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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.
Copyright © 2019 by Adrienne Young