Burn brightly. Love fiercely. For all else is dust.
Every child of Glasnith learns the last words of Aillira, the god-gifted mortal whose doomed love affair sparked a war of gods and men, and Lira of clan Stone knows the story better than most. As a descendant of Aillira and god-gifted in her own right, she has the power to read people's souls, to see someone's true essence with only a touch of her hand.
When a golden-haired warrior washes up on the shores of her homeland-one of the fearful marauders from the land of the Frozen Sun-Lira helps the wounded man instead of turning him in. After reading his soul, she realizes Reyker is different than his brethren who attack the coasts of Glasnith. He confides in her that he's been cursed with what his people call battle-madness, forced to fight for the warlord known as the Dragon, a powerful tyrant determined to reignite the ancient war that Aillira started.
As Lira and Reyker form a bond forbidden by both their clans, the wrath of the Dragon falls upon them and all of Glasnith, and Lira finds herself facing the same tragic fate as her ancestor. The battle for Lira's life, for Reyker's soul, and for their peoples' freedom has only just begun ...
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It was no small thing to touch a man's soul. To trace the essence of his being, know him as no one — not his mother, brother, or lover — ever could.
Each soul I'd touched was different. They could be dark or light, warm or cold, sharp-edged or smooth. They contained colors and shapes that didn't exist in our world. Some hummed, sang, or screamed. Some smelled of metal, others tasted like salt. Often I saw scattered images of things the person loved, hated, or feared.
No matter what a soul was like, I sensed its burdens. The weight of guilt was distinct.
The prisoner standing before me, the cord of his life tangling fatefully with mine, was a herdsman named Dyfed. His ankles and wrists were shackled, but my brothers and uncle still held him as Father ushered me forward.
"I done nothing wrong, milady," Dyfed said.
I placed my palm inside his tunic, against his chest. His heart drummed nervously beneath my hand. I closed my eyes, searching.
Around me, the great hall disappeared. I floated in the gauzy realms of the intangible. This man's soul was sharp and light, spread out before me. A warm sphere in its center held an imprint of his family. I waded through pride, love, disappointment; each emotion had its own texture and consistency. I caught a glimpse of what I sought, appearing as if from a fog: the outline of swords, poleaxes, bows. A cartload of weapons, shrouded in cold guilt.
I let go and took a step back.
"Well, Lira?" Father asked. "Did he steal from the armory?"
This was my role in our clan: I'd been touched by the gods, born with the ability to read souls. While other god-gifted women of my island — the Daughters of Aillira, as we were called — were adept at healing, storytelling, navigation, and foretelling foul weather — my gift was different. As a soul-reader, I could steal a man's secrets, reveal his darkest sins.
Father trusted me. I could not lie. "He is guilty, as suspected."
"You're wrong!" Dyfed cried. With a quick jerk, he pulled free from the other men, grabbing my arms. His red-rimmed eyes bored into mine. "There's more. Look again, soul-reader, and you will see —"
My uncle, Madoc, tackled Dyfed, slamming his head against the ground, and Dyfed's eyes rolled up until only the whites showed. My older brother, Garreth, kicked the prone herdsman for good measure, cursing him beneath his breath. When Garreth turned, we shared the briefest of looks, but much was said. Father is wrong to use you this way, he seethed in a silent language only siblings could share. Mother would never have allowed this.
Mother would want our clan to be safe, I responded. I want to help, however I can.
We'd quarreled over this point many times. Was it right for me to be a man's judge? Was it right for Father to ask it of me? I knew Garreth's feelings on the matter. I'd yet to find answers that satisfied my own conscience.
My younger brother, Rhys, clasped my elbow, offering what comfort he could.
"Ready the gallows," Father said to Madoc, "and inform the chieftain and the villagers that there's to be an execution."
My throat tightened at the word. I'd condemned men before, but they had been whipped, imprisoned, or exiled. Never executed. Madoc's spine stiffened at being given an order by his younger brother. His mouth was an angry slit in his hardened face, but he grabbed Dyfed by the chains on his wrists and dragged him away. When they were gone, Father sighed and bent over the grand table that took up a corner of the room, palms pressing against the tabletop. On the back of his right hand was the warrior-mark of the Sons of Stone, my clan's legion of warriors: three swords in the shape of a triangle, inked onto the back of the sword-hand so any man foolish enough to cross blades with them would know which clan was about to send him to his grave.
Between Father's hands lay a map of Glasnith, detailing all the village names and the clans who controlled them. I could see Stony Harbor depicted at the very top of the map — the seat of clan Stone, ruled by Lord Aengus, my grandfather. Our village was reduced to a name and the triad of swords that was our clan's symbol. I'd watched my father study this map, seeing the keen way his mind sorted through lists of landholdings and goods produced, access to ports and trade routes, quality and quantity of combat forces. He was always looking for opportunities to strengthen our clan's position within the convoluted web of alliances.
My brothers and I had been taught by our father to be silent and still when he conducted clan business. We stood like statues, waiting for him to address us.
"Garreth." Father's voice cut through the air like a lash. My brother straightened his spine even farther, pulling his shoulders back. "You cannot allow your anger to get the best of you. Beating an unconscious prisoner is unseemly and beneath your station."
Garreth stepped forward. "The thief went after Lira, Commander. I should have done worse." He spoke with quiet respect, but rage simmered beneath the surface.
"If you wish to be commander one day, you must conduct yourself as a highborn warrior rather than a witless barbarian." Father stood eye-to-eye with his eldest child, regarding him with deep-seated frustration. The resemblance between them was so strong they looked like different-aged versions of the same man. "You'll be mucking out the hog sties this week instead of patrolling. That ought to cool your temper."
Garreth's face reddened. "But, Father —"
"Commander," he corrected. "And that was an order, not a request. You are dismissed." For a moment, I thought Garreth would argue, but then his mouth clicked shut. His steps, as he departed, were louder than necessary.
Father had always been hard on Garreth, grooming him to be a commander, possibly a chieftain. I knew he feared Garreth's dark moods and quick temper might turn him into a man more like Madoc than himself.
"Are you all right, daughter?" Father turned to me. When I nodded, he sighed again and ran a hand across his jaw. "What your brother did was wrong, but I cannot say the prisoner didn't deserve it."
"Father." I approached the table. "Please. Don't execute him. Dyfed is not an evil man. I saw —"
"Lira. As always, I thank you for your help, but you must leave decisions regarding men's punishments to me." He kissed the top of my head, a doting gesture left over from when I was small. Sadness glinted in his gaze. With each passing year, I looked more like my mother. I had the same long hair, a shade of red so dark it was nearly purple. I had the same eyes, a color Father called springtime grass. It must have hurt him to look at me, a constant reminder of what he'd lost. What we'd all lost.
"Rhys?" At the sound of his name, my younger brother's face lit up, eager for our father's attention. "Escort your sister home."
"No," I said. "I condemned Dyfed to death. I must bear witness to his execution." When Father started to protest, I overruled him with the logic he used on his own warriors. "How can I understand the consequences of my actions if I do not see them through to the end?"
Father regarded me. "Condemning a man is very different than watching him die. I'd prefer to spare you this, but if it's what you wish, I'll allow it."
"Very well. Rhys, escort your sister to the gallows."
My brother led me outside. We made our way out of the great hall, past the cells, stopping at the back of the crowd that was already gathering around the gallows. The grim tidings had spread quickly. "Why are you doing this?" Rhys asked.
"You know why." I loved both of my brothers dearly, but they filled very different spaces within my life. Garreth was my self-appointed mentor and protector, and Rhys was my friend. He understood me, as I did him.
"It's not your fault, Lir. Dyfed stole from our clan. That makes him a traitor. He earned his death sentence." These were Father's declarations, coming from my brother's mouth.
"You believe that no more than I do."
"It doesn't matter what we believe. Grandfather is chieftain. Father and Madoc are commanders, as Garreth will be one day. But you and I are followers. I'm a second-born son and a terrible warrior. You're god-gifted and smart, but you're still only a girl to them. Our place is to do as we're told. We've no other worth."
"Father's a second son."
"I'm not Torin." Rhys had the same nut-brown hair and eyes as Father and Garreth, but the similarities ended there; they were born warriors, but Rhys was a quiet, gentle soul. "You should leave Stony Harbor, Lir. You should go to Aillira's Temple. At least there you'll be allowed to make your own choices."
There were two diverging paths my life could take. As a god-gifted Daughter of Aillira, I could pledge myself to Aillira's Temple, a sanctuary in the center of Glasnith where girls like me went to study with priestesses, learning how to hone their abilities and use them to serve the gods. Or I could marry a highborn lord from an allied clan and sire children to continue the traditions of our clans and country. Both were lifelong commitments. My father had left it for me to decide, but there was little time left. It was only half a year until my eighteenth birthday, when I would have to give an answer. I'd not yet chosen. The notion that I must choose one, and that there were no options but these, rankled me.
"What, and leave my wee brother to care for himself?" I spoke in jest, but it was the truth. How could I leave Rhys, or Garreth or Father? How could I ever choose to be parted from my family? "You're more than a second son and a lousy warrior to me, you know."
"Aye, I'm the sap who helps you sneak around and defy Father's orders all the time." Rhys's tone was light, but his grip on my arm tightened. The crowd around us had grown. Dyfed's son Ennis was here, pale and frightened, glaring when he saw me.
I was the soul-reader, the one who judged men's guilt. The one who'd damned his father.
Would the other Daughters of Aillira at the temple hate or fear me as the villagers did?
Garreth spotted us, pushing his way through the crowd. "What are you doing here?" He stepped to my side, taking my other arm. "We're going home, Lira. I won't let you watch this."
"No." I held firm. "This is my choice. I'm staying."
Besides, it was too late. Father and Madoc were already steering Dyfed toward the scaffolding steps, his wrists and ankles still chained. Lord Aengus was with them. The chieftain was an older man, his hair and beard gray, his face wrinkled, but he still carried himself like the great warrior he'd once been.
Father threw the rope over the gallows' crossbeam. Madoc knotted the noose.
I could hardly bear to look at Dyfed as he was made to stand upon a crate beneath the gallows. He shook with terror.
"Dyfed of Stone," Aengus called loudly, "you have been found guilty of stealing weapons from your own clan. For this crime, you are sentenced to hang. May the god of death have mercy on your sinful soul."
"Look away, Lira," Garreth said.
I didn't. Madoc kicked the crate out from under Dyfed's feet. The herdsman thrashed, swinging from the noose. His son cried out, but others cheered.
Rhys and Garreth stood on either side of me, as if their presence could protect me from the sight, the awful consequences of using my gift. I swallowed hard to keep from retching and clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms.
I had done this. I helped kill this man.
I watched until it was over, until Dyfed dangled motionless. The rope creaked in the wind. Only then did I let my brothers lead me away.
When we neared the stables, I pulled free from them. "I want to ride."
My brothers followed me as I entered the stables, breathing in the scent of straw and manure. Winter stuck her head out, whickering. I scratched between her ears and she pressed her muzzle against my chest. The beautiful white mare had been a gift from Father.
Garreth shook his head. "You're going home."
"Don't you have pig shite to shovel?" I ignored him and looked to my younger brother. "Please, Rhys. I need to get away. Just for a little while."
"No," Garreth said again.
Rhys hugged me. "Go on," he said. "Just be careful."
"Always." Through my skirts, I patted the knife sheathed to my thigh. I was on Winter's back and out of the stables in a flash, leaving Rhys to deal with Garreth's ire.
Our village was surrounded by the Tangled Forest, where trees warred, trunks and branches coiling together, competing for soil and sun — what appeared at first glance to be single, colossal trees were actually many plants knotted in strangleholds. I rode until the trees ended and the land dropped away in sheer bluffs that loomed over the crashing waters below.
The sea had turned angry, foam coating its surface like sugared icing. Anad, the god of wind, was fighting with his jealous wife, Faerran, goddess of the sea. Their passionate clashes flooded villages and sank ships.
The bluffs were the northernmost part of our island. I'd never left Glasnith, but Father and Garreth had taught me, through maps and stories, about the lands beyond. To the east were the Auk Isles, an archipelago of forests and farmlands, their people similar to my own. Sanddune and Savanna were arid landmasses to the south, ruled by dusk-skinned strandlopers and bushmen. The rocky northern isles of Skerrey were populated with hardy fishermen and whalers who kept to themselves. And if you sailed far enough west, you might find the elusive lands of the Frozen Sun.
The legends of the Westlanders were far-fetched: stories about frost giants with hearts of ice and souls of fire. I wondered how it would feel to touch a soul made of fire. Would it hurt? Could it burn me?
I glanced down at my wrist, at the strange, small scar there — slim white lines that curved at the ends and came together into a shape that resembled a small flame. A wound from a long-ago dream. A dream I still didn't understand.
I looked back at the sea.
Here, in this beloved place, I could let myself imagine a third option for my life. Not to be tied to a husband or a temple, but to explore the world. To cross the oceans spread out before me. To trek across hills of red sand, summit mountains made of blue ice, speak exotic languages, treat with mysterious tribes from other lands. This was the life my heart yearned for. A life I could never have because girls were considered too fragile to be explorers, and a chieftain's granddaughter — a Daughter of Aillira, no less — was too valuable to set free.
Above, clouds scraped across firmament, torn asunder by Anad's breath. The water swallowed the sun, and Nesper, god of the heavens, split the sky into flecks of blue, orange, and gold. The stars were Nesper's children, appearing loyally to flicker and shine.
The scar on my wrist tightened suddenly, a warm flutter inside my skin — a thing it had never done before. I shook my hand and the sensation ceased. It must have been my nerves running riot.
Back in the village, they would cut Dyfed's body down from the gallows. The priest would read verses from the Immortal Scriptures and set fire to his body. Dyfed's family would pray and weep as it burned.
Quiet, humble Dyfed. Guilty but not evil.
I pushed the thoughts away. Rhys was right — we were followers, with no say in the laws of our people. I could do nothing for Dyfed now except beseech mighty Gwylor, the god of death, to be merciful and accept the herdsman into his Eternal Palace.
My dreams of adventure were useless, selfish. I should care more about what I could do for the people of my clan and my island. I owed it to my mother to make my life mean something, to make myself worthy of the sacrifice she had made for me.
I kneeled at the edge of the bluffs, head bowed, offering prayers to the gods for Dyfed's soul, and my own, until my knees and head ached. Please, I begged, fingers digging into the earth, let me use my gift for healing instead of hurting, for helping instead of damning.
A gust of wind tore at my hair, whistled in my ear.
Wait, it promised.CHAPTER 2
Had I not been burdened by the herdsman's death, I might not have lain awake that night. I might not have decided to sneak from my family's cottage to walk along the harbor.
How different my life might have been.
The sky was a black shroud. By the gleam of moon and stars, I crossed the hills of our village, where they sloped down to meet the pebble-strewn shore. Gray water funneled around the massive sea-worn boulders Stony Harbor was named for. The harbor was placid, its waters protected by arms of rocky cliffs stretching out on either side, ragged, like they'd been chiseled haphazardly by a drunken god. Fishing vessels were tied along the wooden pier, buoyed on the swells rolling in. Just beyond the harbor lay the Shattered Sea, full of jagged stone pillars rising like teeth from beneath the wild waves.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beasts of the Frozen Sun"
Copyright © 2019 Jill Criswell.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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