Winter seeped up from the floor of the tomb where I lay, and I wondered if it had already taken Effie. I slid closer to her but dared not touch her, afraid that I would find her dead.
Our feeble peat fire sputtered, and Effie jolted awake. She sat up, shaking as she gazed around the shadowed chamber. Finally, she turned to me, and her eyes widened in horror, as if I were a beast. She yanked her worn shawl over her face, hunkered down in the ragged tartans, and mewled like a dying kitten.
Molten grief burned my cheeks, and I buried my face in the blankets, too, because every available choice led to disaster. We had run out of places to hide. Our scarce fuel was nearly gone, and a sea-born storm rocked the hill, pelting sleet that rattled against the stones of the tomb. If I could not find fuel, we would freeze to death before morning. Although I was content to simply close my eyes on this life, I could not make that decision for Effie. It was my doing that had brought her here. I wiped my eyes and recalled our last conversation.
“What were you thinking, Effie?” I asked, doing my best to hide my frustration. “Why ever would you lead that woman to believe that you were me?”
“Someone had to be brave, for a change,” she snapped. “So, I was brave for the both of us.”
Those were the last words she spoke before lapsing into a muddled state of mind that blinded her to me.
I could not imagine my life without her. She was my sister from a different womb and had been with me since the moment I entered this sorry world. No sisters have ever been closer, nor have two women been so different. Effie is tall and willowy, nearly outstripping her older brother, Trefor, in height. But unlike Trefor, who has rich auburn hair, Effie has a mane of silk the color of rosy apricots and her eyes are the color of noon. Even the cloudiest day surrenders to Effie’s brightness.
I, on the other hand, am small, like my mother, Mirren. Unlike her mantle of copper, my hair is ebon as a raven’s wing, a legacy from my father, Ariel. The blue of his eyes and the green of my mother’s reach a stormy compromise in mine. Sadly, all resemblance to my parents ends there, for I did not inherit any of their other graces.
Thus, Effie and I grew up together—she, everyone’s sunshine and I, everyone’s shadow.
I sighed and dragged myself to my feet, astonished that I could ache in so many places. I hobbled to the mouth of the tomb, loosened the filthy deer hide that served as a door, and scanned the wintry landscape in the hope of finding fuel that I had missed the day before. The storm had scattered the fog that concealed our arrival, so the wind-scoured hill looked like the top of a polished skull, offering nothing but icy emptiness. A jumble of shaggy evergreens stood a short sprint away, and I considered racing there to find some firewood, but the trumpet of a warhorse froze me in my tracks. I bolted back into the tomb and quickly yanked the deer hide across the entrance. I held it fast against the stones and crisscrossed it with thongs that were anchored to rocks and roots. It offered no real protection, but I prayed it would at least hide the firelight and peat smoke from the men who hunted us. Long I lingered beside the door, listening breathlessly, all the while knowing that my fear of discovery was largely imagined, and I was simply delaying the inevitable.
Ah, well, I was already thoroughly damned in this life, what did it matter if I was damned in the next?
At least I had done one thing right. Instead of tossing my walking stick on the fire, I had held it back, to use for defense. I ripped a strip of fabric from my hem and wrapped it tightly around the top of the stick to create a torch. Then I thrust it into the fire and lit my way back to the bone pit. The torch threw evil shadows against the narrow passageway, and I imagined them to be specters of the souls I was about to disturb.
Once inside the small round room, I secured the torch in a chink between two rocks, gritted my teeth, and began to pick through the dismal pile for large bones to add to my fire. Vacant eyes stared up at me from the skulls of men, women, and children, all dead for centuries untold, all cursing me for the violation.
The skeletons felt more like old pottery than decayed humans. Thus, I could almost pretend that they did not foreshadow my own end. Even so, I cried out when I grabbed a hank of coarse, rust-colored hair adorned with beads of clay. Gulping for air, I continued my task and collected the largest bones I could find.
Amidst the mortal rubble, I also found primitive neck torques of copper and bronze, copper and tin vessels, and a comb carved of shell, which I set aside.
As I neared the bottom of the grim pile, I caught a glimmer in the torchlight. Gingerly picking through the bones, I found a curious, ancient dagger. The haft was fashioned of hammered gold shaped like a ripened wheat stalk, and the blade was of beaten bronze. Beneath it lay a golden bowl with naked women and twined roses arching on each side to serve as handles. The bowl was as highly polished as still water, so it reflected the sputtering torchlight.
At first, I dared not touch the bowl and dagger. Even I recognized ritual objects when I saw them. But they had lain beneath the dead for countless hundreds of years and seemed to yearn for a living touch. I breathed a silent prayer to Erce, the Earth Mother, and hesitantly lifted the bowl and dagger from beneath the skeletons. The heap of bones clattered to fill the empty space, and I held my breath, hoping that I had not frightened Effie.
When no sound came from the outer chamber, I examined my find and could not believe the exquisite detail adorning the outside of the bowl. Women, all ages of women, danced in a circle around the vessel. Some were mere children, cavorting with small animals. Others were maidens, flirting with unseen admirers. Then came mothers, squatting in birth or suckling babes, and crones with grins that hinted at the humor of their wisdom. Never had I seen such fine work. The dagger was likewise beautiful, its blade etched with plump grain on glimmering shafts of wheat. I knew without question that the dagger had never drawn blood, but had served as the proud, ripened stalk in the great marriage with the golden bowl.
At first, I thought to sell the bowl and dagger to better Effie’s and my lot, but the notion fled like smoke as the sacred objects warmed in my hands. Besides, I did not want to be noticed, and this find was a treasure that would attract too much attention. It was all I could do to lay the relics aside and complete my grim quest.
I set the vessel and dagger beneath the torch and took another look through the sad remains. Small baubles of gold and silver glimmered in the fitful light. I quickly gathered them, earrings, mostly, and some beads. Those, I would certainly barter for food as soon as I figured out how manage the task without being recognized.
I placed the gold pieces in the bowl beside the shell comb and dagger, held the vessel to my bosom, and began carrying the treasures and fuel to the outer chamber. As I walked, curious thoughts teased my mind. I recollected how the stones around the fire always stayed warm and wondered whether I could create a snug sleeping space by setting stones all around us. I would overlap them, each one touching the next, each leading to another in a chain of rocks that began and ended at the fire circle. Surely, they would all heat up and keep us from the cold.
Before I began arranging the stones, I banked the fire with some of the bones from the grave. Although I begged forgiveness, I expected some calamity of wailing souls and specters, like the ones I imagined on my trips to the bone pit. Instead, the fire brightened and began to warm our hideout.
Comforted by the heat and my decision to barter for decent food in the morning, I quickly gathered rocks from around the room to make our sleeping circle. By the time I had placed the final stone, the first ones were already warm to the touch. I made a final trip to the crypt to fetch a tin pail and cup then I returned to Effie to stoke the fire and reconsider our situation in light of a few resources. I roused myself from my melancholy and pondered what we had to keep us going. Our clothes were tattered, our hair was disgraceful, and we were as filthy as beggars. Not wishing to be easy bait for ruffians, I set about to clean and mend our shabby things, all the while girding my courage for an excursion to a nearby village market.
I suppose that the growing warmth and the promise of supplies dispelled some of my fears, for I braved a trip outside of the tomb. Working quickly and watching my surroundings, I scrubbed the pail and cup and filled them with snow. By the time I finished, my hands and face were numb from the savage wind, so I did not notice the frozen sprigs of wild sage hidden in the bucket. After refastening the deer hide, I set the bucket beside the fire and rummaged through my rucksack. In the very bottom, I found a handful of precious barley grains, part of a withered turnip, a tough, wrinkled carrot, and the last of my rosemary. It would be gruel at its worst, but it had to suffice. While it cooked down into a sludge too thick to dribble out of Effie’s slack mouth, I ate my meal of six hazel nuts and dreamed of Grandfather Kade’s wild boar stew. I could almost smell the savory herbs and vegetables and hear the contented bubbling from his hearth. That was what Effie really needed, but I did not know how to take her home.
Soon, the water steamed beside the fire, and the blessed aroma of wild sage wafted around the chamber. Had Effie not been sleeping, I might have hummed. Instead, I washed our pitiful garments and draped them on rocks to dry. Between the crackling fire and the unexpected scent of sage, the tomb grew almost homey. Effie even smiled a little, and the crease in her forehead relaxed. That is when I decided to be bold and bathe us.
Not wishing to leave telltale traces in the snow outside the barrow, I used a sharp rock to gouge a shallow trench along the lowest part of the wall, and I dumped the dirty wash water there. Then I wrapped myself in a tartan and slipped out into the wintry night for more snow. Before I replaced the deer hide, I obliterated my tracks and left all other traces of me to the wind.
Finally, Effie’s stew was ready, so I ripped a small scrap from a blanket, grabbed the tin cup, and fed her while our bathwater heated.
“Effie, wake up. I brought you some soup. It has vegetables and grains to give you strength,” I lied.
“No,” she moaned.
I slipped one hand behind her head and carefully raised it, but she slumped, limp as yarn. I sighed and patiently spooned the gruel into her mouth with a limpet shell I had found. “I dreamt last night of Trefor,” I murmured, nudging her lips open with the shell.
Her eyelids fluttered, and she groaned.
“You and I sat beside his hearth. Remember? The old stone cottage above Boann Tarns Inn?” I prodded her, trying to anchor her spirit to a memory so she would not fade away. “He had a huge fire blazing, and he was pressing us to sample his latest attempt at elderberry mead. As usual.”
I surprised myself and smiled at the memory. Glancing down at Effie, I saw her gazing up into my face, her brow wrinkled and questions in her eyes.
“Was that the last time we were all together?” She wheezed. “I miss him.”
“I miss him, as well,” I said, the truth of it stinging me.
“Then summon him. Bid him come before your stubbornness kills us both!”
With that, she turned her face away from me and pretended to fall asleep.
I cleaned the cup, and as I sat beside the warming wash water, a fresh wave of homesickness knotted my stomach. I longed for some of my mother’s rosemary, soapwort, and sage decoction. I longed to wash my hair and feel clean. Wrenching my thoughts from my troubles, I fumbled through my scruffy rucksack again, imagining a small clay pot of Mother’s potion. I did not find one, of course, but I did find a sliver of olive oil and lavender soap that I had taken from the baths at Tessaway Castle.
Placing the precious shard of luxury in the tin cup, I added water drop-by-drop and hoped I did not ruin what little soap we had. When the water and soap had melted together, there was scarcely enough for me, much less enough for Effie. I racked my mind to recall my mother’s lessons. Finally, I added a little ash from the fire, herb dust from the bottom of my pack, and sage leaves that floated in the warming water. I stirred the mixture with my finger and to my delight, discovered that I had made enough fragrant soap for both of us.
Although I could not fit into the pail, I managed to immerse large enough parts of my body to thoroughly warm and wash myself. For the first time in an age, I did not feel sordid, and I gloried in my clean hair.
I could not dress yet as my things were still wet. But the chamber was snug, and Effie slept on, so I sat atop a flat rock near the fire, happily untangling my hair with the ancient shell comb.
Then from the corner of my eye, I caught a twitching. I gasped, thinking that rats were lurking in the tomb. Again, the twitching caught my eye, and I realized that it came from the golden bowl. Some snow had melted there, and pictures flickered in the sheen of water.
Oh, no! I would not fall prey to that. Scrying had launched all of my mother’s travails. On the other hand, what had I to lose? I presently lived in a tomb that I had desecrated, and my future seemed to be watching my best friend die and then dying, without dignity, myself.
I reached for the bowl and set it in the hollow between my knees. When I bent my head to look into the gold and slick of water, my damp hair formed a midnight curtain that isolated me from everything but the reflection. A wooziness of sorts took hold of me, like the night that Marrock drugged my wine. Even so, I stayed awake enough to fix my gaze in the golden basin, watching for whatever secrets lay there.
At first, all I saw was the flicker of the firelight. Then my firelight became the firelight flickering in Trefor’s comfy hearth. He stood with his back to me, wearing a leather jerkin, of all things. It accentuated his broad shoulders and narrow waist, legacies from his love of horses rather than from his healer’s skills and magic. His auburn hair had grown, and he had bound it with a leather thong so that it hung like a burnished rod down his back.
I suppose it is true that absence makes people more precious, for when he turned toward me, I warmed at the dearness of his face. As always, he was clean-shaven, but he seemed somehow bolder, not quite grim, but steely and virile, traits I had never noticed in him before. Although his eyes were still the blue of midsummer’s finest evening sky, his jaws were strong and square, as if honed by constant clenching.
“Trefor...” My mother’s voice twisted my heart. “Trefor, Liora has chosen her path, and cruel as it is for us, we must let her find her way. Ariel can tell you...”
“Gods, Ariel, please do not! My own memories haunt me well enough.” Trefor moaned. He upended his favorite pewter mug and asked, unsmiling, “Do you like my elderberry mead?”
Poor Trefor. Ever-faithful Trefor. I had abused him as badly as I had betrayed Effie. Yet, he had loved me faithfully for nearly eighteen years, ever since the night I was born.
To hear Trefor tell it, never had such a succulent moon graced the sky. According to him, she nestled atop the sheltering hills, ripe and golden as the low-hanging pears that perfumed the evening. Awe still softens his voice when he describes how my mother walked round and round her little chamomile lawn, bathed in the moon’s sumptuous glow as her womb convulsed to evict me. Mother strolled arm-in-arm with my father, occasionally pausing to sigh and breathe through a birth pang or to share small jokes with my grandfather and my grandmother. Granduncle Wayland, whose size belies his gentleness, paced back and forth, as if awaiting his own child. Trefor, my mother’s apprentice, stood nervously by, sipping apple mead and biding his time until he was summoned to attend my birth.
Trefor claims that the folks of Boann Tarns Valley awaited my birth as eagerly as the shepherds awaited the Christ child, which always makes me cringe. He further embellishes his tale with the notion that I chose to be Mirren and Ariel’s daughter, their child of promise and magic.
It is such a lovely story, but for the fact that the gods omitted my magic and replaced my promise with foolishness.
“Well, do you like my mead?” Trefor’s voice drew me back to the vision. He stood beside my mother and father, who exchanged a sad glance before Father said, “I believe you’ve mastered it. At last,” he added and slapped Trefor’s back.
My breath caught in my throat, and a tremor pestered my chin. I murmured, “Oh, Trefor,” and an errant tear dropped into the haloed reflection.
He gasped, clutched his stomach, and doubled over as if someone had punched him.
Mother rushed to put her arm around his shoulder and study his face. “What is it?” she asked.
Trefor panted for a moment, and then he murmured, “Liora.” When he straightened up, tears streamed down his smooth cheeks. “I must go to her,” he said.
“No,” I wailed, and Trefor shivered.
“How do you plan to find her?” Father asked.
“I already know where she is,” Trefor replied, staring into my eyes from the bottom of the golden bowl.
Denial howled through my body for I recognized the thrill of magic—magic come too late to redeem my folly.
I thrust the golden bowl aside, pushed the sight of Trefor’s eyes out of view, and tried to fling the magic away. But it leered at me from beneath my own skin, as if it had always been there, and I had simply failed to notice it.
Trefor’s sorrow jolted me back into my doldrums, so I sighed and set about bathing Effie. After all, I reckoned I had two days, if that, before Trefor came riding to our tomb to see for himself what ruin I had wrought.
“Effie, I summoned Trefor.” I lied again. “He shall arrive the day after the morrow.”
Effie moaned and stirred when I set the pail of warm bathwater beside her. I began with her face, gently blotting the grime away with the piece of cloth I had ripped from the corner of my blanket. Bruises, which should have long since vanished, still marred her loveliness. I softly touched a welt on her cheek, and she groaned as if I had just inflicted it. Her eyes flew open, and terror leapt from them.
“Shh, Effie. All is well. I am cleaning you up to greet your brother. He is on his way to us. Did you hear me say so?” I tried my best to emulate my mother’s healing voice and must have done a passable job, for Effie sighed and smiled a little.
“I am glad, Liora,” she whispered. “You should not be alone.”
“Silly goose,” I said, forcing a laugh. “You are here. How could I ever be alone?”
But Effie drifted into her clouded thoughts again and did not answer. It was just as well. Each new exposure of her flesh revealed disturbing wounds that should have healed and passed to memory. Her withered breasts still bore livid handprints, and her hipbones were black and blue, as if a beast had ridden her. Even as I tenderly washed her thigh, a brooding shadow welled up and surfaced as another bruise, one come from the inside out.
Creepers slithered up the back of my neck. “What evil has that woman sown?” I cussed under my breath.
Effie lapsed back into her death-like sleep, and I studied her face for a moment. Sick inside, I murmured, “Forgive me.” Then I gingerly probed her privy member. My findings turned me cold as stone. For despite her ramblings of rape, the ceasing of her moon blood, and her certainty that she was with child, Effie was still a maiden.
I closed my eyes and shuddered. My heart froze, and darkness whispered Nethara’s name.
Horror snaked through the shadows, and I could not finish bathing Effie fast enough. When finally she was dried and swaddled, I threw a handful of sage on the fire to protect us. Then I sat with her head in my lap, combing her beautiful hair and attempting long-forgotten incantations to conceal us from Nethara’s conjurings.
Snow fell in great, mushy clots the following morning, obliterating the sheen from the hill. I rushed to the woods for more fuel, mulling my heavy decision as I went. Although I dreaded leaving Effie, I deemed it a good day to do so as no one could track me in that frigid mess, and the storm would give me a little cover.
During the night, I had mended my skirts and tunic, sewing pilfered clay beads on my shawl to hide the irreparable holes. With my hair and clothes clean, I looked halfway respectable, or so I told myself.
“Effie, I am going to barter for food to welcome Trefor,” I whispered as I banked the fire.
She did not respond, so I drew protective runes in the dirt around her and threw more sage on the blaze. Swallowing my dread, I weighted the deerskin door with rocks and walked toward the distant village. My hammering heart kept cadence with my slushy footsteps, and just in case any gods cared to listen, I sang a simple plea for them to safeguard Effie.
The village turned out to be a collection of ramshackle huts that fawned at the feet of a newly built monastery. To be sure, I kept well clear of that. Word spread like wildfire among the industrious monks, and I wanted no rumors to find their way to Tessaway Castle. Thus, I wandered the outskirts of the hamlet where the pickings were poor. I managed to trade a tiny silver bead for two loafs of coarse bread and another for a skin of cider. I also happily bartered for a few decent vegetables, ground oats, raisins, a skin of cheap red wine, and a chunk of rustic soap. But the only meat to be had was a half-dead pig, which was offered by a toothless man in exchange for favors I did not care to imagine, much less perform.
Although the day was short, dusk did not fall quickly enough to suit me. I wound my way through the silent woods, often glancing behind me to make sure that no one followed. I reached the final fringe of the forest and waited for darkness to dawdle in. Hunkering near a thicket, I heard rustling. Tired, frightened, and soaked to the bone, it was all I could do stop myself from bolting across the open field to Effie. Then the rustling came again, and I spied a young rabbit snared amidst a stand of brambles.
I did not know whether to give thanks or to cry, for I recognized my own terror in the poor little creature’s eyes. I cussed and bent to capture the rabbit, which cowered, seemingly resigned to its fate. I suppose it was spent from its struggle, as it remained docile while I tucked it under my arm and tried to decide what to do with it.
How could I possibly slaughter and gut the hapless beast?
Even if I had the proper tools, I had no heart to do that deed. On the other hand, Effie was starving for wholesome food. Perhaps the gods had sent the rabbit.
Voices from the barrow stopped me in mid-thought. Heeding nothing but my fear for Effie, I ran like the wind to the tomb.