3. Blood and Ashes
Blood seemed to follow Ilyenna everywhere. When she fell into dreams, she drowned in a river of it. Whenever she blinked, crimson light leaked through her closed eyelids. Even now, the predawn sky was stained the color of bloody water. No matter how many times she scrubbed her hands, she couldn’t rinse the hurt from her soul.
With tears stinging her eyes, she lay slumped against the window, blankets wrapped around her. She relished the cold against her aching head as she watched tiny frost flakes fall from the sky. For a moment, she thought they were really winter fairies dancing and spinning on the breeze—fairies who should have long ago given up winter and returned to their homes in the far north.
But that was ridiculous. Even if they were fairies, mere mortals could never see through their glamour. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. The Balance was seriously off when the seasons failed to shift and one clan turned on another. It had been two days since the Argons had arrived. She’d been unable to sleep that night. Sometime in the darkest hours, an idea had formed in her mind. A dangerous one. But after two days of people dying…
Bratton moaned and shifted in his bed. After extracting herself from her blankets, Ilyenna went to check on him. He still burned with fever. She leaned over the other bed. Her father was so unnaturally still, no matter how hard she had struggled to wake him, no matter how many medicines and treatments she had tried.
He was worse than ever. They both were. Ilyenna had been healing since she was old enough to thread a needle. She knew how close she was to losing both of them. In the end, that made the choice for her. Before she could change her mind, she tiptoed through the clan house so as not to wake the Argons scattered everywhere.
When she reached the hall where the most severely wounded were kept, she nearly gagged. The air was rank with garlic, whiskey, and a myriad of body odors. Hiking up her skirt, she stepped over a slumbering woman, her arms clutching her child—even in sleep, she was afraid to let go.
Just before Ilyenna reached the door, she caught sight of the old man with the amputated foot. He was dead. All she could feel was relief that there was one less mouth to feed. She covered his face so as not to frighten the children. “So passes a warrior,” she whispered. “So passes an Argon.”
Brushing the death from her hands, she stood. She’d have to remember to call one of the men to haul him out.
She entered the kitchen and fed the fire. Having the refugees in her home left her feeling like she slept under too many blankets. And the dying hadn’t slowed. If anything, it had increased. Already a line of shrouded, frozen bodies waited for the ground to thaw so they could be buried behind the clan house. But Bratton was right. Ilyenna couldn’t worry about burying the dead until the living had the time and strength to dig the graves.
Without waiting for the fire to take off, she wrapped her coat over her dress, braced herself against the cold, and stepped outside. The cold immediately took her breath away.
When Ilyenna was a child, Great-aunt Enrid had told her stories of the constant battle between the queens of winter and summer—two women on opposite sides of the Balance. In winter, the summer queen was always forced to retreat to her personal domain far to the south. A place where summer never faded, where no one ever died of cold and where food was always fresh.
Ilyenna thought if she ever came to such a place, she’d never return to her home in the mountains. She hated winter, hated the
sickness, hunger, and death it brought. It had tried to break her once. She’d vowed it would never come so close again.
She trudged through the snow to the slight rise behind the clan house. There, snow-covered mounds dotted the hillside far back into the trees. A graveyard was a link between the living and the dead, and she had to speak with her mother. Twilight or morning was best. The dead were tied to night’s side of the Balance, as the living were tied to the day’s. She stopped at her mother’s grave.
“Mother…” She hesitated. It was dangerous to seek the dead’s attention. Dangerous because they might just decide Ilyenna should join them. “I need you to let Father and Bratton stay with me. I know you miss them. I know you long for them. But I–I’m not strong enough to lead the clan by myself. Please. If you hold any sway with death, let it pass them over.”
Wondering if she’d been heard, Ilyenna waited. Nothing happened. It was said that the dead no longer understood the living’s fondness for life. Ilyenna’s mother had died trying to save her. Perhaps it was selfish to ask for more. Perhaps Matka wouldn’t understand why Ilyenna wished her father and brother to remain in a world of cold and cruelty.
But she had watched so many die. She couldn’t bear to see her father and brother join them. As she turned to go, a small shadow fell across her. But that was impossible; the sun had yet to rise. She glanced at the sky. Frost was still falling, but one of the flakes was acting strangely, almost as if it was moving of its own will.
Ilyenna stared as it zipped and twisted, moving horizontally instead of downward as falling frost was meant to. But it moved so fast and erratically, Ilyenna kept losing sight of it. She started when she felt a strange pressure at her feet.
In the hollows of the snow, shadows boiled like cauldrons of vapors. Ilyenna’s breath caught in her throat. The shadows surged and spilled over her feet like smoke, then stretched up, reaching for her. She cried out as they crawled up her body, covering her like a second skin.
Ilyenna scrubbed at her arms, trying to remove the shadows, but they clung to her. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest as
she stumbled and fell back into the snow. Suddenly the shadows returned to the ground. She pulled her sleeves up, revealing her pale skin, no shadows in sight.
She scrambled to her feet and ran from the graveyard. At the clan house, she hurried past Enrid and went straight upstairs to her father. She knelt beside him, pressing her fingers to his face. He shifted away from her cold touch.
Moving to the other bed, she touched her brother. His fever had broken and his color was better. Relief warred with horror inside Ilyenna. She pressed her hands into her stomach and doubled over. It was never a good idea to attract the attention of the dead. But if she was careful, perhaps they would forget about her.
Besides, she’d had no choice.