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13 YEARS AGO
The Headlands, Kyrr Territory
“Give me the child.”
Turonn’s hands reached for the girl cradled in his wife’s arms and she looked up, her swollen eyes glistening.
“They’re waiting, Svanhild.”
She touched her daughter’s face, tracing the curve of her brow with the tip of her finger. “I will carry her,” she whispered.
Her black hair fell over her face like a veil as her bare feet hit the cold stone floor and she stood on weak legs. When Torunn stepped toward her, she moved from his reach. The comfort of her husband would only turn the river of pain in her chest into an angry ocean. So, he let her go, watching her step into the ice-blue light of dawn spilling through the open door. He took the bow from where it hung on the wall and followed, his eyes on the hem of her white linen gown.
Below, every soul in Fjarra stood at the water’s edge to witness the funeral rites. The bitterly barren headlands that had been the home of the Kyrr for generations were iced over, though winter was gone, and Svanhild couldn’t help but think her daughter would be cold, even if she was dead.
The wind pulled the thin cloth around her slight frame as she walked the winding path down the steep incline to the violent waves crashing on the beach. There, her people waited. She looked straight ahead, tightening her arms around the girl’s body, and one cold drop of rain hit her cheek. The clouds churned overhead, the rumble of thunder echoing the pounding heart in her chest.
She looked up into the blackening clouds, where the nighthawk was circling, and uttered a curse on her breath. She’d consulted the Spinners of Fate before her daughter was born six years ago and they’d told her what future lay ahead. But she still hated them for it. The three Spinners who sat at the foot of the Tree of Urðr weaving the destiny of mortals were as cruel as the cold waters that had pulled Svanhild’s daughter beneath the waves. Her pleas to save her child had gone unheard, swallowed up by the raging sea that surrounded the headlands.
The boat was already waiting in the shallows. Its carved prow craned over the beach in the shape of a serpent’s head and garlands of willow were draped over the sides, where a maze of runes and ravens’ wings was burned onto the hull. Inside, long stalks of nodding avens and lupine were piled in an offering to their god, Naðr.
The people were silent, their eyes on Svanhild as she stood on the beach, peering down into the face of the girl. Her skin like milk, her hair like ink. The black marks that covered her skin wound around her arms and legs in patterns that Svanhild had made herself only a year ago. They were the same ones that covered the skin of every Kyrr standing on the beach, a labyrinth of ancient prayers that had been passed from one generation to the next and that signified her as a child of Naðr. But even the gods couldn’t spare mortals from the hands of the Spinners.
Turonn set his hand onto Svanhild’s shoulder and she blinked, sending hot tears falling into the fine linen. She waded out into the icy water, the gown clinging to her hips and legs, and the rain began to fall harder as she leaned over the side of the boat to set the girl down carefully, nestled into the soft violet-and-blush blooms.
Turonn took hold of the prow, shoving the boat out onto the water, and Svanhild swallowed down the sob in her chest until it was a heavy stone in her stomach. After all, what right did she have to cry out? The Spinners had told her this day would come. She’d known it the moment the midwife had placed the tiny child into her arms. And now that it was here, she’d send her daughter to the afterlife with strength, not with frailty. And when she saw her again, she would stand proud of her mother.
The boat’s edge slipped from her shaking hands as it caught the gentle current and Svanhild stood there until the cold of the water crept into the center of her bones. Until she couldn’t feel anything but the biting wind on her face.
The sound of fire-steel struck behind her and she looked over her shoulder to where Turonn was nocking a flaming arrow, his face drawn with deep lines and his dark eyes reflecting the storm above. He looked to Svanhild, standing like a ghost in the gray water.
She gave a sharp nod and he lifted the bow, his fingers tightening on the draw. He pulled a deep, even breath in through his swollen throat and let the string creak before he released the arrow and it flew. It arched up over Svanhild’s head and every set of eyes on the beach watched it vanish into the clouds before it reappeared, dropping from the sky like a falling star.
It hit the boat with a crack and Svanhild wrapped her arms around herself as the hungry flame caught and spread. The scent of burning elm crept toward them in a swath of smoke as the boat grew small, drifting into the thick fog until it disappeared.
And when Svanhild blinked again, it was gone.
The Shores of Liera, Svell Territory
Night still hung heavy as Jorrund opened the door to his small house in the Svell village of Liera, far from the frosted shores of the headlands.
Only the outlines of the tallest trees were visible, but he knew the path well enough to walk it in the dark. He slung the satchel over one shoulder and took the bundle of wood under his arm before he set out, winding through the sleeping village. He rubbed at the ache in his cold hands, his boots crunching on the pine needles that covered the worn trail, and looked up to the dark branches, where even the birds had fallen silent.
In only minutes, the sun would rise up over the fjord beyond the trees and wake the world. But Jorrund didn’t want to be there when the Svell chieftain knocked on his door. Not before he’d sought Eydis. Not before he’d asked for her guidance.
It had been only days since news reached Liera of the massacre to the east. The demon Herja had reemerged from the sea to spill the blood of the Aska and the Riki clans and for the first time in generations, it looked as if their gods had buried their feud. Now, the clans on the fjord and the mountain were weakened and the Svell people were hungry for the war they never could have waged in the past.
They looked to their chieftain, awaiting his answer. But Bekan looked to Jorrund, the Tala. Chosen as the mediator between the people and their god, he was interpreter of Eydis’ will. But she had been silent, not a single omen or sign lighting the two dark paths ahead: one to peace and one to war.
The trees came to an abrupt stop, opening to the dew-covered meadow, and Jorrund set down the wood. He took the fire-steel from his robes and opened the satchel, pulling the bowl and herbs from inside.
But movement in the trees ahead made him still, one hand going slowly for the knife tucked into the back of his belt. His fingers curled around the handle slowly, his old eyes trying to focus. A streak of white moved through the dark forest like a floating torch.
But it wasn’t a flame. It was a woman.
She stood between the trunks of two trees, wrapped in a dark robe. The length of her white hair spilled out from the hood, falling down her shoulder like a running river.
She watched with sparkling eyes as Jorrund stood, his faltering breath fogging out before him in the cold air. When her entire face came into the moonlight, he stopped breathing altogether, dropping the bowl at his feet. The look of her was too strange to be mistaken. Like the eyes of a hundred-year-old woman on the face of a child.
It was a Spinner. A Fate Spinner.
“Hello?” he called out, taking a careful step toward her.
But she didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. Her pale eyes only seemed to deepen and a chill ran over his skin, the tingling reaching down the length of his arms to the fingers that were still wound tightly around the handle of the knife.
He’d heard stories of the Spinners. His own mother had told them to him and he had, in turn, told them to the children of Liera. But never had he been visited by one. And if that was who stood in the forest before him now, there were only two things she could be bringing.
Life or death.
She reached up, pulling the hood of her robe down, and stepped into the path with bare feet. Jorrund looked over his shoulder, to where the trail back to the village disappeared in the darkness. Maybe this was the sign he’d been waiting for. He’d called out to Eydis, but perhaps it was a Spinner who’d answered.
He followed her with tentative steps, the length of his robes catching the tall grass that lined the path. She moved through the trees like a creeping fog and the farther they walked, the colder the air grew. The smell of the sea blew through the trees, thick with the scent of a spent storm. The light of morning appeared in the distance, only beginning to illuminate the fjord in a blue haze that reflected off the thin crust of ice hugging the shore.
The Spinner stepped down onto the rocks without a sound, leaving the cover of the trees, and Jorrund stopped, the toes of his boots at the edge of the path. The beach was littered with a tangled maze of driftwood and rockweed, washed up by the violent winds that had blown in during the night. The Spinner walked among them, making her way into the fog that had gathered in the small cove ahead.
A faint cry twisted on the soft breeze, and Jorrund tilted his head, listening. It wasn’t high-pitched enough to be a bird, but there was something unsettling about the broken sound. It rose above the sound of the water, coming in gusts with the wind.
He stepped onto the rocks and walked toward it, the beat of his heart matching his quickening pace. The Spinner disappeared and he pushed into the haze after her, following the fading echo. The fog thinned as he neared it, and the water calmed, lapping up onto the rocks under his feet.
On the beach ahead, the silhouette of a boat emerged.
He turned in a circle, looking for the Spinner, but there was only the cliff and the trees that encircled the cove. The sound rang out again and the chill that had found him on the forest path turned sharp. He eyed the boat, pulling his knife free and lifting it before him as he stepped forward warily.
His boots ground on the rocks and when the head of a wooden serpent appeared before him, he froze. His eyes focused to see the narrow face, an open mouth with an unrolled tongue reaching out toward him.
There was no mistaking it. The god of the Kyrr was the serpent that was carved into the prow, but what was a ceremonial boat like this doing so far from the headlands?
Sacred runes and staves were etched into the blackened hull. He took another step, his hands running over the carving of a flying raven half-erased on the charred wood. The boat had been on fire, probably squelched by the storm. And there was only one use for a boat like this—a funeral.
The wail echoed out again and Jorrund flinched, raising his knife again as he peered over the side of the boat. Inside, a small girl was crouched in a nest of wilted blooms of wildflowers. The black marks of the Kyrr covered her pale skin. Twisting, knotted symbols that made a patchwork of secrets began at her ankles, spreading over her entire body and reaching up her throat.
The breath caught in his chest as the girl looked up to him with large, red-rimmed eyes. Her trembling lips were painted the palest shade of blue, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees as she hugged them to her chest.
His gaze fell to the strange symbol on her chest, where her tunic opened. A large, open eye encircled by the branches of an oak tree. That, too, was something he’d only heard of in stories.
The mark of a Truthtongue. One who could cast the rune stones and see the web of fate.
He lowered the knife, letting out a long, heavy breath. It was no accident. After days of calling out to his god, the Spinner had appeared to him in the forest and led him to the beach. She’d entrusted the child to him. Surely it was Eydis who’d sent her.
He turned, searching the beach for the white-haired woman, but she was gone. There was only the sound of the water. The howl of the wind.
He reached into the boat, taking the girl’s weak body into his arms, and she curled up against him, shivering. But he knew what would happen if he took a Kyrr child to Liera, especially one with the mark of a Truthtongue. The Svell would fear her. The chieftain may even kill her. But if Jorrund wanted to give the Svell leader the answer he needed, it was a chance he would have to take.
He set the girl onto the rocks and gathered the wildflowers into a heap before he hit the fire-steel in three clean strikes. The sparks caught the dried leaves and petals and the white smoke swirled up above his head as it spread.
The wind picked up and the fire found the hull, devouring the wood until the flames rose up taller than he stood, disappearing into the gray sky.
It was a betrayal. An ill omen. But it wasn’t the Svell he’d answer to in the afterlife.
He’d answer to Eydis.
So he stood, his back to the wind, the girl at his feet.
And together, they watched the boat burn.
The stones don’t lie.
The call of the nighthawk rang out in the dark and I opened my eyes, pushing the furs back to sit up and listen. Hot coals still glowed in the fire pit, but the house was cold, the wind turning through the trees and making their trunks creak as they bowed.
The hawk’s shrill song carved through the rumble of the sky to find me again and my bare feet hit the stone floor. I went to the window, watching the dark path that led through the forest to Liera. In the haze, an amber orb of torchlight bobbed through the trees.
I let out a long breath, pressing my forehead to the wood plank wall, the weight of the rune stones pulling around my neck. The last time the Tala had come to my door in the middle of the night, I’d almost lost my life.
I pulled off my night shift and dropped it on the floor, working the twisting locks falling over my shoulder into one thick braid with clumsy fingers. As I tied off the end, my eyes focused on the pointed leaves and belled blooms of nightshade blackened onto the back of my hand. On the other, a bloom of yarrow. I held them out before me in the flash of lightning coming through the window.
One life, one death.
The pounding of a fist rattled the door and I slipped a clean tunic over my head, pulling on my worn leather boots as quickly as I could. I swallowed hard, steadying myself before I opened it.
Jorrund peered at me from beneath the hood of his robes, lifting the torch until I could see his slanted, silvery eyes. They were the only eyes I really knew the color of. The Svell were too afraid of misfortune to meet my gaze, convinced a curse would find them. I often wondered if they were right.
“We need you.” Jorrund’s deep, timeworn voice rose above the heavy pelt of rain on the roof.
I didn’t ask why they needed me. It didn’t matter. I was a Truthtongue, and as long as the Svell gave me a home and let me live, I did their bidding with the three Spinners.
I followed with quick steps, the nighthawk calling out again from somewhere high up in the trees. The sound of it pricked over my skin, the ill omen familiar. He, too, did dark work. The All Seer was the eye of the Fate Spinners. A messenger. And he only called out in warning.
Something had happened.
The rain ran in rivulets down the path and my boots sank into the mud as we made our way out of the mist of the forest. White smoke rose from the ritual house in the center of the village, winding like a snake into the clouds and my hand instinctively went to the stones around my neck as we passed through the gates of Liera.
The first time I’d passed beneath those arches, I was six years old. A trembling, terrified child, every inch of my skin covered in the ritual symbols of the Kyrr. The icy stares of the Svell had pierced before frantically finding the ground. I’d learned quickly that they were afraid of me. As I walked through the village at Jorrund’s side, my arms wrapped around myself, a woman stepped into the path with a clay bowl clutched in her hands. Something hot hit my face and it wasn’t until I reached up that I realized it was blood—a prayer to their god, Eydis, to ward off whatever evil I might bring. I still remembered the way it felt, rolling down my skin and soaking into the neck of my tunic.
Jorrund limped ahead, walking at a pace that was too fast for his old bones. As the Tala, it was his responsibility to interpret Eydis’ will, but summoning me meant that there was a question that he couldn’t answer. Or sometimes, that there was an answer that he didn’t want to be the one to give.
As we neared the towering roof of the ritual house, the two Svell warriors standing at either side straightened, opening the doors against the roaring wind. Jorrund didn’t even stop for dry robes, pushing the torch into one of the men’s hands and making his way toward the altar, where bodies were huddled together in silhouettes against the fire.
I stopped midstride when I saw the gleam of eyes set upon me. They were faces I recognized, but half of them were smeared with dried blood, streaks of mud painted across their armor. The Svell village leaders had been called in and from the looks of it, some of them had seen battle.
“Come, Tova.” Jorrund spoke lowly.
I looked from him to the others, my hand instinctively going to the leather purse beneath my tunic, where the stones were tucked safely against my heart. I knew what they wanted, but I didn’t know why and I didn’t like that feeling.
Their stares lifted from me as Jorrund led me to a corner and took his place at Bekan’s side. The Svell chieftain didn’t acknowledge my presence. He hadn’t since the last time I’d been brought here in the middle of the night to cast the stones for his daughter’s life.
But it was something else that drew the fury on Bekan’s face now. He cast it upon his own leaders, something I’d seen more and more in the last years as the clans to the east unified. The shift in power had put the Svell at odds, and every year that Bekan didn’t declare war only fed the division. The splinter that had wedged itself between the Svell was widening.
“You haven’t left me a choice. Already a day and a half has passed. News will have reached them by now.” His voice raked as he leaned forward to catch the eyes of his brother, Vigdis.
I’d seen the brothers argue many times, but never in front of the other village leaders. Jorrund, too, looked as if the sight unnerved him.
“You’ve always been foolish, brother,” Bekan growled. “But this…”
“Vigdis acted when you wouldn’t.” A woman’s voice rose in the shadows behind the others and the chill of the storm seemed to suddenly rush back into the room, despite the blazing fire.
Bekan’s black eyes glinted. “We act together. Always.”
I watched the others, studying the way their hands sat ready at their weapons, their muscles wound tight. All twelve of the Svell villages were represented, and more than half of the faces bore the evidence of a fight. Whatever mess they’d made, they’d done it without Bekan’s consent. And that could only mean one thing—that the blood on their armor belonged to the Nadhir.
“Tell me exactly what happened.” Bekan rubbed a hand over his face and I wondered if I was the only one who could see that he was a man coming apart at the seams. It had only been two full moons since his only child, Vera, died of fever. Every day that passed since then seemed to only cast a darker shadow upon him.
Vigdis lifted his chin as he answered. “Thirty warriors, including myself and Siv. We took Ljós in the night.”
The leader of Stórmenska stood beside him, her thumbs hooked into her armor vest. “At least forty dead, all of them Nadhir, from what we could tell.” She spoke carefully, measuring her words. Five years ago, they would have been her last. But now, the village leaders were united in what they thought should be done about the growing threat to the east and the ground the Svell chieftain stood on was crumbling.
“They are most likely calling in their warriors this very moment.” Jorrund took a step closer to Bekan, his clasped hands before him.
“Let them.” Vigdis eyed his brother. “We will do what we should have done long ago.”
“Your fealty is to me, Vigdis.”
“My fealty is to the Svell,” he corrected. “It’s been more than ten years since the Aska and the Riki ended their blood feud and joined together as the Nadhir. For the first time in generations, we are the most powerful clan on the mainland. If we want to keep our place, we have to fight for it.”
The silence that followed only confirmed that even the most loyal among them agreed, and Bekan seemed to realize it, his eyes moving over them slowly before he answered. “War has a cost,” he warned.
“Perhaps it’s one we can pay.” Jorrund leaned in closer to him, and I knew he was thinking the same thing I was. The scales had finally tipped out of Bekan’s favor. He either agreed to advance on Nadhir territory or he risked a permanent division among his own people.
The others grunted in agreement and Bekan’s gaze finally found me in the dim light. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”
Jorrund gave me a tight nod, taking a basket from where it hung on the wall behind him. I stepped into the light, feeling the eyes of the Svell leaders crawl over the marks on my skin. They moved aside, careful not to touch me, and I took the pelt from the basket as Jorrund murmured a reverberating prayer beneath his breath.
“You tempt the wrath of Eydis, keeping that thing here,” Vigdis murmured.
The chieftain’s brother had been the only one to say aloud what I knew the rest of them were thinking. That Bekan’s daughter, Vera, had died because of me. When Jorrund brought me to Liera, many said that Bekan would pay a price for the grave sin of letting me live. The morning Vera woke with fever, there were whispers that his punishment had finally come. The Spinners had carved her fate into the Tree of Urðr, but I was the one to cast the stones.
Jorrund ignored Vigdis, setting a bundle of dried mugwort into the flames. The pungent smoke filled the room with a haze, making me feel like for a moment, I could disappear. It wasn’t the first time a Svell had referred to me as a curse, and it wouldn’t be the last. It was no secret where I’d come from or what I was.
I hooked my fingers into the leather string around my neck and lifted the purse from inside my tunic. I hadn’t cast the stones since the night Vera died, and the memory slicked my palms with sweat, my stomach turning. I opened it carefully, letting them fall heavily into my open hand. The firelight glimmered against their smooth, black surfaces where the runes were carved in deep lines. The language of the Spinners. Pieces of the future, waiting to be read.
Jorrund unrolled the pelt and my palms pressed together around the stones.
“Lag mund,” Vigdis whispered.
“Lag mund,” the others repeated.
But what did these warriors know about fate? It was the curling, wild vine that choked out the summer crops. It was the wind that bent wayward currents and damned innocent souls to the deep. They hadn’t seen the stretch of it or the way it could shift suddenly, like a flock of startled birds. Fate’s hand was something they said because they didn’t understand it.
That’s what I was for.
I closed my eyes, pushing the presence of the Svell from around me. I found the darkness—the place I was alone. The place I had come from. The call of the nighthawk sounded again and I pulled my thoughts together, sending them into one straight line. My lips parted, the words finding my mouth and I breathed through them.
“Augua ór tivar. Ljá mir sýn.
“Augua ór tivar. Ljá mir sýn.
“Augua ór tivar. Ljá mir sýn.”
Eye of the gods. Give me sight.
I held my hands out before me, unfurling my fingers and letting the stones drop until they were scattered across the pelt in a pattern that only I could see, reaching out wide to either side. The silence grew thick, the crackle of fire the only sound as I leaned forward, bringing my fingers to my lips.
My brow furrowed, my eyes moving from one stone to the next. Every single one was facedown, the runes hidden. Except for one.
I bit down hard on my lip, looking up to see Jorrund’s eyes locked on mine.
Hagalaz, the hailstone, sat in the very center. Complete destruction. The storm that devours.
For more than ten years, I’d cast the runes to see the future of the Svell. Never had they looked like this.
But the stones never lied. Not to me.
My eyes drifted over them again, the pace of my heart quickening.
“What do you see?” Jorrund’s voice was heavy when he finally spoke.
I stared at him, the weight of silence pushing down on me in the hot room until it was hard to draw breath.
“It’s alright, Tova,” he said, gently. “What lies in the future of the Svell?”
My eyes cut to Bekan, who stared into the fire, his gaze as hollow as the night his daughter died.
I reached out, the tip of my finger landing on Hagalaz before I answered.
“In the future, there are no Svell.”
“How many?” Espen barked, the pounding of his boots hitting the rocky path ahead of me like a racing heartbeat.
Aghi struggled to keep up, leaning into his staff and rocking from side to side as we made our way up the narrow trail that led away from the beach. “More than forty.”
Espen stopped short, turning on his heel to face us. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” Aghi’s eyes met mine over Espen’s shoulder.
I’d known by the look on his face when I saw Aghi standing on the dock that something was wrong. But this … the entire village of Ljós was gone. Aghi and I had been there only a week ago, meeting with the village leader. Now, it was most likely nothing more than a pile of ash.
Espen drew in a deep breath, his hand tangling in his beard as he thought. “Are they waiting in the ritual house?”
“Yes,” Aghi answered.
I looked up, feeling eyes on us. The people of Hylli were tending to their morning chores, but their hands stilled on their work as we passed. They could feel that something was happening even if they couldn’t see it.
“It was the Svell?” I kept my voice low as a man shouldered around us, a line of silver fish slung over his back.
Espen’s jaw clenched. “Who else would it be?”
A fire was lit in his eyes that I hadn’t seen since the day I’d first met him, after the battle against the Herja that nearly wiped out the entirety of both our clans. It was something I recognized, the same fire that had lit the eyes of so many warriors I’d known as a boy up on the mountain. The hunger to spill blood was something that ran through the veins of both the Aska and the Riki, but we were the Nadhir now. And it had been ten years since that part of us had been awakened.
“What will you do?”
He didn’t answer aloud, but I could see in his face the weary look of a man who’d seen far more death than me.
We’d spoken many times about the tensions growing along the border with the Svell. The call to act had grown more insistent in the last few months, but we needed another ten years before we’d have a strong enough army to defend our lands and our people with better odds. We’d lost too many when the Herja came, and now many of the warriors who’d survived were too old to fight.
As if he could hear my thoughts, Aghi’s gaze drifted back to me. His leg had never recovered from the wound he suffered in the battle that defeated the Herja.
Espen led us up the path, an eerie quiet dragging behind us and covering the village in our wake. Spring had melted most of the ice on the fjord, but the crisp tinge of it still cut through on the wind that blew in from the sea. Beyond the rooftops, the mountain rose before a clear gray sky. My family had spent the winter in the snow-laden village where I was born and they wouldn’t be back for weeks. But if war was coming, it would draw every Nadhir to the fjord in a matter of days.
Freydis, Latham, and Mýra were already waiting when we came through the doors, their armor oiled and their weapons cleaned. Mýra’s red hair glowed around her fair face like fire, twisting down into a tight braid over her shoulder. She was wound as tight as rope, ready to snap. Beside her, Espen’s wife stood before the altar, his axe sheaths in her hands.
He turned, taking them onto his back, and she buckled them as he spoke. “Tell me.”
“More than forty dead.” Freydis answered first. “They moved on Ljós in the night, about twenty or thirty warriors. A few survivors made it to Utan by morning and riders were sent, but the Svell were already gone.”
“How do we know it wasn’t raiders?”
“They’re dead, Espen.” Freydis’ voice faltered under the words. “All of them.”
I watched their faces, the silence falling heavy between us. If it was a band of raiders, the deaths would have been minimal. Whoever marched on Ljós had come for blood, not wool or grain or penningr.
Espen’s jaw worked as he thought. Once, the Nadhir had been two clans, both bigger and stronger than the Svell, who had been nothing more than a distant people in the eastern forests. They’d survived by avoiding notice. It was after the Herja came and our clans united that the Svell gained their strength and advantage. Now, they were finally ready to use it.
“They’ve sent a messenger,” Freydis said. “The Svell.”
“Their leader, Bekan, wants to meet. In Ljós. He wants to make an offering of reparation.”
Espen and Aghi looked to each other silently. Whispers of war had traveled across the valley for years. It didn’t make sense that their leader would make an offering of reparation after their first attack on a village. Unless attacking Ljós wasn’t Bekan’s act of war.
“It wasn’t Bekan,” I murmured, thinking aloud.
“What?” Freydis’ brow wrinkled.
I turned to Espen. “Bekan’s men moved without him.”
Mýra’s head cocked to the side. “How do you know?”
“I don’t. But we’ve known for a long time that their leaders are divided. It’s the only reason they haven’t moved against us before now. I think Bekan’s men acted without him and he wants to put out the flames before he has to call the Svell to war.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s too late for that.” Latham spoke through his teeth.
The oldest leader among us, Latham had never shed his taste for a fight. And he’d never forgotten just how quickly you could lose everything. He’d been the first to urge a strike against the Svell when the first rumors made it to the fjord.
Freydis’ hand tightened around the hilt of her sword. “I can have every Nadhir warrior ready to fight in three days. We can take them village by village. The losses will be—”
“Too great,” I finished.
Mýra’s eyes cut to mine, her mouth pressing into a hard line. I stood a whole head taller than her now, but she was still as ferocious as the day I first saw her marching into our village with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. “It’s a trap. They’re counting on the fact that we don’t want war. They’re trying to draw us in before they push to the fjord.”
“I’ll go,” I said, avoiding her gaze.
She stilled, her hand absently drifting to the axe at her back and her voice rising. “What?”
“I’ll meet with Bekan. They’d have taken at least two more villages by now if he was moving through the valley. He doesn’t want war any more than we do. I think he does want reparation.”
“You’re not giving orders yet, Halvard.” Latham spoke from where he stood beside me. His face was still engraved with the jagged scar from the battle that had crippled his entire village. He’d spent the last ten years rebuilding it. “Forty of our people are dead. Blood must answer for blood.”
The leaders had been in agreement when they summoned me to the ritual house two years ago and told me I’d been chosen to take Espen’s place as chieftain of the Nadhir—the once warring, now allied people of the mountain and the fjord. Since then, my days had been spent preparing for it. But I’d never seen war the way my elders had. I was among the first generation that didn’t live to fight in a blood feud. And now, a wound that would never heal had been torn back open. I’d grown up the son of a healer, but no one could mend a break like that. And no one doubted me more than Latham.
“He’s here to speak like the rest of us,” Espen rebuked, reminding Latham of his place. He was the last person to hesitate drawing his sword, but he knew I was right. War with the Svell meant the same kind of losses we’d suffered ten years ago. Maybe more.
“Let me go,” I said again. “It will take at least three days to gather and ready our warriors. I can make it to Ljós and back in that time.”
Mýra glared at me from across the fire, her green eyes sharpening. “If he’s going, I’m going.”
“You’re staying here,” Aghi grunted. He was the only father either of us had, but Mýra wasn’t one to take orders. “I’ll go with Halvard.”
She opened her mouth to object, but Espen spoke before she could. “So will I.”
Freydis looked to Latham, stiffening. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Her voice turned wary.
“We’ll take twenty warriors. Latham and Freydis, you will call in the villages. Ready our people for war. Mýra will do the same here in Hylli.”
But Freydis didn’t look sure and neither did Latham.
“We leave at sundown.” Espen squeezed my shoulder.
I nodded, stepping back as he made his way to the doors. His wife followed and as soon as they were gone, Latham turned toward me. He’d never hidden his uncertainty about my ability to take Espen’s place, but he’d agreed anyway. He looked at me the way a disapproving uncle would his stubborn nephew, and I knew he didn’t really believe I could do it. If I was being honest, neither did I.
He met my eyes for a wordless breath before I followed Aghi outside. The doors hadn’t even closed behind us when Mýra was suddenly turning on me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She squared her shoulders to mine, looking up into my face. “I’m going with you.”
“You’re staying,” Aghi said again, this time letting the edge slip into his voice.
“When they find out…” Her eyes went to the mountain behind me and I knew she was thinking of my family. They were her family, too. “Wait two days. I’ll leave for Fela now. We’ll ride through the night and—”
“We’ll be back before they even know we’re gone,” I said, but I knew she was right. Eelyn and my brothers would be furious when they found out I’d gone to meet with Bekan.
“I don’t like this.” Her voice softened, her eyes searching mine. She was eleven years older than me, but in that moment she looked so young. “You shouldn’t go, Halvard.”
“We’ll be back in three days. Four at the most.”
She nodded reluctantly and I knew that look. She was worried. Scared. I pulled her into me, wrapping my arms around her small frame and setting my chin on top of her head.
“I’m not losing any more family,” she said. “Do you hear me?”
“If we go to war with the Svell, you will.”
She pulled away from me, her voice hardening. “If you’re not back in four days, we’re not waiting.”
“If I don’t see you on that horizon before the sun sets…”
“Alright,” I said again.
“Sigr guide and protect you.” She drew in a deep breath, looking from me to Aghi before she shook her head, cursing under her breath as she moved around us to go back inside.
Aghi waited for the doors to close before he finally turned to me. I knew what he was thinking before he said the words. “Are you sure about this, son?” His deep voice carried on the wind pushing up from the sea.
I looked at him, searching the eyes I’d come to know so well, now framed by deep lines. He’d taken us in when we came to live on the fjord and when my brother married his daughter, he’d made us his own. He’d opened his home to us when the feud between our people was still smoking like the embers of a fire, threatening to reignite. I couldn’t lie to him. Even if I wanted to, he’d see right through it.
So I answered with the truth we both already knew. “No.”
Copyright © 2019 by Adrienne Young.
Bonus scene copyright © 2020 by Adrienne Young