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I looked down the row of Aska hunched against each other, ducking behind the muddy hill. The fog sat on the field like a veil, but we could hear it. The blades of swords and axes brushing against armor vests. Quick footsteps in sucking mud. My heart beat almost in rhythm with the sounds, pulling one breath in and letting it touch another before I let it go.
My father's rasping whistle caught my ears from down the line and I searched the dirt-smeared faces until I found a pair of bright blue eyes fixed on me. His gray-streaked beard hung braided down his chest behind the axe clutched in his huge fist. He tipped his chin up at me and I whistled back — our way of telling each other to be careful. To try not to die.
Myra's hand lifted the long braid over my shoulder and she nodded toward the field. "Together?"
"Always." I looked behind us where our clansmen stood shoulder to shoulder in a sea of red leathers and bronze, all waiting for the call. Myra and I had fought for our place at the front.
"Watch that left side." Her kol-rimmed eyes dropped down to the broken ribs behind my vest.
"They're fine." I glared at her, insulted. "If you're worried, fight with someone else."
She shook her head, dismissing me before she stood to check my armor one last time. I tried not to wince as she tightened the fastenings I'd intentionally left a bit loose. She pretended not to notice, but I caught the look in her eye.
"Stop worrying about me." I ran a hand over the right side of my head where my hair was shorn to the scalp under the length of the braids.
I pulled her hand toward me to secure the straps of her shield onto her arm by memory. We'd been fighting mates for the last five years and I knew every piece of her armor as well as she knew every badly mended bone in my body.
"I'm not worried," she smirked, "but I'll bet my supper that I kill more Riki than you today." She tossed my axe to me.
I pulled my sword from my scabbard with my right hand and caught the axe with my left. "Vegr yfir fjor."
She settled her arm all the way into her shield, lifting it up over her head in an arc to stretch her shoulder before she repeated it back to me. "Vegr yfir fjor."
Honor above life.
The first whistle cut into the air from our right, warning us to get ready, and I closed my eyes, feeling the steadiness of the earth beneath my feet. The sounds of battle rushing toward us bled together as the deep-throated prayers of my clansmen rose up around me like smoke from a wildfire. I let the words march out under my breath, asking Sigr to guard me. To help me bring down his enemies.
I reared back and swung my axe, sending it deep into the earth, and launched myself up and over the hill, flying forward. My feet hit the dirt and I ran, punching holes into the soft ground with my boots, toward the wall of fog hovering over the field. I kept track of Myra in the corner of my eye as we were swallowed up by it, the cold rushing past us like a spray of water until dark figures appeared in the hazy distance.
The enemies of our god ran toward us in a swarm of fur and iron. Hair tangled in the wind. Sun glinting off blades. I picked up speed at the sight of them, tightening my fingers around my sword as I pushed forward, ahead of the others.
I let the growl crawl up the inside of me, from that deep place that comes alive in battle. I screamed, my eyes settling on a short man with orange furs wrapped up around his shoulders at the front of their line. I whistled to Myra and leaned into the wind, running straight for him. As we neared them, I turned to the side and counted my steps, plotting my path to the moment when the space between us was eaten up by the sound of heavy bodies crashing into each other. I bit down hard as I reached him, my teeth bared. My sword came up behind me, my body lowering to the ground, and I swung it up as I passed, aiming for his gut.
His shield lifted just in time and he threw himself to the left, catching me with its edge. Black spots exploded into my vision as my lungs wheezed behind my sore ribs and the breath refused to return. I stumbled, trying to find my footing before I fell to the ground, and came back with my axe, ignoring the bloom of pain in my side. His sword caught the blade above his head, wrenching it back, but that's all I needed.
His side was wide open.
I sunk my sword into it, finding the seam of his armor vest. His head flew back, his mouth open as he screamed, and Myra's sword came down on his neck in one smooth motion, slicing through the muscle and tendon. I yanked my blade free, pulling a spray of hot blood over my face with it. Myra kicked the man over with the heel of her boot as another shadow appeared in the fog behind her.
"Down!" I shouted, letting my axe fly.
She dropped to the ground and the blade plunged into the chest of a Riki, sending him to his knees. His huge body fell onto her, pinning her to the dirt. The blood bubbling up from his mouth poured out, covering her pale skin in a stark shining red.
I ran to her, hooking my fingers into his armor vest from the other side of his body, and sunk down, pulling him with me. When she was free, she sprang to her feet, finding her sword and looking around us. I gripped the handle of my axe and pried it up, out of the bones in his chest.
The fog was beginning to clear, pushing back in the warmth of the morning light. From the hill, down to the river, the ground was covered with fighting clansmen, all pulling toward the water. Across the field, my father was driving his sword behind him, into the stomach of a Riki. I watched him fling it forward to catch another in the face, his eyes wide with fight and his chest full of thundering war cries.
"Come on!" I called back to Myra as I ran, leaping over the fallen bodies and making my way toward the river's edge, where the fighting was more concentrated.
I caught the back of a Riki's knee with my sword, dropping him to the ground as I passed. And then another, leaving them both for someone else to finish.
"Eelyn!" She called my name just as I slammed into another body, and wide arms wrapped around me, squeezing so hard that the sword slipped from my fingers. I grunted, trying to kick free, but he was too strong. I bit into the flesh of the arm until I tasted blood and the hands shoved me to the ground. I hit hard, gasping for breath as I rolled onto my back and reached for my axe. But the Riki's sword was already coming down on me. I rolled again, finding the knife at my belt with my fingers as I came back up onto my feet and faced him, the breath puffing out before me in white gusts.
Behind me, Myra was fighting in the fog. "Eelyn!"
He lunged for me, swinging his sword up, and I fell back again. It cut through my sleeve and into the thick muscle of my arm. I threw the knife, handle over blade, and he dropped his head to the side. It narrowly missed him, grazing his ear, and when he looked back at me his eyes were on fire.
I scrambled backward, trying to get to my feet as he picked up his sword. My eyes fell to the spilled Aska blood covering his chest and arms as he stalked toward me. Behind him, my sword and my axe lay on the ground.
"Myra!" I shouted, but she was completely out of sight now.
I looked around us, something churning up inside of me that I rarely felt in a fight — panic. I was nowhere near a weapon and there was no way I could take him down with my bare hands. He closed in, gritting his teeth, as he moved like a bear over the grass.
I thought of my father. His soil-stained hands. His deep, booming voice. And my home. The fire flickering in the dark. The frost on the glade in the mornings.
I stood, pressing my fingers into the hot wound at my arm and saying Sigr's name under my breath, asking him to accept me. To welcome me. To watch over my father. "Vegr yfir fjor," I whispered.
He slowed, watching my lips move.
The furs beneath his armor vest blew in the damp breeze, pushing up around his angled jaw. He blinked, pressing his mouth into a straight line as he took the last steps toward me and I didn't run. I wasn't going to be brought down by a blade in my back.
The steel gleamed as he pulled the sword up over his head, ready to bring it back down, and I closed my eyes. I breathed. I could see the reflection of the gray sky on the fjord. The willow bloomed on the hillside. The wind wove through my hair. I listened to the sound of my clansmen raging. Fighting in the distance.
"Fiske!" A deep, strangled voice pierced through the fog, finding me, and my eyes popped open.
The Riki before me froze, his eyes darting to the side where the voice was coming toward us.
"No!" A tangle of wild, fair hair barreled into him, knocking his sword to the ground. "Fiske, don't." He took hold of the man's armor vest, holding him in place. "Don't."
Something twisted in my mind, the blood in my veins slowing, my heart stopping.
"What are you doing?" The Riki wrenched free, picking his sword back up off the ground and driving past him, coming for me.
The man turned, throwing his arms around the Riki and swinging him back.
And that's when I saw it — his face.
And I was frozen. I was the ice on the river. The snow clinging onto the mountainside.
"Iri." It was the ghost of a word on my breath.
They stopped struggling, both looking up at me with wide eyes, and it dove deeper within me. What I was seeing. Who I was seeing.
"Iri?" My shaking hand clutched at my armor vest, tears coming up into my eyes. The storm in my stomach churned at the center of the chaos surrounding us.
The man with the sword looked at me, his eyes running over my face, working hard to put something together. But my eyes were on Iri. On the curve of his jaw. His hair — like straw in the sun. The blood smeared across his neck. Hands like my father's.
"What is this, Iri?" The Riki's grip tightened around the hilt of his sword, my blood still thick on its blade.
I could barely hear him. I could barely think, everything washed out in the flood of the vision before me.
Iri stepped toward me slowly, his eyes jumping back and forth on mine. I stopped breathing as his hands came up to my face and he leaned in so close that I could feel his breath on my forehead.
He let me go, and my lungs writhed and pulled, begging for air. I turned, looking for Myra in the mist, opening my mouth to call out for my father. But my breath wouldn't come.
He was gone, devoured by the fog, the Riki disappearing with him.
As if they were ghosts.
As if they were never there.
And they couldn't have been. Because it was Iri, and the last time I saw my brother was five years ago. Lying dead in the snow.
I broke through the fog and ran toward the river as fast as my feet would carry me with Myra on my heels, her sword swinging. My eyes were on the trees, in the direction Iri had gone. They jumped from shadow to shadow, looking for a streak of flaxen hair in the darkened forest.
A woman leapt from the tree line, but her shriek was cut off as Myra came from the side, plowing into her with a knife. She dragged it across the woman's throat and dropped her where she stood, falling into step with me again as I ran.
The retreat whistle for the Riki sounded and the bodies, still tangled in battle, parted to reveal the green field now painted red with the death of clansmen. I took off, weaving through the retreating Riki and grabbing hold of the fair-haired men one by one, searching their faces.
"What are you doing?" Myra wrenched me backward, her sharp face pulled in confusion.
The last of them disappeared into the trees behind her and I turned, looking for the blue wool tunic my father was wearing beneath his armor. "Aghi!"
The heads of the Aska in the field turned toward me.
Myra took hold of my arm, pressing the heel of her hand into the wound to stop the bleeding. "Eelyn." She pulled me to her. "What is it? What's wrong?"
I found my father's face across the field, where the fog was still pulling up from the land like a lifting cloud.
"Aghi!" His name was raw in my throat.
His chin lifted at the strangled sound and his eyes searched the body-littered expanse. When they found me, they transfigured from worry into fear. He dropped his shield and ran to me.
I sank to my knees, my head swimming. He fell beside me, hands running over my body and fingers sliding over blood and sweat-soaked skin. He looked me over carefully, dread pushing its way onto his face.
I took hold of his armor vest, pulling him to face me. "It's Iri." The words broke on a sob.
I could still see him. His pale eyes. His fingers touching my face.
My father's gaze went to Myra before the breath that was caught in his chest let go of his panic. He took my face into his hands and looked at me. "What's happened?" His eyes caught sight of the blood still seeping from my arm. He let me go, pulling his knife free to cut at the tunic of the Riki lying dead beside us.
"I saw him. I saw Iri."
He wrapped the torn cloth around my arm, tying it tight. "What are you talking about?"
I pushed his hands from me, crying. "Listen to me! Iri was here! I saw him!"
His hands finally stilled, confusion lighting in his eyes.
"I was fighting a man. He was about to ..." I shuddered, remembering how close to death I'd come — closer than I'd ever been. "Iri came out of the fog and saved me. He was with the Riki." I stood, taking his hand and pulling him toward the tree line. "We have to find him!"
But my father stood like a stone tucked into the earth. His face turned up toward the sky, his eyes blinking against the sunlight.
"Do you hear me? Iri's alive!" I shouted, holding my arm against my body to calm the violent throbbing around the gash.
His eyes landed on me again, tears gathered at the corners like little white flames. "Sigr. He sent Iri's soul to save you, Eelyn."
"Iri's made it to Sólbjorg." His words were frightening and delicate, betraying a tenderness my father never showed. He stepped forward, looking down into my eyes with a smile. "Sigr has favored you, Eelyn."
Myra stood behind him, her green eyes wide beneath her unraveling auburn braids.
"But —" I choked. "I saw him."
"You did." A single tear rolled down my father's rough cheek and disappeared into his beard. He pulled me into him, wrapping his arms around me, and I closed my eyes, the pain in my arm so great now that I could hardly feel my hand.
I blinked, trying to understand. I had seen him. He was there.
"We will make a sacrifice tonight." He let me go before he pressed his hands to my face again. "I don't think I've ever heard you scream for me like that. You scared me, sváss." A laugh was buried deep in his chest.
"I'm sorry," I murmured. "I just ... I thought ..."
He waited for me to meet his eyes again. "His soul is at peace. Your brother saved your life today. Be happy." He clapped a hand against my good arm, nearly knocking me down.
I wiped at my wet cheeks with the palm of my hand, turning from the faces that were still watching me. There were very few times I'd cried in front of my clansmen. It made me feel small. Weak, like the early winter grass beneath our boots.
I sniffed back the tears, piecing my face back together as my father nodded in approval. It was what he had taught me — to be strong. To steel myself. He turned back to the field, getting to work, and I followed with Myra, trying to smooth my ragged breath. To hush the waves crashing in my head. We walked toward our camp, collecting the weapons of fallen Aska warriors along the way. I watched my father from the corner of my eye, still unable to shake Iri's face from my mind.
My feet stopped at the edge of a puddle and I looked at my reflection. Dirt spattered across my angled face and neck. Blood dried in long, golden braids. Eyes a frozen blue, like Iri's. I sucked in a breath, looking up to the thin white clouds brushed across the sky to keep another tear from falling.
"Here," Myra called to me from where she was crouched over an Aska woman. She was lying on her side, eyes open and arms extended like she was reaching for us.
I carefully unbuckled her belt and scabbard, piling them with the others before I started on the armor vest. "Did you know her?"
"A little." Myra reached down to close the woman's eyes with her fingertips. She gently brushed the hair back from her face before she began, the words coming softly. "Aska, you have reached your journey's end."
In the next breath, I joined with her, saying the ritual words we knew by heart. "We ask Sigr to accept your soul into Sólbjorg, where the long line of our people hold torches on the shadowed path."
My voice faded, letting Myra speak first. "Take my love to my father and my sister. Ask them to keep watch for me. Tell them my soul follows behind you."
Excerpted from "Sky In The Deep"
Copyright © 2018 Adrienne Young.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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