The Darkest Pieces of Us
Every bone was buried by sunrise.
Cold fog sliced through the towering aspens like a misty gloam of poison blotting out the light of dawn. Rather fitting weather for a day such as this. It was difficult to see much of anything beyond the village gates, but I could taste the storm brewing—brine and smoke tangled with a bit of fearful sweat.
With the back of my hand, I wiped away a damp drop from my brow and left bits of soil across my forehead. Even without the mists, no one would see a single totem or altar inside our gates.
A piece of me hated the need to hide the truth that bone alchemy even existed here, another piece was impressed we’d managed to pull it off in a mere night.
“Lyra. Go wash, and get that face of yours out of sight, my girl.” My Aunt Selena strode past me. Rivulets of sweat and dirt on her face created a stark contrast to her pale curls surrounding her flushed cheeks.
Fear was buried in her chestnut eyes, like Selena knew things about visits from the Mors Guard, the royal army, that she didn’t want to give up.
I didn’t ask what. I never found the courage. She’d endured enough. First, losing my grandfather to the Mors Guard before I was born. Rumor was her father had the gift of bone alchemy and was snatched up to fight for the kingdom of Estra.
We never knew what became of him.
Next, the loss of my parents to a blistering pox five winters ago. Sel was all I had left, she’d taken me in despite the burden I would bring, and I didn’t want to add more weight to her shoulders.
“I’ll be along soon,” I said, wiping my palms down a pair of old canvas trousers, two sizes too big.
Selena ducked her chin and peeled off between a few moss-coated cottages, aiming for our home near the edge of the wood. I turned into the bustle of the main square.
Wood shops and trade stalls lined the dirt road. Most walls and laths were coated in coppery moss and lichens, stone rune posts of the gods marked different corners, and a thick brine always coated the breeze from the fjord.
A few people gathered near one of the pillars muttering prayers to the silent gods for protection. It was believed the gods were the ones who gifted bone alchemists their magic, after all. The least they could do was get off their immortal asses, and offer a bit of respite for their gifted ones.
“Normal day. That’s all it is.” An old man with a bone shard pierced through the center of his nose puffed a wooden pipe on the stoop of his shop. He had his bare, knobby feet propped onto a splintered, wooden cask, and grinned. “Nothing but a normal day, kulta.”
I scoffed and tilted my head at the fishmonger’s endearment. “Thorian, there’s nothing normal about you calling me anything other than a pain in your ass.”
Old Thorian barked a laugh and puffed on his pipe, waving me off.
I ought to be grateful for his effort. Most of my life Thorian was either complaining the young folk in the village came too close to his nets, or complaining young folk took all his prospects at a wife. If he was speaking sweetly with gentle words and old-language endearments, it meant Old Thorian had a bit of trepidation about today much like the rest of us.
Mors Guard were nearing our borders, and when they approached it meant one thing—they were coming to collect.
A centuries-old treaty between magic and those that saved it, gave them the right to do so, and they always did. Each winter, the descendants of bone alchemists from an ancient war were tasked with offering our resources to the kingdom of Estra as part of the treaty.
Most bone magic was watered down, lost through the generations, but we were trained from our earliest days to craft beautiful blades and bone-strong armor for the Mors.
Hilts made of wolf teeth or bear ribs fitted to each bearer, as though the blade were customized to the warrior with a single touch. Armor crafted by descendants shielded against the poisoned enemy arrows from over the northern ravines.
The magical ancestry seemed to give descendants unmatched skill in the craft of a smith, but pure magic was no longer plentiful.
There were dark spell casters and wretches that played with the magic of souls beyond our borders, but few true bone alchemists. When there were, the collections of the Mors Guard turned to recruitments. The Mors wanted men, women, those cunning enough to stand in the ranks. They wanted the few bone alchemists the gods gave us.
Truth be told, they were rather convincing with their grand promises of sacks of gold and silver quilli and prestige; it never failed to draw out the curious, the glory hounds, or those too poor there wasn’t a choice.
When bone alchemists joined the Mors, they never returned the same.
Some changes were subtle—darker eyes, harsher words. Other differences were undeniable. Bodies shaped like they’d fought dozens of battles, bulky as stone, and thick as ancient trees. Some grew obsessed with digging into the darker parts of their alchemy, convinced it would make them stronger, fiercer. Others dove headfirst into mead ale, drinking away their memories, and never resurfaced again.
This year, the Mors were arriving early. Recruitment and collections didn’t occur until the frosts. Summer still clung to the air like a stalwart soldier against the bite of autumn.
The arrival must’ve had something to do with the king’s bone melder. Poor bastard met his untimely death mere weeks ago. Doubtless, King Damir was looking for a replacement.
Perhaps some folk were willing to join the Mors and use their abilities to strengthen the crown, but no one wanted the task of bone melder. No one wanted their alchemy pushed to the brink until their mind snapped or the rare melding magic emerged in their blood.
The apprehension of such a thing meant from the final bell of midnight to the first glimmer of ashy sunlight, we’d coated the bones in damp soil, rucksacks of grains, or a few false burial markers not even the Mors would dare overturn.
My fingernails were blackened, my shoulders ached, but our village held no more traces of bone altars to mark Skarsdell as a place of magic. There were no offerings or totems hanging off crooked stoops to ward against the haunts of frightening dreams. Only a simple rune at the gates marked Skarsdell as a descendant village, a place where Mors and royal travelers would find refuge or weapons. Apart from the simple rune, it would resemble every other nearby township.
It wasn’t true, of course. Five bone alchemists lived in Skarsdell.
I strode to a trough with a spout on one side where others gathered to wash their hands and puffed a sweaty piece of hair out of my face. Soil caked my burnt mahogany strands and blotted out the glimmer of red in the plaits of my braids.
When I took my place in the line to rinse, I folded my arms over my middle, glaring at the sunrise.
“In a piss poor mood, Lyra?” The man in front of me turned around and swiped his woolen hood off his pale, untamed curls. To be aggravating, he dragged his muddy thumb down my cheek, tracing the constellations of freckles on my skin. “Can’t imagine why, but take care, or your face might get stuck like that.”
I jabbed his ribs with my elbow. “Kael, your face is a travesty that I must bear witness to this morning.”
He snorted and hooked an arm around my neck. “How can you say that when you’ve missed me so fiercely these last months.”
“I hardly noticed your absence.” I struggled against him, but Kael only tightened his hold around my neck. With a grunt, I tried to pinch his side. “So much . . . more peaceful without your constant . . . chatter.”
Kael balked and adjusted so my face was pointed into the horridly damp pit of his underarm. “Lies. I am the delight of your life, and one of these days you will see it and fall madly in love with me. Breathe it in, Ly. Your future lover. Is it not intoxicating?”
“Gods, you damn fool.” I slammed my dirty fists against his back, ignoring the muffled chuckles of folk around us. “Kael Darkwin, release me. You are behaving like a child.”
It was a good thing Kael had my face rammed into his pit, or he’d catch the subtle flick of my cheek, he’d note the small, creeping smile over my lips. This was what Kael did—made the dreary brighter.
A friend since infancy, we now had twenty summers of knowing each other. Sometimes I knew Kael’s heart more than I knew mine. He was not doing this to taunt me, more to distract those around us. Our people, our neighbors, doubtless, they feared our lies and our secrets would soon be unearthed.
To be found out as a haven for bone alchemists would bring the king’s wrath on us all.
When it was our turn at the spout, Kael released me. He winked and flicked my braid off my shoulder before rinsing his long fingers under the water.
“Afraid, Ly?” he whispered, tilting his face close, so our words stayed between us.
I swallowed and scrubbed a bit harder with a pearl of yarrow soap. “Yes. You?”
Kael flicked his hands. A muscle flinched in his jaw when the striking silver of his eyes locked with my gaze. “Every moment of every day.”
“Why do you think they’re arriving early? Think it has something to do with Bone Melder Fadey?”
A muscle pulsed in Kael’s jaw. “Who’s to say? Whatever it is that brings them, I don’t think it is good.”
“I would drag you back to me,” I whispered. “If I could not, I would plunge the blade in your heart before they could destroy you.”
Kael offered me a somber grin. He took my hand and squeezed my fingers. “As would I. See you tonight? Before all this madness, remember we promised old Thorian we’d cast his nets.”
Unbidden, a bite of tears burned behind my eyes. I forced a smile, nodding. “I’ll be there.”
Another silent hope masked beneath normality. A hope we could go about every simple plan that kept our lives utterly uneventful. By nightfall, we would still be here, living simply, peacefully.
I could not accept anything else. Not now, at least.
Kael turned down the dusty trail toward his family’s longhouse. A lively place with his three sisters ten turns our junior, a shipbuilder father always chopping and cutting the latest design, and a mother who sang folksongs from sunup to sundown.
In his absence, bitterness returned.
The Mors Guard, no, the crown, never took the time to look beyond the alchemy in the veins of people. They never accounted for gentle, loving homes like Kael’s. All they saw was power and the potential to unearth a rare, gods-gifted bone melder.
All they did when they hunted bone alchemists was tear peaceful folk from their homes, and toss them into a world where their darkest parts would bleed to the surface out of sheer survival.
The king and his guard made them monsters.
Skarsdell hadn’t lost anyone to the collections in decades. We’d labeled ourselves as mere descendants well. Most alchemists were plucked from distant villages nearer to Stonegate, the royal fortress.
By the time the Mors reached the far, pebbled shores of Skarsdell, perhaps they were too travel weary to truly look much at the telltale signs that magic lived within these borders.
On instinct, my palm rubbed the back of my neck, as though the ridged scar that rose with the magic in my blood might burn its way to the surface any moment.
The first time I recalled a difference in me than other children was at six. Thorian had a fishing accident and after weeks still couldn’t get out of bed from the pain. Mam and Aunt Selena took me to his shop to deliver Mam’s fresh saffron rolls.
Thorian had been drenched in sweat, his silver beard matted, and his breaths came in short puffs. I’d done nothing more than pat his shoulder when it came time to bid farewell and the hum filled my ears. An echo, like a song on the wind, and from the sound it was as though the bones beneath his thin skin glowed.
His sickly form burst in brilliant gold, a candleflame in the marrow. Mam and Sel kept chatting on and on as though nothing had changed. I’d studied the phenomenon, wondering if Thorian was slipping away to the gods, until I took note of the one spot on his side. There, a shadow of rotted blue and green bloomed like gangrenous fingers reaching for the curve of his ribs.
A jab of pain stuck into me, robbing my breath out of my small lungs. Somehow, even so young, I knew the pain wasn’t mine. It was as though I’d absorbed a bit of Thorian’s suffering.
All I’d said was, “That broken bone is gonna pop your air sack.”
In my childish mind I’d ignored the look of fright passing between Mam and Selena, I’d ignored the way they’d hurried me out of Thorian’s hut as the healer rushed in. A shard of his rib had jabbed into his lungs, and it took two bone manipulators to twist it back into place, then imported elixirs to seal the puncture.
It was another six years before it happened again. This time with Kael. We’d been running with his old, wolfish dog along the rocky shores of the fjord when both Kael and the pup spilled over an unseen ledge.
Kael’s cries still haunted me. At first I’d thought it was from the bone jutting out of his shin, until I caught sight of his loyal pup whose back was twisted in a wretched angle.
The poor beast had whined and whimpered, and Kael sobbed over his soft fur.
He’d stroked his fingers over his dog’s velvet snout, making promises they’d run together again someday, then inky black spilled from Kael’s fingertips. Decay, the talent of a bone rotter. Kael could hasten the deterioration of bones in the living. By then he’d been a known bone rotter for two summers.
Some might think it a dreary gift, but I’d knelt beside him that day, tears on my cheeks, and watched as he ignored his own injury and took the agony from his old hound, watched as the creature slipped peacefully into the Otherworld without pain.
Again, one touch to my friend’s shoulder and the haunting hum ignited his marrow in color beneath his flesh. The same, pulpy poison blotted around Kael’s broken leg, as it had done with Thorian’s bent rib. The same fiery jab of discomfort burned up my leg like I was drawing out the anguish from another and taking it for myself.
I couldn’t heal like Kael could bring death, but it was clear some type of bone alchemy lived in my veins as much as it lived in his.
I’d spent the years since trying to hone a specific talent. I could not cause decay; I wasn’t a rotter. I could not commune with the spirits of the dead through the bones; I was not a speaker. I did not shift bone back into place; I was not a manipulator.
“Could she be a melder?” Mam had once whispered to Vella, our village elder, when she thought I was sleeping.
Vella was a bone speaker. Upon my twelfth summer, she spent two weeks appealing to the altars and totems of ancestral bones over my talent.
She came back with nothing but silence.
“It is a good sign,” she’d told me, cupping my freckled cheeks in her wizened hands. “They do not fear for you, so I do not believe your blood burns with melding. It burns with something beautiful, little one.”
After that, I’d tried to find the beauty in seeing bones, in aiding the healers and manipulators by finding fractures and ailments within the skeletons of my folk. Vella called me a bone seer, but in truth, we still didn’t know for certain.
The talent of a bone melder seemed innocent enough, the ability to suture bone from one body to another, but it was a slow death sentence. Hunted and claimed by the crown, then corrupted and used until the body broke, and the melder was devoured by their own alchemy.
I didn’t know how the melders were corrupted, only that they were bonded to the sitting king from the moment they were found until they died.
With the death of the king’s bone melder, it would explain a surprise arrival of the Mors. No mistake, King Damir felt rather entitled to the most elusive bits of alchemy. He’d hunt it, find it, claim it, no matter how barbaric the process was for revealing bone melding.
Sagas told grand tales of how King Damir’s ancestors rescued bone alchemy from extinction within enemy clans centuries ago.
With gratitude (most histories recited a great deal of kneeling and pleading and kissing of feet), the ancient alchemists signed a treaty of devotion, consecrating loyalty and service to Damir’s line until the final king entered the great hall of the gods.
It was all rather subjective with numerous interpretations. No matter, whichever history was recited, I thought it foolish of our ancestors to swear such unyielding fealty. Those ancestors were dead. Now, we paid the price.
What was it about weaving live bone to live bone that had the king salivating over our folk? The clap of hands drew me away from my melancholy musings.
“Back to homes.”
Vella stood in the center of the square. Her icy pale braids were thick and heavy, stacked on her head like a nest. The elder had a few lines of age carved in her face, but not as many as some might think to be called elder. The cracked white paint decorating her slender features added more mystery and age than anything. Black runes descended from the peak of her hairline to the undercurve of her chin and each nostril was pierced in a gold hoop.
She clapped again, jade bracelets on her wrists clinked, and she offered a reassuring smile to the people as they scurried back to their cottages and moss-coated wood and wattle homes.
Most people in Skarsdell were simple farmer or fishermen. Mothers and fathers who worked from sunup to sundown to ensure their littles went to sleep with full bellies.
There were drunks and rakes, councilmen and merchants, but we belonged to each other.
A knot of emotion thickened in my throat while I watched the slow progress of families return home to pretend they’d only begun to rouse. All night these people had worked to make sure a few of us were protected.
Because we were theirs. Because Kael helped ease their loved ones to the Otherworld in peace. Because Vella gave mourners comfort when ancestors brought messages from the hall of the gods. Because Ebert and Estelle, a brother and sister, knew how to set their broken limbs right again.
“Lyra! Hurry in.” Aunt Selena waved from the stone stoop on our small home. Smoke rose from the hole in the thatched roof. She’d washed the soil off her full cheeks and hands, and had her curls braided over her shoulder as though she’d only slipped out of bed.
I quickened my step until I reached the stoop.
“Change quickly.” Selena already had a soft woolen tunic at the ready in her hand. In her other palm she produced a silver dagger. “In case it’s needed.”
“Listen to me,” she said. “This is not a normal collection, and you know it. With the melder gone, their intentions have changed. I don’t know what to expect.” She curled my fingers around the hilt of the blade. “In case. It. Is. Needed.”
I wasn’t looking at the kind, warm eyes of the aunt I’d always known. The autumn brown of her irises flashed in something dark, something violent. Here, before me, was a woman who’d lost most of her family to disease or war. She would not lose another.
I swallowed and tucked the dagger into my boot, then wrapped my arms around her neck, holding her close. “Tonight, we’ll be eating bland potato stew and complaining about Thorian’s wandering hands as always.”
Selena’s forehead furrowed when she held me tighter. Half a head shorter than me, I still felt a great deal like a small girl seeking the warmth of her arms, the mystical tales she’d read by candlelight, and the fierce protectiveness that crossed her face whenever one of the village boys tugged on my braids.
A ram’s horn blew from the gates. Selena and I snapped apart. My pulse thudded in my throat when my gaze schooled on the hills.
We didn’t move, simply stared, frozen in fright, as dark tunics stitched in glossy red threads aligned on the ridge. Rows of horses armored in barbed bridles were mounted by riders donning black masks over their noses and chins.
In the center of the first line a hooded man leaned over the withers of a black horse, peering down at the village.
“Oh, gods.” Selena gripped my wrist, her fingernails dug into my skin. “It’s Roark Ashwood.”
My stomach lurched. Ashwood and his blades were infamous. Known as the High Sentry, Roark rose in power in Estra from boyhood for his unique talent with the sword.
Adopted as a child from enemy lands, some believed he was less the silent guard for the king’s only son and more assassin for the crown. I’d never seen him, not personally, only heard the whispers of how brutally he would kill to protect his royals.
“If he’s here . . .”
Selena licked her lips. “The king plans to spill blood.”
“Go, go.” My aunt shoved me inside the cottage. “Get dressed, get ready. I’ll speak for our house, understood?”
I nodded briskly and stumbled against a wooden stool where I often sat peeling the skins off roots. Why was Ashwood sent to collect? He rarely left the side of Prince Thane. Were other townships and regions fighting against the king? How much blood had already spilled?
Thoughts pummeled through my skull in quick succession. Our cottage was humble, but large enough to have two bedchambers, a washroom, and a loft for weary travelers or shippers who’d pay a few copper florin for room and board for a night or two.
Quaint as it was, I still managed to strike nearly every corner in my fumbling journey to my bedchamber.
Inside, I ripped off my dirty tunic and shoved it between my straw mattress and wooden bedframe. Next, my trousers and boots. I tossed them behind an old wooden box in my wardrobe filled with trinkets of my mother and father before the pox stole them into the gods’ hall four winters back.
My heart battered my ribs with each motion. I yanked the clean work tunic over my head and scrounged my belongings for a plain, linen skirt.
Simple. Dull. Invisible
With trembling fingers, I stroked my braid free and knotted my hair behind my neck, then patted my cheeks until they were pink, as though I recently lifted my head off a warm pillow.
Another horn blared through my open window.
“Shit.” My fingers curled around simple leather shoes from beneath my bed. I hopped on one leg, trying to shove my toes inside when the cranks at the gates groaned, opening to the Mors Guard.
Like a pestilence Ashwood and the Mors entered Skarsdell inner market, spilling their blight across our dirt roads and blotting out any peace that lived here moments ago.
My blood turned to ice. Near the back of the unit was a black coach. The wheels were cast in bronze and painted on the doors were ancient rune symbols for the different talents of bone alchemy.
“Dammit.” Through the curtained windows of the coach were profiles, and curved, defeated shoulders. They’d discovered alchemists in other villages.
The last I could recall the Mors Guard actually unearthing alchemists, apart from those who willingly offered their talents for prestige and power within the guard, had been over twelve summers ago.
Another horn. Doors on homes opened and people staggered into the streets, some rubbing false sleep from their eyes. Others wore bemused expressions of curiosity at the arrival of the Mors.
I peeled away from the window and finished dressing.
This collection would be no different than others. We were skilled at concealing our bones, our blood, our alchemy.
I would not bid farewell to anyone today.
I kept repeating the words like the flow of a sea current. One drifted in, then I’d replace it with the other. Once dressed, I wrapped the blade of my aunt’s dagger in a linen cloth and used one of my belts to secure the hilt to the side of my calf. Unskilled with throwing knives or fighting, but I’d gone on hunts aplenty and knew how to aim for a heart well enough.
Outside, sunlight spliced through the mists of early morning, dew drops misted away from glass windows, and the damp, briny air of a fading summer dug into my lungs with each breath. As though Skarsdell wanted me to always remember its taste, its scent.
As if it knew this day would change everything.
No. There would be no farewells.
I forced a yawn, scratched my chin, and went to stand beside Aunt Selena. Already, she’d found her props—a wooden bowl half-filled with frost berries from the shrubs growing wild alongside our home, and a small spade tucked into the front of her apron.
One look, a warning to keep quiet and play along, and Selena cocked her head, gesturing me to follow.
I scooped up a handful of berries from the bowl and rolled them around in my palm until some of the iridescent juice dribbled through my fingers. Once or twice I popped a berry onto my tongue, more to keep my hands busy since bile burned the back of my throat.
We stepped onto the main road in the same instant Ashwood and the Mors captain reared back on their horses.
“A great many have come,” Selena muttered to a young mother, clutching her two littles against her legs. Her voice carried. Not loud enough to be noticeable as forced, but enough that more than one Mors would hear.
The mother popped a shoulder. “Likely due to the death of poor Melder Fadey. Such a surprise. I thought he still had years left.”
In unison my aunt and the mother kissed their fingertips and pointed their first two fingers toward the sun, a silent prayer to the gods of the Otherworld to look after our departed bone melder.
There was nothing sorrowful about Fadey’s death. More than one trader dining at our table insisted Fadey was nothing but a weak skeletal shape with sagging skin. Devoid of power, broken and drained by the crown he’d been forced to serve.
I knew why Selena and the woman said what they said. I knew why they sent up the prayer. Keep the ruse up and our heads down.
Near a cart of kindling across the road, Kael stood with his father. Henrik was a burly man, but gentle in hand and voice. He kept a lax expression; the only hint Henrik was uneasy was the way he kept a protective hand on Kael’s shoulder.
Kael’s mother and sisters stood a few paces behind the men. Duty and respect for the title of the king and his guard required those who were able to drop their tasks and greet the Mors. No mistake, Kael’s younger sisters would draw blood on their small palms by the way they were clenching their fists. Worry was fierce for their brother. The youngest, Asha, kept her chin lifted, eyes on the sky, as though one glance at her brother might have her bursting into tears the same as last year.
Her tender, childish fears nearly gave us all up.
If it hadn’t been for the recent death of Kael’s grandmam, the mourning runes painted on their mother’s throat and cheeks, and Henrik’s quick words, the Mors might’ve cracked through our glass shields and discovered the truth months ago.
Kael’s storm cloud eyes found me. He gave me a quick wink, then leaned lazily against the cart.
Vella stepped into the center of the road, hands clasped, and waited as Ashwood and the captain kicked their legs off their horses and landed in the mud, leathers rubbing and metal buckles clicking.
“We bid welcome to the great Mors Guard,” Vella said with an airy voice. “Skarsdell is a simple village, but offers up its food and drink and—”
“We’ve no plans to stay longer than needed, woman,” the captain interrupted. He tugged down the black, cloth mask over his lower face. Pale scars littered his stubbled chin, and one front tooth was chipped. “Know me as Captain Baldur. We come on behalf of your king and the broken treaty of alchemy.”
Vella’s smile faded. “Broken? There has been no broken treaty.”
Something was wrong. My pulse raced. Even the sea wind seemed to die.
Baldur grinned, ignored Vella, and lifted his voice for the rest of us to hear. “Bone Melder Fadey is dead. I’m certain you all have heard. Perhaps you did not know his death was no accident.”
Acid climbed the back of my throat. With every, pacing step, Captain Baldur’s smile hardened into something vicious and cruel.
“Fadey was murdered,” he said, venom in his tone. “By one of his own. A bone rotter alchemist.”
My fingernails dug into the meat of my palms. I ground my teeth together, fighting the instinct to glance at Kael. Fadey was murdered? Bone Rotter’s left the slightest hints of their magic behind, hard not to when it decays the bone, but only those who knew just where to look would notice it.
Either the death had been done swiftly and carelessly, or it was a lie.
“This is troubling,” Vella said, gently. “We are a descendant village, and serve the House of Damir loyally. If there is anything we can do to aid, we will. Alas, we have not had a presentation of alchemy in our borders for decades.”
“Strange isn’t it, how alchemy seems to have dried up,” Baldur said with a sneer. He leaned closer to Vella. “Stranger still, how the last three villages from which we’ve collected said the same thing, yet . . .”
His words trailed off when he flourished a hand toward the black coach.
“We’ve nearly filled every seat.” The captain’s teeth flashed in the morning light. “For the breach of a treaty, any descendent with active alchemy will submit to the service of the crown. They will be tested with the hope of replacing Melder Fadey. However, the king is most interested in the killer.”
Vella swallowed and lifted her chin, a new strain to her voice. “We have no killers here, Captain Baldur. We have no bone rotters.”
Kael. Damn the gods, they wanted a rotter more than a melder.
My pulse pounded in my skull, loud enough I was certain Roark Ashwood in all his dark silence could hear.
Baldur held Vella’s unblinking stare for ten breaths before he said, “I don’t believe you.”
Selena gripped my wrist.
Henrik shifted nearer to his son.
“But no matter,” Baldur shouted. “We have ways to find the truth now. Ways we never wanted to employ, but . . . desperate measures, and all that.”
“Sel.” My voice cracked with a new fear, a pressure that burned in my chest like molten ore.
“Hush,” she hissed and adjusted the bowl on her hip as though nothing were amiss.
What in the hell was happening?
“You understand, I’m sure,” Baldur said. “
Vella kept steady, but the slightest hint of a tremble lived in her voice. “We are here to serve the king’s guard and his Majesty.”
I took a step to tuck behind Aunt Selena, but stopped when Roark, all at once, gripped Baldur’s arm.
The sentry’s hand twitched. No—his fingers were moving in a deliberate pattern.
Gods, did he speak with his hands? Ashwood was known as a silent guard. I’d always taken it to mean he merely did not speak much with others, but . . . perhaps he could not speak.
I blinked free of my scrutiny when Ashwood’s fingers ceased moving and took the lead stance. In the next breath, Roark pulled back his hood, revealing wind-tossed dark hair, braided on the sides to keep the wild strands out of his eyes.
He scanned the crowd. My heart stuttered when he turned our direction. Gods, those eyes were green as a meadow after a spring rain, and they were pinned on me.
Roark narrowed his eyes into something hateful, almost violent. Or so it seemed. He couldn’t sense what I was, could he? No, it was impossible. Bone alchemy could hardly be sensed by the damn alchemist until the moment the magic ignited in their veins.
By the time I looked again, he’d turned back to Vella.
With a quick tug, he too, removed the black linen shielding his mouth and chin.
Roark Ashwood was quite possibly the most captivating man I had ever seen. Tall, not overly broad, with dark brows over those green-glass eyes. Sun toasted skin and a bit of dark stubble covered the straight edges of his face, and a curious, ridged scar that ran from the left hinge of his jaw, over his throat, and ending across the right edge of his collarbone.
Harsh features yet beneath it all was an imperfect beauty I’d never seen in our sea village.
I knew what handsome was. Kael was the desire of more than one village girl, but Roark was different, exotic in a way with striking contrasts with skin, eyes, and hair. Not the dull earthen tones of Estranean people.
“Hold,” the captain shouted, lifting one palm.
If I hadn’t been standing so near Selena, I might’ve missed the tick of her jaw, might’ve missed the flash of unease in her eyes. We’d never been paused like this before. In years gone by, the Mors were typically tired and restless by the time they reached Skarsdell. They wanted barley ale to drink, a bed to rest, and maybe a warm body to sink into for the night.
They didn’t want wasted time.
Vella faced Roark. “Lord Sentry, is something wrong?”
Roark was silent. Stoic. Yet, there was a fierce, screeching threat that seemed to radiate off Ashwood’s shoulders. One not heard, but absorbed until it infected every heartbeat, every sharp draw of air.
He never looked away from Vella, simply rested his other hand on the hilt of a short blade, wrapped in black leather with a crescent pommel. A symbol of inner court ranks. The sort of symbol that meant this man was present in the most important circles in Stonegate.
By his side, his hand moved again. The captain glimpsed the movement and cleared his throat. “Align yourselves in the center of the road. Men in one line, women in the other. Move.”
My body quivered like a hummingbird. Folk shuffled from the edges of the road, fear dark and heady in their eyes.
This was new. Winter after winter, the guard allowed us to go about our day as they searched for any hint of alchemy or set up stations where men and women could join the recruits. In the end, the guard always seemed content to say Skarsdell was not a place of magic.
Tangled in the crowd of women, Selena gave my hand a quick squeeze. Perhaps she feared the guard was going to tear our village apart the same as I did. Perhaps it was merely a squeeze of reassurance.
All I wanted was to return to our small cottage, unearth our simple bone totem from beneath Selena’s cloudberry shrub, and send the same grateful prayers to the gods we sent each year. If we could kneel and pray, it would mean the Mors, once again, left us in peace.
The stark differences this year were beginning to feel a great deal like there would be no prayers tonight.
Fear prickled from my fingertips to my crown of my head. The way the Mors were herding us like damn goats, left me wondering if I would ever see that pathetic, beautiful little altar again.
The guards moved with a touch of desperation, as though they could not return to Stonegate without a potential melder and their murderer. As though the fortress could not be without it’s rare alchemist for long.
My insides twisted when the captain gestured to a few Mors. Men holding leather pouches stepped forward.
The captain untied the twine around one pouch, grinning a little viciously. “It’s rather unfortunate, the king cannot trust his people to keep up their end of the treaty. This leads to unfortunate measures His Majesty has no choice but to implement.”
“My lord,” Vella began, but silenced when the captain held up a palm.
He scooped a hand inside the pouch. Cupped in his palm was a pile of some kind of crimson flake, like small shavings of bark. He glanced briefly at Roark. From my position, I could not make out if Ashwood said anything, or gestured, but with a new determination in his step, the captain rushed at Vella.
A horrified shriek slid from my throat when the Mors captain shoved the flakes into Vella’s mouth before the elder could do anything. One, maybe two heartbeats, and her breaths turned to ragged pants.
Another scream rattled the morning when Vella dropped. I peered over Selena’s shoulder and froze. On her knees, Vella clutched her throat. Blood bubbled over her lips in foamy pink. She shuddered and convulsed, desperately reaching for the captain’s leg.
I shoved forward, ignoring Selena’s attempt to snatch my arm. I wasn’t alone. Kael, his father, even Old Thorian rushed to the village elder.
“Stop this,” I shouted at Roark. The High Sentry tilted his head, studying me like he could peel back the layers of my skull and see into my very thoughts. “You bastard, stop this!”
A rattle of breath from Vella’s convulsing body followed. Once it spent, there was never another.
Tears blurred my sight. I didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see the truth, but like a rope tugged against my middle, I turned on my heel and glanced down at the muddy road.
From deep in my chest, a wet sob ripped free. Vella’s head was cradled in Thorian’s bony lap. Blood dribbled from the corner of her lips and her lovely, kind eyes were vacant and dark.
The captain chuckled and pinched a small flake between his thumb and pointer finger.
“Did you know there are poisons that are harmless to most, but deadly to alchemy?” He grinned with a new viciousness. “Now, we’ve reason to believe strong alchemy lives here along with our murderous bone rotter. So, who’s next?”
Rosewood bark was harmless unless it was boiled down to the green center. There was a pale berry Kael and I nicknamed as venom fruit when we were littles when we realized the juices caused blisters on our skin. Fire vine, a red-leafed ivy that reacted fiercely with whatever differences divided bone alchemist from common folk.
The red flakes in the captain’s palm could be any combination of toxic herbs. Surely, fire vine dusted with rosewood might boil the blood from the inside out.
Hatred spilled through my veins like flames. I wanted to drive the knife in my boot through the softest point of the captain’s throat. I wanted to watch blood fountain over his lips the same as it had flowed from Vella.
I wasn’t violent by nature, but there were moments like this, moments when darker pieces fitted into gentler attributes like a phantom of a woman I didn’t know.
Movement peeled my attention away from the poison flakes to Roark Ashwood.
His verdant eyes looked no where but me. Good. I hoped he could see the disdain, the violence, flooding through me. I hoped he knew I held him as culpable as the Mors captain.
In truth, he was more culpable.
Whatever signal Ashwood gave with his fingers, the captain had reacted. Blood stained Roark’s hands. I narrowed my eyes, squared to him, unbothered by the way he tilted his head, the way he studied me the same as he’d done when they first arrived. Like he could see something others couldn’t.
Selena said the king wasn’t afraid to spill blood. If Dramir wanted blood, I was obliged to give it to him.
I lowered to a crouch, hand gliding down my leg toward my boot. Ashwood could slaughter me, but not if a dagger struck his heart first. Could I even throw a blade from this distance? I didn’t know, but rationality fled the moment our elder choked on her own innards.
My fingers curled around the hilt in the same moment the Mors Guard sprang into action.
Guards surrounded the people with their horses, their uniformed lines, their strategy. Gods, they moved like a shadow made from one body. Unbreakable and united. The groan of leather, the glide of steel, all of it collided as Mors snatched braids, gripped tunics, and dragged folk toward the front of the line.
Bodies slammed into others. A woman rushing to be free of two guards struck my shoulder, knocking me to the ground.
I covered my head, tucking my knees into my chest. People tried to run in a frenzy, hardly noting I was buried beneath them.
“Lyra!” Somewhere in the chaos, Selena shrieked.
I grunted when a boot slammed into my ribs from someone fleeing. I’d be trampled if I didn’t move, but whenever I tried to unfurl to seek out purchase to stand, another pair of racing feet came too close to my skull.
Until a strong grip took hold of my arm and lifted me back to my feet. One hand turned to two scooped under my shoulders, and held me to a broad chest. I stumbled as my rescuer tugged me to the edge of the road, freeing me from the chaos.
My heart stopped.
Roark Ashwood had me wrapped in his arms. Those hauntingly vivid eyes broke layers of my skull back until I was certain he could see into my very soul.
For a breath, two, I was frozen, locked in a spell.
When my senses caught up with the reality that Roark—the bastard who’d caused this—had his damn hands on me, I thrashed. I shoved and twisted, desperate to get his hands off my body.
Roark merely tightened his grip on my upper arm and dragged me toward the center of the square.
My lips parted. Mors Guard were attacking. Fathers tried to protect their littles. Wives tried to protect their husbands. Thorian flung a fishing hook at a guard racing after a boy no older than thirteen, earning the fishmonger the hilt of a blade to the back of his skull.
A sharp, burn of pain tightened in my lungs when a guard lit a torch and tossed it on a grain cart, blocking the retreat of families.
“Stop this,” I shouted at Roark. “These people have done nothing.”
He returned my pleas with a glare, as though my desperation were more an annoyance and not an actual request.
“No more lives must be lost,” Baldur shouted. “What a waste that would be. If you hide nothing, then you have nothing to fear. Submit any alchemists or try your luck with this.”
He lifted his palm with the flakes.
“Enough!” Kael shoved through his parents. His mother grappled for him, shouting his name. Kael looked nowhere but the Mors captain. “I am who you want.”
My knees faltered, causing me to stumble and knock into Roark. What the hell was Kael doing?
I tried to pry myself free of Roark’s grip, but where I stepped, so did the sentry, as though he were my broader reflection on a glass pond.
Ashwood lifted a palm, a silent demand for me to hold steady. There was a new fire in his gaze, a touch of warning, and gooseflesh lifted on my arms beneath his grip. For a moment I relented; I ignored that he was an enemy, and used his form as a crutch against the urge to crumble.
Baldur chuckled, scrutinizing Kael’s steps as he maneuvered through the crowd. “You confess to the murder of your king’s servant?”
Kael came to a halt two paces away. “I do.”
“Kael.” His name slid off my tongue in a desperate, ragged sob. His pale eyes flicked my way, too swiftly for anyone to notice, but I’d known the man since the days before either of us could walk. He was afraid.
He had to be lying.
“Melder Fadey suffered,” Kael said, voice steady. He clasped his hands behind his back. “He sent out a plea to his people, to alchemists who might take pity on him and free him from this life.”
“Quite a tale,” Baldur said. “I don’t believe a word of it, but that will not be my judgment to make. I take it you’d have us believe you are a true alchemist? What talent?”
“A rotter,” Kael spat with a touch of disdain. Before Baldur could reach for his poisonous flakes again, Kael rolled back his sleeve to the crook of his elbow. He closed his eyes, breathing softly; after a moment the skin on this forearm lifted and puckered until a pink scar shaped in a tilted cross appeared.
Gods, he’d damned himself. My Kael would now belong to the crown or the Otherworld. Somewhere in the numb silence of my stun, Kael’s mother’s sobs slipped through, cracking new fissures in my heart.
A grin twitched on Baldur’s mouth. “Let me guess, you’re a lone alchemist in your village?”
“I am,” Kael replied, no hesitation, no wavering.
“I suppose we’ll know soon enough.”
Baldur cast a quick glance at Roark. Only when the sentry had me positioned against one of the rune posts did he release me and approach the captain. Fear was agonizing, like bits of jagged glass lined my insides, I clung to the post as though it was a ballast in a violent storm.
Two Mors took hold of Kael’s arms. What asses. He hadn’t even tried to flee.
My limbs twitched. My fingers ached. My legs grew restless. It was as though my body yearned to run into the trees, while a darker part wanted to reach for the knife in my boot again and ram it through as many Mors skulls as possible before they sliced through my heart.
Roark tilted his head into Baldur like he might whisper. Instead, the sentry bent and twisted his fingers in a deliberate pattern. Two fingers pointed to the soil, followed by a closed fist, then a quick flick of his thumb and first finger.
What was he saying? What could I learn if I could study the patterns, study the bones? Clearly, Baldur understood whatever words came from Ashwood. Blood rushed in a sick wave to the pit of my belly when the captain spared a few breaths to look at me.
Another wicked grin split over his mouth. Baldur lifted his gloved hand and stroked the russet fibers of his beard. “Not only have you concealed an alchemist from your king, but it is likely many of you aided him in the murder of Melder Fadey.”
Shouts of denials rose to the smoky clouds. Baldur ignored the lot and flicked his hand. “Burn it. We’ve no use for traitors in Estra.”
Shouts melted to screams when Mors moved as one, like their limbs were connected by a rod, and gathered a few leather wrapped torches from travel packs slung over their horses. Time moved swiftly. I dug my fingernails into the stone of the rune post, and by the time the torches blazed in fire, drops of blood were left behind in the crevices of the engraved symbols.
Folk would die today.
“No!” I released the post and hurried to Roark. Without thought, with only desperation, I gripped his arm. “Leave them, gods, I beg of you. I submit myself, but beg of you to stop.”
Roark looked at me with potent hatred, I could practically taste the sour burn of it on my tongue.
“We submit our alchemy to the crown.” Behind me Ebert and Estelle came forward.
Tears lined Estelle’s eyes as she released her husband’s hand. Wed mere months earlier, he slumped as though the weight of despair might snap his back. Selena’s cries and pleas for mercy rattled against my skull. I couldn’t look, couldn’t see the pain in my aunt’s eyes as the last of her family was ripped away.
Someone must’ve been holding her back; her words were muffled in one breath, then fierce the next.
“Ah, now come the alchemists.” Baldur held up a palm once more, staying the torches from igniting homes in a blaze. He went first to Estelle and Ebert. “Talent?”
“Both manipulators,” said Ebert. Together, they opened their palms.
Estelle’s scar rose on her right hand, Ebert’s on his left. Baldur clicked his tongue, and came to me. I took a step back only to collide again with Roark’s firm chest. Trapped between them, Baldur closed the space between us.
His skin smelled of herb spice, dry skin, and sweet ale. With one of his knuckles, he tipped my chin up. I didn’t look away.
“Talent?” he said, low and harsh.
I couldn’t give up the truth. My ability was unknown; it didn’t make sense.
“Did you hear, girl?”
“I . . .” I swallowed and lifted my braid, willing the small scar on the back of my neck to lift. “Rotter. I’m a rotter.”
Baldur hesitated, then split his mouth into another wolfish grin. “That so?” The captain stepped back. “All right then, rotter, let’s make ourselves a deal. You don’t want to watch your village burn, do you?”
“No, lord.” I wanted to watch him burn, then Ashwood.
“Based on the look in your eyes, I take it you don’t want him to die either.” Baldur tilted his head toward Kael.
I spared a glance. Kael glared in return. I could nearly hear him demanding I shut my mouth and let him take the consequences. Kael was a stubborn bastard, but I could be even worse.
“I don’t want him to be killed, lord,” I said firmly.
“Then here is my deal, rotter.” Baldur kept addressing me as rotter with a touch of amusement. “If you manage to save his life before he bleeds out, he’ll receive a pardon and join the Mors as stated in the treaty, and your people will not be marked as traitors.”
“Fail to save him,” Baldur interjected, unsheathing a dagger on his belt. “Well, then we’ll be short another alchemist and your folk will have nothing but stars overhead tonight. Those who live, that is.”
“Lord.” I straightened and shoved away from Roark. “I don’t understand what you . . .”
Words bled into a scream when Baldur turned from me and in the next breath rammed the point of his blade into Kael’s chest.