of false and wicked things.”
“This is what you’ve been muttering in his ear all these years?” I asked. I reeled before the force of it. To talk of kings was to invite trouble; to talk of gods was more madness still.
“The graylings have ruined us,” Talgrun said. “Have shaped us in their image, twisted us with their false prophecies.” He drew the rod from the fire, its tip glowing red. “It is not entirely your fault, Reyna. You wanted to believe your sister. You did what you thought was right. But now my children are missing. Now my wife is dead. Your sister led you to folly, but you followed willingly, and we all must suffer for it. But you will suffer most of all.”
I wish the fear had left me then. That I had knelt unflinching in the face of my decision, holding fast to my defiance. But it tore into me, a rot hound’s jaws snapped shut around my breath. I reared back as Talgrun stepped forward.
One of his men wrapped my braid around his fist, his other hand clamped down around my jaw to hold me still. Talgrun drew close, the glowing brand gripped tight.
“Hold still,” Talgrun said. “I wouldn’t want to put out your eye.”
I strained. Not to get away; I could not, and even through my fear I knew that. I braced myself back against the man who held me, his chest a wall. To keep myself still as the brand descended and pressed white-hot against the inked symbol of my holding.
I screamed. Screamed with the pain of it, the brand held against my flesh as it burned. As it obliterated the mark I’d earned, I’d worn. Marked me instead as outcast, forsaken, condemned to the tameless wilds if I was permitted to live at all. Struck out my name, tore from me every friend, every bond.
Talgrun drew back the brand. I sagged against my captor; he held me, not ungentle, until I found strength enough to get my feet beneath me again. My left eye showed nothing but a blaze of orange-white light; from the other the world seemed dimmed in comparison, shadows moving within shadows.
“Bind this woman to the post and leave her under guard,” Talgrun said. “She will give her last blood to the midbeam before the dawn, as restitution for her transgressions against the holding.”
“Talgrun, please,” I said, voice a rasp. “Kill me if you must. But don’t let the holding die on the word of a madwoman.”
“I won’t,” he said, and looked at me, and I knew that I was lost—or he was lost, and either way we were both to die.
I would die a little sooner, that was all.
I did not know the names of the men that shackled me to Korohn’s post. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps I should have taken the left-hand road to Kalstavr more often, learned the names of the iron thralls and the laborers as I had when I sailed in the red raids. Perhaps if I had not turned my back, I could have convinced them. I could have saved them.
It was too late for that, now. I had come to the time every warrior faced; a time when one last duty was demanded of them.
My blood for the midbeam.
Perhaps the beam, the knots, the iron, the stones, would protect the holding after all. I wished I could have held onto that comfort as Talgrun left. But I did not believe it. The wards would fail. The holding would perish.
I had failed. Failed the holding. Failed Evahr and Imri. Failed Titha. Before the morning, I would die, and my life had come to nothing.
It was not sleep that found me but something less kind. A jumble of nightmare and memory. I saw Imri birth that pathetic, twisted thing; I saw Evahr die with my spear in his gut. I saw Titha, her blood and the blood of graylings spilling from her lips, her eyes empty and her hands clutching at me.
It was still dark when I tore myself free of the nightmares and found myself in a worse one. I was alone. My hands were bound behind me, my shoulders aching from being twisted back so long. Dark shapes at the edge of the yard marked the positions of the men left to guard me, but no one would come for me.
I hoped no one would come.
Stay away, I willed Evahr. I thought he would. He would not leave Imri and our child. Their child, now. He was not my husband any longer, not with the mark burned from my face. I was no one’s wife, no one’s sister, no one’s friend.
The cold wind brushed my face like fingertips. Like two fingers, pressed below my left eye.
I thought of a grayling crouched on the mounded roof of Titha’s hut.
In the yard, creeping from the shed where Seal slept.
Thought of Seal, collared and defiant.
Of a muteling child, daring a momentary gesture.
They had known. Somehow, they had known.
“You are there, aren’t you?” I whispered. “You were waiting for this. For me.”
I thought it would be a grayling, there in the dark, but the figure who stepped from the shadows had a woman’s form and a woman’s face, and eyes as dark as a grayling’s. Seal. Hands and skirt still bloodied from Ymaera’s birth, she walked toward me and paid no mind to the guards Talgrun had set.
“Be careful,” I said. “They’ll see you.”
They will see nothing. Nor hear you speak. I looked again at the guards, at the too-still stance of them, and tasted the air. Mist, thick and strangely warm.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You should have run.”
Where would I go? She crouched, propping her elbows on her knees. Her dark hair hung down around her face, tendrils of it snaking over the rough, pale wool of her dress.
“Then why come here?”
Because I come here, she said, words’ tense slippery as a lamprey. Because I came, come, will come; because I have always, would always... The shape of her hands encompassed every echo of it.
“I don’t understand.” And then I did. The cold ones drank the graylings’ blood and saw the warp and the weft, saw the threads that made the pattern. They were more like the gray than the rest of us, those cold children, and so, too, were the mutelings. More like the gray—and what did the gray see, that their blood held such secrets? “You have the Telling? Mutelings—”
Not all. Not many. Not much. Moments. Flickers.
“You saw me like this.”
She reached out two fingers and pressed them to the wound beneath my eye. Pain pulsed, then receded. I let out a ragged breath; she dropped her hand.
I saw you, she said.
“Help me,” I said. My voice was raw, rock-dragged, wave-worn.
Why? She held the question a long moment, and I nearly screamed, rage tightening my throat. Why should it matter to me who holds my chain? she asked. I have no reason to help you. I was stolen from myself, stolen again by your husband. When you die, I am sure I will be stolen again. To live here in your long hall, and bear your chieftain’s sons, or some other man’s. And if I freed you—your ships are burned. Your people scattered. You will still die. So why should it matter to me if you die here, or if you die in the tameless waste or in the woods?
“It shouldn’t.” I looked away from her; I could not bear another moment of her gaze. “It shouldn’t matter to you or any other muteling mother what happens to a single one of us. You are our daughters and our sisters and our mothers and we have chained you.”
What do your words matter? What does condemnation matter, if you still profit?
I laughed, low and broken. “They don’t. It doesn’t. You should run to the woods, and leave me here. You’ll survive a while; you’re clever, and you’re young, and you have the graylings’ favor. But you aren’t one of them. You cannot live on starlight and spiders’ webs and the dreams of wild things. You’ll have freedom for a time, but you will die or you will be captured, or you will walk willingly among the villages when you grow too afraid.”
It doesn’t matter, she said.
“Of course it matters,” I spat back. “It is all that matters. To be free; to live. For your daughters to be free. For your sons to live. It matters.”
Her fingers hooked into claws. They tore at the air as she gestured. I cannot do anything for my daughters, for my sons. I cannot do anything even for myself, as you have taken pains to tell me.
“You can,” I said. “We can. We cannot live without mothers. We can survive, for a time. Like you could, in the woods. But we would come to our deaths at the end, and leave no young ones to bear our names, to sing our stories. We need you and your sisters, so come with us. No chains. No collars. Free to bear when you will. For whomever you will. Or not to bear, and live as any of us.”
She was still for a long moment. And then, at last, her fingers shaped a single word.
I feared the mist would fail before Seal returned; that my guards would stir and wake and see the muteling move among the shadows, another paler shadow at her side. But she walked past them and no alarm sounded. The thing beside her had the shape of a child. A human child, not the warped mockery of the gray—yet grayling he was. A boy, his skin like bark, tiny white flowers growing over his shoulders. The gills at his sides were narrow slits, the ribbed lamellae within pale as bone. His eyes were human, too, whites showing, irises not black but brown.
“What are you?” I asked.
New, he said in the muteling speech and smiled, baring black teeth. What are you?
“Old,” I said. I shook my head. “I don’t know what you mean, child.”
What are you? He repeated the gestures with precision.
“Human,” I said.
No. Humans cut us with iron and burn us with yew. You bear bone and speak peace in our spaces. You are something else.
I shut my eyes against his words. I had never explained to Evahr why I laid down my iron. Why I bore only bone, and shed the blood of neither men nor graylings any longer.
I had cut the heart from the mother-tree, beyond the narrow place. We passed through that crack in the rock, barely the width of a blade, slipping through in the chaos of the graylings’ retreat before it slammed shut behind us. We walked through fields of flowers I could not name, the night pierced with the songs of strange birds. We warred. And when Mad Hosfar and I and those few others broke through the lines, broke through to the great tree, I wept for the beauty of it. Shrouded in starlight, wreathed with white blossoms as bright as stars themselves.
And I had cut the heart from that beautiful thing. Taken it as a prize. Because it was beautiful, and called to be claimed.
It was not until far too late that I realized what I had done. What I had destroyed, out of the need to claim, to bind, to own, to break.
I had not killed again. And yet what did it matter? The heart beat behind iron, dying slowly. Evahr rowed out on the red raids and brought home muteling women chained and weeping. I did nothing by my own hand, and pretended such inaction was absolution.
I had thought to save my people, to lead them out of this place. But I’d taken Seal, the chain still around her neck—that act alone was proof we were not leaving all of this place behind us, as we should. We were taking it with us, along with every poisoned deed it demanded of us.
I opened my eyes.
“I cut the heart from your mother-tree with an iron blade,” I said. “I’m as human as the rest.”
He looked at Seal. Something passed between them, wordless, without gesture. More like breath than speech, but they understood one another.
Why call us here? he asked.
“Your mother’s heart lies beneath the long hall. Guarded with men and with iron and with a key that hangs around Talgrun’s neck. Guarded by the eight and twenty knots. I’ve heard it. It’s dying. You are dying.”
Why call us here? he asked again.
“I can give it back to you,” I said.
You do not offer this freely, the grayling child said. You do not give. You take, or you bargain.
“Yes, I bargain,” I said. My heart beat quick. One did not strike deals with the gray. Such was the wisdom I was weaned on, but I was never wise the way I ought to be. “I will return your heart to you, and you will gather those who fled the shore from wherever they have scattered. You will bring them to the warding stones to wait for me, and you will grant us safe passage through the narrow place, to what lands lie beyond. For me, and for whoever will follow. There will be no more war between your people and mine.”
The boy hesitated. Crooked his fingers, head cocked to the side as if he was listening. There was disagreement among the gray, I thought; they had indeed changed. But at last he nodded. You will have safe passage. We will cut you free now.
“No,” I said. He stilled. “Cut me free and I can do nothing for you. My brand is burned. I cannot step beneath the eight and twenty knots without invitation, any more than you can. I will only stand beneath the midbeam again to die.”
I tilted my head back, letting it loll against the post. There were no stars tonight; the mist had blotted them out.
Then what? The boy was asking when I looked again. What do you need of us?
“You need to find my family. And those who were to follow us—those that still live.”
I know where they are, he said. I will bring them.
I nodded. “Then there is only one more thing I need.”
We will pay what price we must, the boy said.
“I need your blood.”
My sister drank grayling blood a hundred times and more between her first Telling and her last. Felt its burn on her lips, her tongue, sliding down her throat, settling in her gut. I had not understood the pain that she invited again and again in service of the truth, in service of the holding, until I sat vigil for the dawn with a grayling’s blood held burning behind my lips.
Dawn began as a bruise, a tint to the darkness. I waited, teeth clenched. Pain was a living thing, displeased at being leashed. It bucked and clawed at me; I accepted each wound, each lash, my eyes fixed on the empty sky.
For Titha, who died to warn us, I bore it.
For Evahr, whose faith never wavered, I bore it.
For Imri—Imri, who I longed to love simply, to love as my sister and nothing else between us; Imri, whose iron chain made every affection a broken, suspect thing— I bore it.
For the graylings, too. For my penance. For the heart I’d cut from the great tree, I bore the pain. I welcomed it. And when the crone came with her crows and Talgrun’s men, I met her eyes, kept my silence, and bore it still.
“The warrior weeps,” the crone said. I had wept; I had no more tears to weep. The salt had dried to my skin like sea-spray. “Are you so humbled?”
I did not answer. Could not answer. Let her think it defiance, the small sliver of pride I had left to wield.
“Bring her,” she said, contemptuous. When Talgrun’s man bound my bruised wrists before me and hauled me to my feet, I could barely stand. My knees sagged; he shook me. I stumbled my way as best I could, lips pressed together, jaw tight, tongue’s tip pressed against the back of my teeth.
Talgrun waited inside the long hall. Talgrun, and two more of his thralls, and no one else. Then this was to be done in secrecy, in solitude. It was a shameful thing, a thrall cast out. Did he fear that my old brothers and sisters of the blade would intervene? So many had died since I served; more had bled out on the beach last night. How many were left who would weep for me? How many who would fight for me? No; it was not fear. It was, instead, the closest thing to kindness he could offer.
“You served me well, once,” Talgrun said as his man dragged me forward, my footsteps scraping weakly on the stone. “I know that what you did was done for the holding, however wrong you were. Repent your deeds, and I will speak your name again. You will die a thrall of this holding, where you belong.”
I stared at him unspeaking. Grayling blood trickled down the back of my throat, a fingertip trailing a line of fire. I did not know how much of the blood in my mouth was the grayling’s, how much my own.
The midbeam seemed to reel above me. Knots within knots, lines crossed and crossing over in turn. Twenty-eight knots. Twenty-eight holdings, and so few still standing, and Kalstavr the greatest of them. Not a glorious triumph, but a mean and muted one. Survival, stubborn and cruel.
We had escaped the threat beyond the mountains. We had survived the blight that made us barren. We wrested life from a murderous land, and made ourselves unworthy of it.
Talgrun sighed. He cupped my face with his palm, his thumb brushing the edge of the place where he’d branded me. One more splinter of pain; I barely flinched.
“Let it be done, then,” he said, and jerked his hand toward the back of the hall, already turning away. He would not watch, then, nor gild the deed in ritual.
His thrall walked me to the back of the hall, to the bent beam and the knot of wood Yari had baptized with his blood only the day before.
His grip said he expected me to struggle. Instead I walked with what dignity I could, my steps shaky, my vision blurred with pain. The crone walked with us, my antler-carved knife in her hand, her eyes narrow. Suspicion crawled behind those eyes like a beetle in the dark, but I needed only moments more.
“Kneel,” she said, when we had reached the beam.
The thrall gave me no chance for obedience. He kicked the back of my legs and I dropped. My knees hit the stone; I choked. Coughed. Pressed my lips together, but blood spattered against the wall, beside the midbeam. Red-black, blood mingled with blood. The shadow hid the color.
I was too far away. A lunge would close the distance, but the thrall held me fast. And then the crone dug her gnarled fingers into my hair. She wrenched me close to her, and hissed into my ear, her breath hot and moist on my cheek.
“Beg mercy of the gods, warrior. They will not be pleased with you when you go to meet them.” And then she dragged me forward, the distance to the midbeam vanishing in an instant. She bent my neck forward, set my own knife against my throat.
I spat out the blood in a coughing, choking rush. There was no feeling left in my tongue, my lips, my mouth; I could only let my jaw hang, let the grayling’s blood and mine run over my chin, burning, and splatter against the midbeam’s burl. The blood ran down my face and over the crone’s hand, and the hissing of her flesh warned her the instant before it happened.
“No!” she screamed, but no words, no gods could stop what I had done. The eight and twenty knots lit, limned in starlight. And then they blackened. Smoked and cracked, wood burnt, throwing ash.
I choked, spat, spat again, but it was only my own blood now, thick and red, and it was done.
“No!” the crone shrieked again, and I felt the blade bite my neck.
I threw myself to the side, away from the crone and the knife. I rolled and came to a stop on my back, staring up at the midbeam as it broke, a crack racing from one end to the other with a sound like a glacier calving.
“What have you done?” Talgrun roared, racing across the hall to seize me, to pull me up by the arms and shake me.
I drew a ragged breath through my ruined mouth. His eyes locked with mine, searching as if for answers, for meaning. He had not believed, even in this final moment, that I would act to harm the holding.
He was a good chief, and I had served him well.
“Talgrun!” One of his men, wild with alarm. The doors to the long hall stood open, gaping, and past them lay the woods. And within the woods, something moved. Shadows in shadows, and then—
They boiled from the woods, wasps from a kicked hive. Long limbs, crooked up. Black eyes, fixed unblinking. Thin gray bodies moving, churning toward us, voiceless, no sound but that like leaves rushing in the wind. A flood of them. An army.
“Shut the doors!” Talgrun cried, and his thralls ran to obey. Too late.
The first thrall barely had his shoulder against the door when they reached him.
They made no sound as they fell on him, tearing his flesh with long, sharp nails and long, sharp teeth. He screamed until their teeth found his throat. “Fall back!” Talgrun shouted. “To me!”
The remaining thrall fell back and back again, his blade singing out to strike. Iron bit flesh. Blood spattered. But they were too many and too swift. They surged around him, over him, and his panic was drowned in their silence. They filled the long hall, clambering up the walls, clinging to the beams, skittering across the floor toward those of us still living. The crone swung her staff wide. The sea of graylings seethed back for an instant, then flowed forward, dragging the crone down.
The staff skittered across the stone and out of reach. The light was gone. There was only darkness, and the sound of wide, wet mouths and the brief agony of men. Silence, and a thrum. Like the rasp of a cat’s purr; a sound of waiting. Then—
Light. Blue-white, the light of stars, the light of a heart cut from a dreaming grove. Tracing cheek and jaw, limb and spine. The light of a hundred, two hundred graylings crouched against the stone floor.
Talgrun spun, sword brandished before him. The graylings did not flinch. A perfect circle surrounded us. Surrounded me.
The ripple began at the doorway. Bodies shifting aside so that Seal and the grayling boy could pass. The boy’s cheeks were speckled with light; bands and bars of it adorned his back. He bent where the crone fell and plucked my knife from the stone, and held it toward me like a gift as he walked. The ripple reached us; so did he. Seal stayed back, a tremble in her limbs like fear—but she wasn’t afraid.
Talgrun stood as near the wall as he could reach. “What have you done?” he asked.
I held up my hands. The boy cut me free with a stroke. The blade nipped my wrist. A few more drops of blood.
“You’ve killed us,” Talgrun said. “Every one of us.”
I could not speak. I had no voice, no tongue to shape it. I had no words to explain, even if I could have spoken. I stepped toward him. He raised his sword, hilt clutched in both hands. I walked until the blade was at my breastbone. A breath and it would break the skin.
“You’ve killed us,” Talgrun said again.
I set my knuckles against the broad edge of the blade. The tremors in his arms passed through the steel to my fingers. I pushed the blade aside.
The breath went out of him, the sigh of an old and weary man. His knees sagged. He fell to the stone floor, his sword falling with him. Steel clattered on the ground; he stared ahead, expecting, I thought, to die.
I took the keys from around his neck and looped the iron chain around my hand.
Follow, I signed to the grayling child, and left Talgrun where he knelt.
I took them with me, that tide of strange creatures. Beneath the hall our grandfathers built. In the tunnels, the strange thrum of the graylings’ breath was like the rush of blood, its echo folded and folded again. Seal took one key; I took the other.
I remembered the way, the turning, to the iron-banded tunnel black as the inside of a throat. The boy went with me; the others flinched back. The boy hesitated at the first band of iron. He crouched down, and his joints bent too far, his knobby knees splayed too wide to look quite human. He touched fingertips to the iron, one by one, pulled his lips in a grimace, then stood.
Bring it to us, he signed.
I found the keyhole in the dark, but the dark did not survive long. I pulled open the door, my shoulders, wrenched and strained, aching with the effort, and light spilled from the iron-corded chamber.
Thump. The heartbeat, slow and weak but still enough to make my bones ache.
When I had cut it from the graylings’ grove, from the tree at the center of it, I had wrapped the heart in oilskin. I had carried it in the crook of my arm like a child, my blood-pitted blade in my other hand, Mad Hosfar and the other men—fewer with each step, it seemed—behind me. Its frantic spasms had thudded against my belly; I had crushed it to me.
Now I took the five steps to the center of the room with the solemnity of ritual, and set my fingertips one by one against the heart. The surface was dried and papery, tacky where the blood had flowed and dried again and again.
I cradled the heart in my hands. Fresh blood wept from the wounds I’d cut and traced a scorching line across my wrist. One more scar to mark this night.
I carried it over stone and over iron, to the boy waiting with dark, untrusting eyes. When he saw me, his eyelids widened a moment, as if he had not believed I would come. The susurrus of breath behind him ceased—and then the thrum returned, quicker, stronger. He took my blade and set it against his sternum, slicing down, slicing deep. I cried out in alarm, the sound tearing free from the wreck of my throat, but he only reached three thin fingers into the wound and drew the lip of it aside, pale flesh like a mushroom stalk split open.
He took the heart from me, awkward in his child-sized palm, and fit it into the dark cavity of his chest. His wound closed over it, knitted flesh to flesh. All that remained was drying blood and a tumorous bulge that pulsed, more rapidly now, growing stronger once again.
It is done, he said. He held my knife out to me, pommel-first.
I took it. It is done, I agreed.
You will have your passage.
I nodded. It was done. And I could feel it already, the change in the holding. It would break. Was broken already. Its people would retreat. They would vanish into the other holdings, or stay in bare-toothed stubbornness, but it wouldn’t matter. They had died when Talgrun refused to listen.
The mothers were waiting. Not all of them. Not nearly all. They were trained too well in obedience and fear. But Seal was there, and the girl who had pressed her fingers to her cheek when she stood before Talgrun, and more children still. And, to my surprise, three minders, the oldest with a face half-masked by the wine-red stain that branded her barren.
I went, and they followed. Out through the tunnel’s mouth, into the quiet village, not yet awoken. Bodies lay in the mud. More of Talgrun’s thralls, throats laid open by grayling teeth. I walked along the path and then away from it, into the woods, following the flitting of gray flanks. Toward the warding stones. Toward Imri and Evahr, and whoever else had lived. Toward the narrow place, and what lay beyond. Behind me, the holding slept, not knowing I had killed them in the night.
Ahead of me, between the trees, a figure stepped into view. Evahr. And there was Imri with him, Hosfar and his children beyond. I could not see their faces—could not see joy or fear or anger, only that they lived. It was enough.
I reached the crest of the hill, where the warding stones stood to mark the line between our territory and that which the graylings still claimed. Without the midbeam, the stones were dead. Lifeless rock and nothing more.
There were perhaps a dozen others besides Imri, Evahr, and Hosfar’s family. They stood further back, keeping away from the warding stone—for it was blackened, cracked, its knots as much a ruin as those that trailed along the midbeam.
Imri came to meet me, three steps, a hand raised to touched the burned, raw skin at my mouth.
“Reyna,” Evahr said. He still stood back. His eyes were pale in the morning light, gray as the shore. “What did you do?”
What I had to.
He tracked my hands, confusion in his eyes, and something else—fear. He knew the gesture-speech to sign to Imri, but his signs were clumsy, his understanding slow. If I could explain to him what had happened, he would not comprehend. And so I offered only one word.
I was not sure they would.
But one by one, they did. Through the forest of dumbstruck birds, to the crack in the stone no wider than the thin edge of a blade.
The stone loomed above us, twice as tall as even Mad Hosfar. Graylings crouched on the jagged dome of the boulder—thirty of them strong, and stranger than those that I’d seen this side of the narrow place. Eyeless, mouthless, with too many limbs—creatures with plates of bone like mushroom caps over their brows or brambles growing from their backs.
“Mother’s mercy,” Hosfar said, and reached for iron. I stopped him with a lifted hand.
Down from the rock came a grayling, long-limbed, five fingers on each hand and eyes as pale gray as Evahr’s. It clutched my spear in one hand. Held it out.
I took the spear, its familiar weight easing the breath in my chest. The grayling stepped back, and set its hand beside the crack in the rock.
The crack widened. Gaped. Stood open wider than three men across, and yet I could see it plainly still, narrower than my hand.
The others shifted behind me, muttering nervously. I glanced back at them, just once.
I did not look back again. I did not dare look to see who came with me; I walked forward.
I stepped from the woods into the open field, from morning to midnight, from the light of the sun to the uncertain shimmer of the graylings’ moon, round and unbroken. Before me, soft hills lay limned with moonlight, purplish stalks of some strange wheat rippling in the constant wind through the crack between worlds. The graylings’ forests lay beyond, I knew, but now they were only shadows against a night-bruised sky.
Footsteps drew up behind me, and Imri’s hand slid into mine.
I turned, my fingers laced with hers. Hosfar, his three children with him, clutching at his cloak, the old wolf trotting behind. Nagrat and Onesha. The mutelings, young and old, their minders chiding the youngest softly to hurry, hurry. And then the rest of the survivors from the shore. And finally Evahr—my echo, my shadow, my beloved. Or so he’d been to the woman of iron and salt I’d been. But I had no iron now, no ship to stride the sea, no knot upon my cheek. No voice to tell him that whoever I might be, I loved him still.
“Why have you brought us here?” Nagrat asked. “Reyna. Where are you leading us?”
Evahr walked among the others. He looked about himself, taking in the uncertain faces, and then he looked to me. He had to know what I had done; it must have been written somehow on my face, on my body. How could such a thing leave me unmarked?
He crossed the distance to me, and drew his iron blade as he came. His face was stone, but I had spent my fear. I could not fear him. I would not. I stepped away from Imri and held my ground. If Evahr plunged his blade into my breast it would be just.
But instead, he pressed the hilt of it into my hand. He bent his knee, let the blade part his breath. “Reyna Bonespear,” he said. “I have pledged myself to you before, and now I pledge again. Wherever you go, I will follow. Into shadow and into morning. Over the salt sea and through the deep forest. Across this land or any other.”
“We will follow,” Mad Hosfar echoed. He drew his knife; he knelt. Yari was a moment behind his father. And then Nagrat, and Evahr’s thralls. Vieka pressed her lips to her iron ring, and then Onesha, hesitating, did as well.
“We will follow,” they echoed, one by one. Every voice added to the chorus—and the voiceless did not kneel, but Seal lifted a hand, pressed two fingers to her cheek. The gesture spread, from the eldest muteling, white-haired, long past bearing, to the youngest. Imri laid her hand on my shoulder, her grip tight, and for once I did not shy from the touch.
“We will follow,” Evahr said to end the echo. And then he stood. Pressed his brow to mine, his palm to my cheek. His voice dropped; words for me, and me alone. “What you did had to be done,” he said. “Whatever it was. I pledge to you, Reyna. Always.”
I shut my eyes. Breathed him in, the scent of him.
A thousand enemies, my sister said, and I was leading my people to them. So that they could live.
But not all of them would.
I opened my eyes. There is a place in the hills, I said. A place of summer. That is where we will find our home. That is where I will lead you.
I saw their eyes, bright with sudden hope as those who understood the words passed them in whispers to the rest. All but Seal—Seal, who smiled a cat’s smile, as if she knew what warnings Titha had spun. But she said nothing.
Not all would live, but I had saved some from a more certain death.
Or so I told myself, as we set out under a strange moon, we ragged few.