Juno Books

An Excerpt from Nights of Sin by Matthew Cook


The cold is winning.

Snow descends from the dull gray vault above, whipped into a swirling maelstrom by the rising wind. Icy gusts cut through fur and leather like razors.

The cold, the insidious cold, slides phantom fingers into every fold, every crevice. My feet, wrapped in rags and laced into my sturdy boots, are distant, dim things. My hands are blocks of ice inside my fur-lined mittens.

Lia and I struggle against the gale, arm in arm. I know that should we become separated she will instantly be swallowed by the blowing curtains of snow. If that happens, I fear I shall never see her again.

Together we stumble up a gentle rise. It seems as steep as a mountain to our tired legs, pulling and pushing each other in turn. We reach the top. The ground beneath my feet and the sky above are smeared into a single featureless monotone. The snow shrouds any last trace of the path we have been following.

"This is no good! We need to find shelter!" I shout, loud enough to be heard over the wind. If we press on we might stumble over an unseen cliff or into an invisible crevice. We have been lucky so far, but I know if we press on blindly, sooner or later our luck will run out.

Lia nods, the gesture scarcely visible through her hood, but says nothing. I feel her shivers through the layers of cloth that envelop her.

I turn aside. If we are where I think we are, there should be cliffs nearby, many with sheltering caves. I have only ever seen them at a distance, but Rory came this way often and told me all about them.

If we are where I think we are. It is a frightening uncertainty in the face of the storm.

I curse myself as we struggle up the next slope. I saw the signs of the coming storm, smelled the snow on the wind. It would have been safer to wait and see how bad things got before committing us to the crossing. But this late in the summer, I knew this storm might be only the first of many.

The mountain passes, the only way down to the lowlands, could be blocked for months. If we don't make it across now, our journey to the Imperial City might be delayed until spring.

Inside, deep within my mind, my sister's spirit shifts restlessly at the thought. She does not voice her displeasure; there is no need. The idea of putting off my revenge for so long a time is unthinkable to us both. No, we will press on. The caves must be nearby.

We keep walking. The wind is now at our backs, which is an improvement. It seems to push us along, up, always up. Time passes, measured in gasped breaths and shuffling footsteps.

Despair settles over my heart as we top yet another hill. The cliffs have not appeared. Lia stumbles, dropping to her knees. This is not the first time she has fallen. I try to pull her to her feet, wondering if this time she will refuse to rise. After a struggle, she totters upright.

I lean towards her. "The caves are close!" I shout, hoping the words are not a lie.

"I am...sorry," she pants. "I cannot...I am so cold...Go ahead and...look for the caves. I will...stay here..."

I shake my head. "I'm not leaving you. Whatever happens, it will happen to the both of us. Now move!"

I give her arm a desperate yank and a moment later she groans and struggles forward. If I were religious, I would thank the gods. I would pray to them for strength, or for a break in the clouds, or for the smallest glimpse of the caves I so desperately hope are nearby.

But I am not on speaking terms with the higher powers. Asking them for assistance, after the monstrous crimes I have committed and after the oaths I have forsworn, would be worse than folly. For all I know, the storm was sent as an instrument of their capricious justice.

The wind shifts, turning its wrath directly into our teeth. Needles of ice sting the skin around my eyes, drawing forth tears that freeze on my numb cheeks. I brace myself, leaning into the punishing gusts.

Without warning, the swirling mists part, and there, just a few dozen paces away, are the cliffs. The sight of their jagged faces evokes a smile. I turn, and see Lia gazing at them as well.

Together, we continue the ascent. The promise of shelter sends a jolt of fresh strength into my half-frozen limbs. Minutes later, we stand at the cliffs' base. The wind drops close to the stone, baffled and shredded by the deep folds of rock.

We search, and soon find a shallow depression. It is not a cave, but it serves to shelter us from the worst of the wind. We sit, huddled, arms wrapped about each other for warmth. Lia's shivers rack her slender frame like tiny earthquakes.

"This still won't do," I say, pulling down my ice-encrusted scarf. "We need a proper roof, and a doorway we can seal with our packs, or with snow. If we don't, the cold will kill us. I will find something, I swear it. Do you understand?"

Lia stares at me for a moment, brows drawn down, as if she does not comprehend why I mean to take us back out in the storm. Then, she nods. Rising and helping Lia takes all my strength, and I realize that the next time I stop I will not be able to repeat the effort.

I push aside the thought. No sooner do we stumble from the meager shelter than the wind renews its assault, almost knocking me from my feet. I cannot feel anything but a vague numbness below my throbbing knees. My wrists ache abominably.

I have seen the results of frostbite: the blackened fingers and toes, the terrible infection that follows. The misery. The death. It may already be too late.

The thought sends a bolt of fear through me, momentarily stealing away my breath. Without my fingers, I cannot wield my bow. Without toes, I cannot march against my enemies. I will be crippled and useless, worse than dead.

Still grasping each other, we stagger along the cliff face. Lia's eyes are downcast, fixed on the snow. Mine roam over the stone, searching, searching. Gods damn it, where are the caves? Lia stumbles and nearly falls; would have fallen if not for my arm.

We cannot go on. Best to carve out a rude hole in the snow than to stay out here in the wind. It is what I should have done more than an hour ago. Then, I had the strength. I might have counted on Lia for help. But I can tell she is at the end of her endurance. If there is digging to be done, I must do it.

For the barest moment, I think about my monstrous children, the fruit of my forbidden knowledge. I called them my "sweetlings," but no one else would use such an endearment. Terrible engines of destruction, unstoppable and implacable. They would not feel the cold, save as a stiffening of their already dead flesh. Such work would be child's play for them.

No. I shake my head, commanding myself to not think of them. Even if there were a corpse nearby from which to summon one of my dark children, I would not, even if refusing to do so meant my own death. Nothing good can come from raising the dead; I know that now. My own son paid the price for my wicked knowledge, and I have sworn that no innocent shall ever pay it again.

I stop and turn Lia, forcing her to look at me. I open my mouth to speak, to tell her we must dig for our very lives. Before I can utter the words, the blowing snow parts behind her, and I see a dark shape, low to the ground. It is a faded, splintered thing. A six-armed cross of bleached wood adorned with the tattered remains of eagle feathers, half-buried in a drift. I recognize it instantly; realize what it means.

We are saved.

"Lia! Lia!" I say, shaking her. My voice is a whisper; the wind has snatched my breath away. "Come on, Lia, just a bit further. Just up there, I swear it."

She nods and allows me to push her along. Her lassitude would terrify me if I had the luxury to think on it, but I have no room for any thoughts beyond those of shelter.

Past the marker, I see a shadow, half-concealed behind a boulder. Dry scrub has been piled before the cave mouth; a simple screen. Removing it leaves me dizzy and breathless. Lia slumps against a nearby stone, unconscious or merely sleeping, I cannot tell.

I make a small opening, just large enough to squeeze through, then slip inside. A narrow fissure extends back into the stone. I consider drawing my knife, then decide that removing my mitten and fumbling inside my leathers will be too much effort. The still-intact screen at the entrance gives good odds that no animal has blundered inside.

Fifteen steps later, the shaft opens into a low-ceilinged cave. It is dry, but still numbingly cold. I see piles of wood, neatly stacked between simple pallets of evergreen branches. A ring of stones in the center of the floor forms a fire pit. I squat above it, tugging off one of my mittens with my teeth. The coals are dark, long-dead. Nobody has been here for days, maybe weeks.

My breath wreathes my face. Out of the wind, the cold is bearable. If I can get a fire going, it will warm us readily enough.

"Lia, we've made it," I say, not having to feign the happiness in my voice.

Despite my numb fingers, I manage to start a fire in the stone ring. When the flames have caught, I help Lia with her coat and gloves. She resists me, feebly.

"Let me be," she mumbles. "So tired."

"You must get warm," I insist, my clumsy fingers struggling with her gloves. The leather is stiff with melting ice.

I pull them off and hiss at the sight of her hands. They are waxy and white. Lia moans as I grasp them, massaging them gently. The skin is stiff and very cold.

"Lia, we must warm your hands right away," I say, trying to keep my voice calm. "The cold has begun to get inside of you. Tuck them under your arms until I can heat some water."

Lia follows instructions, dully, like a sleepwalker. I open my pack and begin to dig, looking for something to melt snow in. I uncover a battered tin pot. The fire will help, I know, but the best thing right now is warm water. It will coax her blood back into her fingers, hopefully before the frostbite can do its evil work.

I pause, the pot in my hand. An idea comes to me. I scowl and look over at Lia, shivering beside the small fire.

I must get her blood flowing.

I drop the pot with a clatter and kneel at Lia's side. I grasp her hand in mine, staring at the stricken limb with unblinking eyes. I have never done anything like this before, have never even considered the attempt. Worse, I have sworn, to myself and to others, that I would not call upon my forbidden talents ever again.

The memory of other soldiers I have known, victims all of frostbite, pushes aside my dread, replacing it with a different kind of urgency. I remember them, fumbling with cups or with their pipes, struggling to complete the simplest tasks with hands bereft of fingers. Remember faces hideously scarred, missing noses, cheeks pitted with sores which never managed to heal. Remember some of them dying, overwhelmed by gangrene.

No. I cannot allow that to happen. I will not. Not to Lia.

Silently, I call out to the blood magic sleeping in my belly, and feel it responding, uncoiling hot tentacles inside of me. The sensation evokes a bone-deep loathing, and I bite back nausea. I have not called upon my power for weeks. The last time I did, the last time I unleashed the crimson thirst, many Mor died, along with one other.

Along with my infant son. The inhuman power of the Mor, drawn into my body through the power of the blood magic, went also into him as he was struggling to be born. It killed him. I killed him.

After, when my son's tiny body was in the ground, I promised myself that I would deny it. That I would keep the oath I swore to myself to never use my forbidden knowledge. Now, that knowledge is Lia's best chance. I cup her chin and raise her face to mine. Our eyes meet.

"Kirin...? Wha--" Lia breathes, flinching away from my black-eyed gaze.

I hold her face in my hands. "Shhh. Stay still. I'll make things better. I promise. Trust me."

She hesitates, then nods. I feel her relax. She still trembles, but from the cold alone. I am as ready as I will ever be.

The blood magic flows from my body on unseen tendrils, bridging the space between us. They are ravenous, brutal things, made to rip, and tear, and drink. I struggle to control them, to force them into a new purpose.

In my mind's eye, through the lens of the blood magic, I see the ebb and flow of Lia's pulse. Her veins stand out against her flesh, limned in rose-tinted light. Her heart is a crimson star, pulsing in her chest.

Her hands are dark, lifeless. Her body has constricted the delicate vessels leading to her hands and fingers. The blood does not flow there. I look down and see that her feet are similarly dark. Without blood, the flesh has begun to succumb to the implacable cold.

I murmur a brief thanks to my mistress; if not for her teachings, and her wondrous books, the map of Lia's life would be unreadable, incomprehensible. With my healer's wisdom, however, mated to my sanguine power, there is hope that I can reverse the damage the cold has wrought.

I will the hungry tendrils away from Lia's fluttering heart, then force them outwards into the damaged limbs. They flow down her veins and through her flesh, all the way down to her half-frozen fingers. Vessels are pushed open, admitting streams of life-giving warmth. I see the slack fingers twitch, then curl slightly. Lia's expression darkens.

"It hurts," she whispers, then louder, "It burns. Kirin...I...Oh, gods, it burns!"

She raises her hands and shakes them, as if to dislodge the stinging thing which torments her. She stares, but of course there is nothing there; the power is working from within, invisible to mortal eyes.

Her moans escalate to screams, short, sharp barks of savage pain. I feel my control of the blood magic slipping. It is so hungry, mindless and primal, knowing only that it thirsts. If I slip, even for a moment, it will tear out her life by the roots in a welter of blood.

"Lia, be silent!" I say through clenched teeth. "The pain is a good thing. You must be still. You must trust me!"

Lia frowns but quiets her sobs. Tears roll down her pale cheeks, but for the moment she has mastered her fear.

I see with my enchanted eyes that Lia's hands are warming. There is damage, at the tips and in the joints, but it is minor. As I watch, I see the torn flesh mending, slowly and no doubt painfully, but mending nonetheless.

"Kirin! I...it is stopping. The pain is going away," she says, her eyes widening in wonder. The flesh that was but minutes before pale and mottled is pink now, the color of health.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not done yet," I say, turning my attention lower. Sweat rolls down my face, stinging my eyes and dripping from the point of my nose. It takes all of my concentration, all of my flagging will, to force the blood magic down, past her heart and lights, through the arteries running like mighty tunnels down her thighs, then lower still, into the chilled feet.

Lia moans once more as the tingling resumes, borne on a flood tide of blood. I see her fighting to remain still, to quell the sobs that tear at her. She is so brave. So brave.

Soon her feet are suffused with the same rosy glow as her hands. The damage is worse there, particularly in her toes, but I can see the tissues mending. With luck, I was quick enough to spare her the agony of gangrene.

I grip the threads of my magic and pull them, gently, back into myself. It resists, screaming defiance. It yearns to hook into the very fibers of her life, to pull it bodily forth, through nose and mouth, through eyes and other tender places.

We struggle, the blood magic and I, a silent battle held within my mind. For a heartbeat, I fear it will slip loose, will rampage through Lia's body, but an unexpected surge of fresh strength washes across me, ennobling me.

I grasp the tendrils with renewed vigor, bearing down with all of my remaining might, and pull. Slowly, so very slowly, it relents. They release their barbs, withdrawing from where they have tried to root. It keens its silent frustration, crying out with thwarted hunger, but it relents nonetheless. Defeated, it slips from Lia's body.

I slump to the chill stone, every muscle trembling. Well done, my sister's spirit whispers inside my head. For a moment there, I feared you would fail.

"You...helped me," I whisper, remembering the unexpected strength which bolstered me.

As I always do. So long as you do the right thing, I will always assist you. Always give you what I can.

Then Lia is there, beside me, lifting me from the cold, unyielding floor. Her hands are healthy and pink, spotted with tiny, inconsequential chilblains. I close my eyes and let my body relax, drinking in the fire's warmth.


We shelter in the safety of the cave as the storm rages outside. The tortured wind howls across the cliffs, spending its fury on the impervious rock, lashing it with icy whips. The storm dims the sky, turning day into twilight. After a time, the feeble light dims further, into night.

I husband our supply of wood; the cave is well provisioned, but I do not know how long it will need to last. Fortunately, the cave is set deep into the sheltering stone, and a small blaze is sufficient to keep us snug and warm.

"I have never heard of M'ash-vos," Lia says, looking up at the simple six-armed cross adorning the cave wall. It is the same shape as the half-buried marker outside.

"That's because you grew up in the City," I reply, stirring the cook pot. A barrel in the corner of the cave has yielded a scant harvest of dried apples and other vegetables, which now soften in melted snow. "M'ash-vos is a rural god, the patron of byways and travelers."

"And there are places like this all over the north?"

"Aye. They are his places of worship; his only church. The god's followers are called upon to provide whatever succor they can to those who walk the roads."

I sit back, sighing with contentment. The radiant heat from the fire soaks through my woolen hose, warming my toes. Delicious steam rises from the pot, curling in the air. We have shed our outer garments. They are spread beneath us, insulating us from the chill stone.

"Don't feel bad," I say. "My own childhood was spent in a small community, farmers mainly, as well as those who did business with them, and I never heard his name spoken either. It was Rory who first told me about the god of wanderers."

Lia cocks her head. "Rory was your teacher, yes? The man who taught you to track and to hunt?"

I nod. "Aye. He walked these roads for nearly two decades, and knew them better than I know the lines on the palm of my hand. He showed me many such sanctuaries, scattered all along the northern range. I knew if we could just reach the cliffs, it would only be a matter of time until I spotted one of M'ash-Vos's markers."

"Thank the gods you did," Lia says softly. "And...thank you for--"

I interrupt her, holding up my hand. "It was nothing. Please do not speak of it."

"But, Kirin, if not for you, I might have lost my fingers, or toes. What you did--"

"Is not worth mentioning," I almost shout, harsher than I intended. Lia frowns at my reaction, and I force the scowl off my face. She means well; she always means well, but this time her gratitude sickens me. I do not deserve it. If I had faltered for even a moment, and let go of my grip on the blood magic...

A shiver crawls down my spine at the thought. "Please, Lia, do not speak of it," I beg her. "I should not have even made the attempt. Warm water would have been safer."

Lia nods, understanding blossoming in her eyes. She was with me on the night that my son...on the night that he died. She knows all too well the circumstances of his death.

"I understand," she says simply, "but I still cannot help but be grateful that you tried, and succeeded."

She moves around the fire and sits beside me. Her hip presses against mine. Even through the layers of leather and cloth between us, I can feel her body's heat. She reaches out and cups my chin, lifts my face to hers.

For a moment, I refuse to look at her. The memory of the blood magic, flowing across my gaze, unnerves me.

You are in control, never forget that. The magic will obey, if you are strong, my sister whispers softly. What happened before...with the child...was a tragedy, but it was also an accident. You did not mean to do harm.

"Is she talking to you?" she asks, her eyes searching my face. Lia knows about my sister, and can recognize the signs when I am listening to her.

I look up, into her eyes. There is no slick uncoiling of power, no crimson thirst. For now, the blood magic is quiet, sleeping. Lia's eyes are wide, and clear, shining with the color of cloudless summertime skies.

I nod. "She says the blood magic will obey me. That it...that it won't...hurt you." The words snag in my chest with tiny hooks.

"I know you would never do that," Lia says. "I trust you."

She slides her hands up my arms, resting them on my shoulders. She is trembling, ever so slightly, the sensation traveling down her limbs and into my own flesh. She strokes my neck, hesitantly, soft as the touch of a feather. I feel my face flush.

"Lia, what are you--" I whisper, even as my body responds, knowing full well what she intends. She shushes me, placing two fingertips on my lips, then trails them, delicately, across my cheek.

"I know what I am doing, and what I want," she says, tucking a lock of my pale hair behind my ear. She leans towards me. There are no more words that need to be said.

I lie on our simple bed of piled blankets, close beside the fire. Tiny flames lick at glowing coals; it needs to be tended. I should get up and take care of it, but I do not wish to move.

Lia lies nestled against me, her head on my breast. I feel her, skin to skin, stretched along the length of my body, warm and supple and soft. I breathe in the smell of her hair, allowing my eyes to slowly close as sensation washes over me.

I hang, suspended in the moment, languid and pleasantly tired. The taste of her still lingers on my lips. For once, my mind is quiet, at peace. Then the moment passes and worry returns, gnawing like a rat at the fringes of my contentment.

It is not that she is a woman; I do not care about that. Nor do I care about the differences in our age or upbringing. All such concerns are trivial compared to the shared peril which unites us.

No, I know perfectly well the source of my concern. I scoff at falling prey to such a base superstition, even as the rats redouble their efforts, gnawing with their sharp, sharp teeth.

You are frightened because everyone you have loved, or who you gave your body to, has ended up dead, my sister whispers.

She is right, of course. She dwells in my mind; I cannot keep secrets from her, even if I would try to keep them from myself. Tears sting my eyes.

In the cave's darkness, I can almost see my sister's ghost, sitting next to me beside the fire, her pale hair and heart-shaped face, identical to mine in every detail. Kirin, my twin, the woman whose name I took for my own, the soul I called back from the lands of the dead and brought into my own body, so many years ago. One name for two joined souls.

"Yes," I whisper back. "All are dead. Some by my own hand. All save Urik and he..." A fist seems to squeeze my heart. I cannot say it.

He is still out there. Somewhere. And he has sworn to kill you when he finds you, she finishes for me. Tears roll down my face. Urik, my husband, the man who beat and humiliated me, a lifetime ago. The man who has already tried once to end my life.

Given my unlucky past, I suppose I can be forgiven a small measure of distrust. I have not had many lovers, but what my sister says is true. Marcus, my sister's husband and murderer. Rory, my mentor, who never lay with me but who would have, had I not used the blood magic to rebuke him. Even Jazen Tor--oh, gods, poor Jazen--the dead father of my dead son. All who have loved me, or lusted after me, are gone or, like Urik, are irrevocably broken.

I do not want that to happen to Lia. I will not allow it. I should not have let her kiss me. Let her touch me like she did, or responded with my own ardent caresses. Should not have surrendered to the sweet temptation.

Gently, I move from beneath her, slipping out of our warm nest to stand in the chill darkness. Fresh wood blooms into flames when placed on the dying coals. Soon the fire is flickering merrily once more in its ring of stones.

I sit in the flickering light and listen to Lia's gentle, ladylike snores. Outside, the wind howls and tries once more to tear down the walls of our sanctuary. I do not sleep.

The storm breaks the next morning. The cave seems smaller somehow, without the ever-present gale rumbling outside. I put on my leathers and my heavy cloak and move to the entrance. The screen is almost completely blocked; only the top foot is unburied. Lia and I take turns in the cramped passage, pushing it out until we can slip past.

The rising sun, unseen for days, draws tears from my dazzled eyes. It is shockingly cold outside, a bone-deep chill that freezes my lashes and the tender flesh inside my nose. I pull my scarf higher and adjust my mittens.

Everywhere the world is white. Snow is piled in mammoth drifts against the stone cliff, the rounded hills sparkling like diamonds beneath a sky of flawless azure. The path is invisible, buried beneath feet of snow. Far below, two or three days walk, at least, the smooth white gives way to the mottled blacks and browns of stone and bare ground.

"I thought we had time to get through the passes before the snows began," Lia says. She hugs herself. Her winter gear is a collection of ill-fitting hand-me-downs, not as thick as mine.

"As did I. Winter will be arriving early this year, it seems. We should take advantage of this and make a break for the low country before the gods decide to throw more storms our way."

I speak the words lightly, as if in jest, but I immediately regret them. I wonder if the early snow is indeed some punishment sent by the higher powers to hinder us. I curse myself silently for a fool; best to nip that poisonous flower at the bud before it can fully bloom. Lia shoots me a backwards glance, and I can tell she wonders, too.

"Come on," I say, wading through the thigh-high snow, back towards the cave mouth. "The day's not getting any younger and we've miles to go before nightfall."

Lia has been a good student; it takes her just a few minutes to pack her things and roll her blanket. I fill my cook pot with snow and pour it onto the coals. Burnt-smelling steam fills our sanctuary. Before I take my leave, I pull half a loaf of trail bread from my pack and lay it on the stones beneath the six-limbed cross.

"What is that for?" Lia asks.

I stare at the symbol of M'ash-Voss for a moment, silently thanking the god for his hospitality. I turn away, adjusting my pack straps. "Because we can use all the help that comes our way," I say. "And only a fool intentionally spurns the goodwill of the gods."

We make good time, despite the clinging snow. Though the air is well below freezing, the sun buoys our spirits and warms our bodies. We walk single file, more often than not with Lia following in my tracks. When I cannot breast the snow any longer, we trade places, but such rests do not last long. As strong as the trail has made the young elementalist, she still lacks the strength and fortitude that my years on the road have given me.

I look back, along our trail. It is a marker I would erase, if I could. It stretches behind us like an arrow, aimed straight at our backs, screaming our presence to any unwelcome eye.

Always, I look for movement. My eyes never rest. I know the Mor might be nearby; before the snow forced us from the road, I saw many of their tracks in the damp earth. Some were very fresh, a day or two old, at most. They are inhuman and powerful, masters of rock and fire, strong beyond mortal understanding. The storm would not have driven them away; it would only have slowed them.

I call a stop when the sun is still hours above the horizon. The lowlands are nearer now, the snow line tantalizingly close, but I know we cannot reach it before nightfall. With the dark will come its mistress, the gnawing cold. I do not wish to be out in that again.

We sleep in a snow cave, dug with our own hands into the side of a drift. Our packs block the outer entrance, sealed with more snow. I light a candle. After a time, our bodies and the small flame warm the tiny shelter. Lia presses against me, our shared body warmth keeping us comfortable until dawn.

The next day dawns gray and damp. I smell snow on the air. I rouse Lia and drag her, grumbling, into the rising light. We are still too high for my comfort. All morning, fat, white flakes drift down, threatening, but never quite managing, to become a storm.

I finally relax when the black backs of stones begin to jut up through their covering of white. Soon I hear the crunch of gravel beneath my boots. After days of wind and the constant crackle of ice, the sound is as sweet as music. I spy the wayward trail in the distance, farther away than I thought it would be, and turn towards it.

"I am so tired," Lia grumbles, stopping to drink from her water skin. "How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"March like that. You are so...I mean to say..."

I grin, and hold out my hand for the water. "So old, you mean?" I tease, throwing my head back and taking a long swallow.

Lia laughs. "Not so old as all that," she says. "But still, I should be keeping up. It is not as if I am a weakling. When I was a girl, I hiked often along the trails surrounding my father's summer home."

"That, I suspect, was tamer country. Groomed and wrestled into civilized submission. This is a wilder place, unforgiving and cruel. You're doing quite well, trust me."

She grins at my praise, pleasure lighting her face like a lantern. Careful now, my sister says. Even as learned as she is, and after the terrible things she has experienced, Lia is, in many ways, still a girl. Trust is one thing, but adoration is quite a different matter.

I think about our night in the cave, bodies pressed together, hungry mouths drinking in deep kisses. Think about Lia kneeling before me, no blushing, tentative virgin but rather a skilled and confident lover, giving and receiving pleasure without shame or hesitation, and wonder if my sister has the right of it. The memory evokes a tingling deep inside, a primal, animal passion I have not felt for a long, long time.

I hand Lia her water skin, holding onto it for a moment to prolong the contact of our gloved hands. She smiles at me, and I can tell she feels it, too.

Somewhere below, a ringing note sounds out. I recognize the sound: an army signal, blown on an Imperial brass horn. It calls out in distress, summoning help.

Lia and I look at each other, then turn and hurry along the trail. The sound is close, perhaps little more than a mile; less than two, certainly. Before long, we hear the ghostly sound of men yelling, mixed with the chime of steel weapons. The incongruous smell of something burning reaches us, carried on the freezing wind.

Burning. The Mor.

No sooner do I think of them than I hear their weird, piping battle cries. Even though the smallest of the Mor stands a full three heads taller than a man, with chests deeper than wine barrels, their voices are reedy and thin, more like bird song played on a panpipe than proper language.

I fumble my bow from its place under my cloak and whip the string from beneath my shirt. It is dry and pliant, warm from the heat of my breast. A moment later the big horn and ash bow, Marcus's hunting bow, is strung and ready. I pull a broad-head arrow from my quiver and set it to the string.

I look at Lia; there is lightning flashing in her eyes. It is a small thing now, the barest hint of movement and light, but I know such appearances can be misleading.

We round a bend in the trail and see a column of smoke, rising from behind the next curve. Mor tracks are thick upon the ground, the wide, four-toed marks pressed inches deep into the frozen mud. There are many; too many.

Without a sound, Lia and I hurry towards the sounds of the melee.

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