Lark has foreseen two things—she will fall for a young man with sage green eyes,and he will kill her.
Sixteen-year-old Lark Carew is happiest close to home, tending her garden and gathering herbs for medicines. But when her Sight warns her that monsters called Troths will soon invade her village, Lark is summoned on a journey to seek help from the legendary Riders of Tarnec. Little does she suspect that one of the Riders, Gharain, is the very man who has haunted her visions. Or that the people of Tarnec have called her there for another reason: Lark is the Guardian of Life, the first of four Guardians who must awaken their powers to recover four stolen amulets. Together, the amulets—Life, Death, Dark, and Light—keep the world in Balance. To take back the Life amulet, Lark will have to discover her true inner strength and give in to a love that she swears will be her downfall.
“A beautifully realized world, a unique voice, and a compelling, action-packed story. This is a striking debut novel with a lovely folkloric flavor.” —Juliet Marillier, author of Wildwood Dancing
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The hawk brought the first of the signs.
I would not have paid attention to him, as creatures of leg and wing often follow me. But this young male lit upon the fence as I pulled at the roots of a ghisane. Ghisane and hawk are unwilling neighbors. If it dares, a dormouse can find protection beneath its branches, as a hawk will not come near. And yet this hawk flew to the fence, nearly brushing the leaves of the hated bush, and sat watching me. I had to pause in my work and regard him sternly, saying, "If you stay too long, young harrier, I will not finish my task." And so he stayed but a moment before taking flight, yet not without leaving me the message he carried. As he left the fence, a small thing fell from his grip and fluttered into my lap. I picked it up: the feather from a lark.
My grandmother's voice was loud enough to carry across the field. Turning, I could see her standing by the herb shed, another bundle of something or other weighting her arms. "Come, Lark. Leave that!"
And so I left the ugly ghisane half ripped, and crossed the shorn grass. Rileg, the sheep hound, heaved up on his three legs to follow.
"Grandmama, I should not leave the bush undone. It will reach its roots farther and double by the evening," I warned as I neared.
"Then be quick with this meadsweet. The buds must be pulled immediately upon cutting." She gave over the enormous bundle into my arms. "Put the leaves in the green pot and any flowers in the blue, but bring the buds in your apron to the press. We must squeeze them before that cloud passes the sun." She pointed to the single white dab in the bright sky. "Hurry, then. What's that in your hand?"
I opened my fist to show her the feather. I did not tell her how it came to me. She looked at it for a moment, and then at me. "A third one?" she asked.
I shrugged a little hard.
Grandmama gave her half smile, the knowing one. "Hurry, then," she repeated, and stumped away on stiff limbs.
"Three is not so many," I said to Rileg as he joined me to sit in the shade of the herb shed. My hands made light work of the meadsweet. Poor Grandmama. Her gnarled fingers would no longer work the small tasks; Evie and I were required for those. Yet she had no less energy, and so put her leftover stamina into creating more oils, balms, and medicines from the variety of herbs we grew. No one could enter the village of Merith's marketplace without a stop at our booth. It smelled sweet and warm and healing all in one breath. Even Krem Poss had ceased selling his herbs at market and let us pay to harvest his lavender for our own concoctions. "More profit thisaway," he'd said with a shake of his bald head. "You've powerful magic, you ladies."
Magic it was not, though a little might do no harm. Hard work was the way of getting things done, and, Grandmama would scoff, Master Poss had little enthusiasm for that. But magic is always the easy interpretation for things. And besides, since I had the Sight, and my grandmother and cousin were Healers, it was a natural expectation that our abilities included making spells.
Three is not so many. One feather I'd found under a stone the morning before when I was weeding through the mugwort. I happily showed it to Grandmama, for it is a blessing to find one's namesake. The second was threaded into a lilac, brown against the green. Grandmama saw me working it out of the branches that afternoon. This third one I'd not willingly discuss, though. Grandmama would rightly see it as portentous, for things that came in threes were always of note. But that this feather was brought by the hawk meant something more:
It was a sign.
Our village of Merith enjoyed all whims of Nature, whether as harbingers of news or insignificant pranks. But things messengered or distinguished by animal were a more serious matter, for they were signs, and if three signs were bestowed on a person, it meant that person was summoned, bound to a task, whatever the task might be.
Now a hawk had brought thisa sign made of my own namesake, even, as if he'd shaken his wing at me and said, "You, young Lark, may not ignore this."
My first sign. But would I be summoned? And if so, summoned to what? Anxiety nipped at the edges of these thoughts, but I pushed them aside; I would ignore this. Grandmama might hold her suspicions, but not Inot on this beautiful day, not here within our peaceful, beloved cottage and grounds. A bound summons was rare anyway; the last one I could recall involved our neighbor Gaben Rawl, who was summoned to divine the placement of a new common well in Crene. Villagers chuckled that the sheep shearer was the one chosen to find water, but in truth Gaben had masterfully selected the spot to dig where no others thought to try.
If I were summoned, what would I, the shy granddaughter of Hume Carew, be asked to do? I was good only at working in our gardens. Maybe I'd have to find one of Gaben's sheep.
The thought made me grin. And within this safe moment of a pristine afternoon, I took the lark feather from my pocket and held it up. "If this be the first sign, is there another?" I called out, giving a challenging stare over our land. "Am I summoned?" But the sky held no birds; the fields showed no creatures. I looked over to Rileg, who sprawled at my side.
"Well?" I asked him with a laugh. "Have you anything to give me?"
Rileg lifted his head, panted a wet grin, and licked my hand.
Grandmama had her meadsweet buds before the cloud nudged the sun. I returned to the fence to find the ghisane sprouting two new bush roots. I let Rileg worry at one of them while I tore at the other. Usually, I feel sorrow for weeds as I pull them, but never for the ghisane. Black-leaved and thorny, it is an evil little thing, like a spy from Dark Wood, ready to infiltrate and consume all beauty. Any bush roots must be pulled on sight and burned, and it is no easy task to get all of the bits from the earth.
Hard work did not bother me, nor any of my small family. We each had our talentsinstinct-driven perhapsand used them for good. In return, the earth was generous, creatures were fair, and we drew respect in our village. I liked the repetition of this quiet earthwork, the simplicity and comfort of the familiar. This day, like most summer days, the sun beamed down warm and encouraging, the breeze was soft against leaf and skin, and my fingers dug deep into the moist dirt. I was happiest at these outdoor chores, which kept me close to home and family, kept me far from crowds and strangers.
"Come, Rileg," I said. It was late when I had finished. The original ghisane was at last uprooted; so were its volunteers, as well as four other bush roots I'd found. I'd lit the fire to burn them, done my silly superstitious dance to ward against more invasionsleaping with Rileg while he barked at my laughterand scooped the ash to toss over the fence, back into Dark Wood.
That is when the second sign arrived.
The hush before something powerful occurs makes the hair prick on the back of my neck. My hair is heavy and long; the pricking runs like a cold breath across each strand. It was so as I stood there, ash in hand. The cold blew over my neck, and I looked unwillingly to the far edge of the field, at the fence bordering on the other side of the surrounding Dark Wood. A fox was there, his height not quite reaching the lowest railing. Rileg tensed beside me, quiet.
"Stay," I whispered. Rileg sat like a stone.
I threw the ash, for it is not something with which to greet a visitor, and walked toward the end of the field. The fox came under the fence a few lengths and paused. There was something in his jaw. He met me halfway, dropped the wretched thing, and backing up two steps, waited for my response.
Had I been Grandmama or Evie, I could have looked at that thing in the grass without horror. But I am not of their Healer stoicism. It took a moment before I could speak.
"This is not your fault," I whispered, a little hoarsely now. "I thank you."
The fox inclined his head and turned, letting his beautiful tail spiral as he ran off.
With fingers that trembled, I undid the sash to my apron and took it off, using it to collect the object. I called to Rileg and he loped across the grass, elegant in spite of his missing limb. Together we left the field as the sun was setting.
"All right. It is time."
The hour was late, and only now would we inspect the thing I'd brought home. Grandmama insisted when she saw my awful expression that the bundled apron remain outside, and that we continue with our evening meal and chores as usual.
"All will be well, Lark," she'd said simply, and told me to set the table.
We ate our cress soup and oat bread, though I had little appetite; we listened to Evie's tales from market, washed our dishes, swept the floor, and made all the necessary accountings in the ledger of the day's profits and expenses as if nothing were different from any other evening. But then Grandmama took out the special bottle of honeyed mead and poured three thimblefulsa swallow is all that is needed for fortification. And she said, "Get the apron, Lark."
I retrieved it from the porch. Dark stuff had already seeped through the fabric. I liked that apron; I wondered if anything would take out the stain, or if I could even bear to wear it again. I laid the bundle on the kitchen table, atop an oiled canvas that Evie had spread.
"There, now, let us see what this is about." Grandmama undid the wrapping, taking responsibility for whatever bad thing could enter our home. I winced as she spread open the cloth. Evie and Grandmama did not.
"The fox did not do this," I whispered.
"One of our townspeople?" Evie mused, regarding the severed hand. "But why such a presentation?"
"I believe it's more of a warning than a presentation," Grandmama answered. "Look there: no ring on the finger." Every male villager upon his twelfth year weaves his own unique strand of leather to wear on his left third finger. This hand belonged to someone who could have worn one for more than sixty years.
"Perhaps he was not from our town." I still whispered. "A traveler, then?"
"Nay." Grandmama answered to that too. "Look at the markthe change of color on his finger, like a band. He wore a ring once."
"But those bits of leather hold no value for anyone but the owner," reasoned Evie. "Why would someone remove it?"
"Someone, or something. As I said: a warning."
I looked to Grandmama, saw her face draw ever so slightly into an expression of concern. I looked over to Evie, my beloved cousin, who, rather than concern, held an open look of curiositythe mind of a scholar. Like Grandmama, Evie could help most anyone in need. And if she could not, then it was not to be; the Earth was reclaiming her children and Evie was not pained. It was so with this hand. Gruesome as it was, Evie simply wanted to know what had happened.
"This hand was severed on purpose," continued Grandmama. "No battle would yield so ragged a cut."
Evie nodded. "Yes, but lookthe fingers have scrapes and tears, and a nail missing. There was a fight."
"Or at least he resisted." Grandmama's voice had dropped a bit, losing some of its musical quality. I took a shaky breath at that, for there was foreboding now in her tone. "Let's turn this over, shall we?" And on saying so, she took a corner of the apron and placed the orphaned hand palm down. The fingers curled under.
Grandmama's intake of breath was awful in its depth. She stepped back, her gnarled fingers grabbing for the chair nearby. Evie and I immediately put our arms out to support her, but already she was upright and solid once more. I looked to the table, to the hand buckled upon it. It had been burned, the back of itsome sort of brand seared right into the flesh. For a moment I stayed still, letting the thimble of drink I'd swallowed work its soothing effects, drawing the last pleasure from the heat that ran up and down my throat. Then I made myself join Evie, who was bent over, inspecting the marking. Our hair fell straight, pooling together at the edge of the table in similar fashionmine the bright brown of an acorn, hers the silvery color of the moon. We were like that: odd complements of each other. Cousins, born on the same day, in the same hour; single daughters of twin sisters. We had the same birthmark too, just above our left shoulder blades, an outline of a circle. I thought it was what made Grandmama gasp so, for a circle was crudely branded on this handbut within this circle was a z, slashed through diagonally to connect the loose ends. Roughly done, and brutal.
I held my breath while I studied it. "It's an angry mark," I murmured finally. "The edges are still raw. And black. What makes it so?"
Evie said promptly, "The hand was branded with a hukon twig. 'Twill pitch both blood and skin a midnight black."
"Aye, hukon," confirmed Grandmama quietly. "It poisons from within. But hukon cannot be found here. Troths have done this."
I flinched. We both looked at Grandmama. Troth was a name we'd heard few times in our near seventeen years, but it was enough. They were the feared horde of legend in our village, savage beasts of barely human form and mind. Two times past they had destroyed our town, killed our men and women. The last time our parents were among the victims.
"A warning indeed," murmured Evie. She too drew back, and then looked at me. "Yet the fox brought it. I did not think Troths could pull favors from the woods' creatures."
I was shaking my head no, but it was Grandmama who said aloud, "I think the fox risked life to bring us this. This is his warning, to give us a chance to prepare." Then, more softly: "Unlike the last time."