Chapter One: Weatherell ONE Weatherell
Once upon a time, when Anya Astraea and her sister, Ilva, were small, they made a habit of walking out to Weatherell’s final clearing together. The clearing marked the edge of the village’s woodland—beyond it there was only the uninhabited New Forest, with its birdsong and bluebells and wandering piebald ponies, and past that, the forbidden expanse of Albion, which had been the Roman province of Britain before the last of the centurions left, some five centuries ago. While few raised in the village of Weatherell ever saw what lay outside the wood, none born and bred in Albion ever left the great island’s shores.
In Weatherell’s final clearing, at the edge of everything Anya knew, there stood a beech tree with golden leaves. Old charms crowded its branches, hanging so heavy they might have been a strange and jangling crop of fruit. They’d been made by the people of Weatherell, from glass and chestnut hulls and old coins dug up from the forest earth, which bore the faces of long-forgotten lordlings and Caesars. But the most vital of Weatherell’s charms—the ones wrought for protection, not for beauty—were strung with bits of sun-bleached bone. Anya and Ilva would lie on their backs and look up at the spinning charms and try to guess which of the Weatherell girls each bone had come from.
Was it Gabrielle, who’d given her face to the god of the mountain, returning home indelibly marked by a mask of deep scars?
Was it Leya, who’d given her right leg at the knee, and joked until her death that at least she had another?
Was it Florien, who’d given her memory, and known not a soul when she’d come back to the village?
Was it Moriah, who’d given her thumbs and been considered lucky, because the god might certainly have required more?
On and on they’d guess, naming girls who’d gone out from Weatherell to serve as living sacrifices to the god of the mountain. It was Ilva’s game, really. She found that naming the girls was a painless way of remembering Weatherell’s history—a recollection with its teeth taken out. But it hurt for Anya even to remember people who’d lived and died before they were born. Perhaps those girls were shadows and stories and the bones in charms now, but to Anya, they still lived. She felt the weight of their sacrifice hanging over her every day.
And though most of the Weatherell girls who’d gone out into the world were dead, the god himself was still very much alive on his faraway mountain. His divine sleep could only be renewed with the sweet taste of abnegation—of a living sacrifice offered by a righteous lamb. Nothing but the willing pain of a Weatherell girl could soothe and sate the god and keep all the vast isle of Albion free from his ruthless predations.
“Someday, I’m going to go,” Ilva would whisper to Anya, spinning a story of her own as they lay side by side in the soft fallen leaves. She’d clutch her greatest treasure as she did—a strange trinket, washed ashore from Gaul to the east or Hibernia to the west, no doubt, and carried inland by some creature. Made for stringing upon a cord or chain, it was a little cross-shaped pendant wrought of crude metal, a girl with a babe in arms on one side, a suffering man on the other. Wounds were visible upon the sufferer’s hands and feet, and a twisting band of thorns stretched across his brow. Ilva loved the small relic because it was part of an unreachable world. Anya loved it on account of the sufferer—because for once, it was not the girl or the child who bore the wounds.
“When the eighteen years of grace Mam purchased with her sacrifice have passed, and it’s time for the next of us to travel to the god again, I’ll go,” Ilva would announce to Anya and the little graven sufferer and the bones of the girls who’d gone before. “I’m the strongest and bravest—they’ll send me if I offer. If I do, then you won’t have to leave, or anyone else, and when I come back we’ll have a story to tell. You’ll take care of me afterward if I need it, won’t you, Anya?”
“I don’t want you to go,” Anya protested staunchly every time, at which Ilva would only laugh.
“Someone has to go, little moon. Better me than you.”
“I don’t want it to be either of us.”
“Who then?” Ilva would press. “Who would you send instead? Elsie? Min? Amara, perhaps?”
Every time, Anya shook her head. “None of them. I don’t want anyone to go. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right.”
“It’s the way of things,” Ilva answered with a shrug. “The way they were and are and will be. It’s not for us to change the working of the world, only to make it a safer place.”
“It isn’t fair,” Anya repeated sullenly, though she gave in to Ilva in the end. She always allowed her sister to have her way sooner or later—Anya had come into the world hard on Ilva’s heels, tiny fingers wrapped around her ankle, and had been trying to keep pace with her ever since.
Secretly, though, Anya harbored doubts as to her sister’s motives in going to the god. Ilva was a restless soul and a wandering spirit. While Anya would never say so out loud, she sometimes wondered how much Ilva’s longing to go had to do with sacrifice, and how much of it was simply a desire to leave Weatherell in the only way afforded to the village’s girls. If she were braver, Anya often thought, she’d tell Ilva no when her sister spoke of going to the god. She herself was the most dutiful, the most restrained, the nearest to righteousness of all Weatherell’s daughters. The most fit for a sacrifice. But she was afraid and unwilling, and Ilva was not. Anya felt a deep-seated sense of wrongness and revulsion at her core when she considered the journey and the offering. Ilva felt only eagerness and expectation at the prospect of leaving Weatherell, despite departure’s agonizing price.
Perhaps that was all that mattered, in the end.
The last time Anya walked out to the final clearing with Ilva, it was to say goodbye, because her sister had laid hold of the one unspeakably costly freedom available to her. At midwinter, when the Arbiter and his selectmen called for a living sacrifice to renew the god’s slumber, Ilva alone stepped forward. So there’d been no selection process, no testing of her faith or drills from the Cataclysm, the god’s inscrutable holy book. There’d just been Ilva, set apart for the offering from the moment she took that fateful step and spoke her name.
On their last morning together, Anya and Ilva stood alone under the beech tree. Their mother, Willem, had said her terse farewells back in the village, and refused to walk out to the edge of Weatherell’s bounds. Willem hadn’t wanted Ilva to go, and the two of them had fought over it for weeks. The fighting left Anya trapped between them and nearly torn in two, because while she would never naysay Ilva, in her heart of hearts, she agreed with their mother. Though she did not have the courage or conviction to take her place, nevertheless, Anya did not want her sister to go.
Ilva wore a heavy and practical canvas pack slung over her shoulders, full of the things she’d need on her journey to the mountain. She’d cut her brown curls off at the chin to make for less bother on the road. And a band of supple scarlet leather wrapped around her neck, marking her out to all of Albion as a Weatherell girl—as righteous, and a sacrifice.
Anya had sewn the scarlet band on herself, because Willem could not. The night before Ilva’s departure, Anya knelt behind her sister in their small, firelit cottage, fingers trembling against Ilva’s warm skin as she tried to steady herself. But all Anya’s efforts had not been enough, and the needle slipped. Tears welled in her eyes, blurring her vision, and she heard Ilva take in a soft breath. When she blinked back the tears and could see again, a drop of blood stood out, stark red against her sister’s white skin.
“It doesn’t matter, Anya,” Ilva said. “You’re doing very well.”
Anya glanced over at Willem, who sat by the hearth, watching. Willem’s leather-and-iron hands lay on a table across the room, and her scarred, handless wrists rested in her lap.
“It’s a bad omen,” their mother said sternly. “Bones are for protection, but blood is for ill luck.”
“Stop.” There was steel in Ilva’s voice as she spoke to their mother, and it left Anya breathless. Only Ilva dared stand up to Willem’s anger, which sometimes burned low and other times flared hot, but was always present. It had grown worse in the past months, though—Anya had been warned that the women who’d once gone to the god were always affected so. Until another girl sated the god of the mountain, his baleful influence reached across Albion to touch those who’d been sacrifices before, rendering them restless and short-tempered, however hard they strove for kindness.
“I don’t believe in luck or superstition, and you know it,” Ilva said with defiance, fixing her eyes on Willem until their mother quailed. Ilva had been an unstoppable force since her acceptance as Weatherell’s sacrifice, and Anya thought that between the reflected heat of Willem’s anger and Ilva’s resolve, she might catch fire and burn away to ash.
But she’d found it in her to finish sewing on the band, and pressed a kiss like a prayer to the back of Ilva’s neck when she’d completed the task.
“Be brave, little moon,” Ilva whispered to her, so low that Willem could not hear. “I know you’ll find your courage without me.”
And then their last hours together were at an end. They stood under the beech tree one final time, the branches above them flush with the new green of spring. The twisting path out of the wood was already beneath Ilva’s feet, and the trail back to Weatherell beneath Anya’s.
“I’m glad it’s me,” Ilva said fiercely as Anya clung to her. “Not just on account of seeing the world beyond the wood. I couldn’t have lived with myself if they’d sent you. I’ve always known that—always known it would have killed me to watch you go.”
“Hurry on the road,” Anya begged, tendrils of guilt unfurling in the pit of her stomach. “Hurry away, and hurry home. I’ll be lost until you’re back, Ilva, truly I will.”
Ilva held her sister at arm’s length. Her eyes were dry and glittering with suppressed anticipation, while Anya’s were dim with tears. In addition to the scarlet band, Ilva wore a long braided cord around her neck, and Anya knew without seeing that the otherworldly pendant must hang from the end of it, the mother and child and sufferer tucked away against Ilva’s pale skin.
“Will you keep your promise, and look after me once I’ve come back from my adventure?” Ilva asked. “Will you care for me as well as you’ve done for the rest of the ones who went—for our mother and Sylvie and Philomena?”
“I will look after you until the day you die,” Anya swore. “And when that day comes, when we’re old and full of stories, I’ll break up your bones with my own two hands, to be turned into Weatherell’s charms. No one else will touch you.”
Ilva smiled. “You’re very sure of that. But I’m only a minute older than you—who’s to say I’ll go first?”
Anya wanted to be brave and lighthearted like Ilva, to find levity in the face of death and disaster. But when she opened her mouth to return the joke, her humor withered and died. She could only manage to stare at Ilva, and shake her head in dismay.
“Be brave,” Ilva told her again, and with a last swift embrace, she turned her back on Weatherell and her face toward all of Albion, which lay beyond the wood.
Anya watched her sister set her shoulders and take the first steps of a journey dozens of girls had undergone before. She stood and looked after Ilva until the trees swallowed her up. And in the moment Ilva disappeared, Anya knew that though she herself had not set out to go to the god of the mountain, he’d nevertheless reached inside her, rendering her somehow broken instead of whole.
Once upon a time, Anya Astraea stood under the golden beech tree in Weatherell’s final clearing and watched her sister, Ilva, go to the god of the mountain. Now every afternoon, she stood under it alone and waited for her return.
As spring wore on to summer, she hurried through her morning’s work each day. Through brushing her mother’s hair and washing her gently with a soft cloth; through buckling on Willem’s useless leather-and-iron hands and murmuring rote prayers to the god of the mountain together. The prayers were more a lullaby than anything else—a way of placating the god through soothing words and staving off his appetite for pain and self-denial.
Then Anya would hurry to fetch their skittish black-nosed sheep from the sheepyard at the village’s center, beneath the overarching boughs of unfathomably ancient trees. And when she brought their ewes to the Weatherell boys who followed the flocks, she’d bring Philomena and Sylvie’s few lambs as well.
Along with Willem, Philomena and Sylvie were Weatherell’s three still-living ones who went, who’d gone to the mountain as girls and given of themselves to the god. They served the village as a reminder, and as an ongoing sacrifice—it was said in Weatherell and beyond the wood that the lives of the ones who went served as the purest of prayers. That they were bound to the god, and their connection to him continued to ensure peace for Weatherell, even after their offering had been made. It was why Willem had never been allowed a more functional substitute for the hands she’d given—Arbiter Thorn declared that equipping her with such a thing would be to flout the will of the god.
This spring, however, Philomena was surely doing the lion’s share of the peacemaking. She was often unwell but had been worse than ever since the year of disfavor began. Long ago, the god asked for her ability to bear children, which she’d given to him, and she’d suffered from internal complaints ever since. It seemed to intensify her pain, that fathomless miles away, the god she’d once knelt before was restless and waking.
When Anya ducked into Philomena and Sylvie’s cottage after tending their sheep, she found the interior dim and cool—no fire on the hearth, not even a candle burning. Sylvie sat hunched in the shadows in a far corner of the cottage’s single room, swathed in blankets to ward off the chill. The oldest of the ones who went, she had a wrinkled face that sagged and drooped against the place where her eyes had been, though she turned her head toward Anya at the sound of the girl’s voice. Even in the gloom, Anya could make out the black latticework of unreadable script that had been inked into Sylvie’s skin, spreading across her neck. Anya knew that most of it ran in orderly rows along her back, though Sylvie refused to speak of it, except to say that the markings had been done to her beyond the wood, and against her will.
“What about a fire?” Anya asked Sylvie briskly, and set about making one. As she knelt before the hearth, she could hear Philomena behind her, struggling to get out of bed. But Anya did not turn, or offer to help. If there was anything the ones who went all had in common, besides their journey to the mountain, it was a fierce pride and a determination to remain independent whenever possible.
Slowly, the sound of Philomena’s footsteps drew closer. Anya glanced up and smiled as the woman reached the hearth, dropping into a wicker chair with a trembling sigh.
More so than Willem, Philomena was a mother to Anya. Threads of silver twined through her chestnut hair, and the crow’s-feet around her eyes deepened with each passing year, but Philly was a gentle and hospitable soul. It was to her Anya went when she needed to confess troubles or talk over fears. It was Philly who’d held Anya close and let her sob after Ilva left, keeping the girl together when she’d thought her heart would surely break. Even the year of disfavor seemed unable to temper Philly’s kindness, though it brought her bodily pain.
“Good morning, Anya,” Philomena said, though there was a tense, tormented note behind the words. “Do you know what day it is today?”
Anya nodded, turning back to her work at the hearth. She felt Philly reach out a hand and settle it briefly atop her head like a blessing.
“Two months since Ilva left,” Anya answered. “Today I can start watching for her return.”
Two months was the quickest any Weatherell girl had made the journey to the mountain and back. They crossed nearly all of Albion and its disparate patchwork of feuding fiefdoms and provinces, all ruled over by petty lords grasping at power. But the island’s true overseers were the Elect, who tended souls in the world beyond the wood and guarded the well-traveled and safe high roads from the New Forest through the countryside beyond. Under the Elect’s careful watch, Weatherell girls went north, keeping well away from the forbidden metropolis of Old Londinium, and fording the River Thames at a place called Godstow. Then there was mile after mile of plains and hills and moors that led to Banevale, the city at the foot of the mountain called Bane Nevis, where the god of the mountain dwelt in power.
Frida held the record for the fastest journey north. Ten girls ago she’d gone out to the god and returned with her mouth a gaping hole—lips and teeth and tongue torn clear away. But she’d been the fastest, in spite of her injuries.
Secretly, Anya had hoped Ilva would beat Frida’s record.
Hurry on the road, she’d said, after all. Hurry away, and hurry home.
When Philomena spoke again, warmth and good humor eclipsed the pain in her voice. “You say you can start watching for Ilva today as if you haven’t done so since the moment she left. All of Weatherell knows you’ve been looking out for her, Anya. It will be a while yet, I’m sure—the burden of the god’s unease still lies heavy on your mother and Sylvie and me. But I don’t think any girl has ever been as fortunate in her family as Ilva, or left behind someone so eager for her return.”
Anya flushed. She’d never thought of herself and Ilva as fortunate in their family. Neither of them knew who their father was—Willem had called them Astraea, after him, but would never say more than that she’d met him beyond the wood. And Willem herself was not a warm or devoted mother in any sense. She’d been furious when Ilva put her name forward to go, and refused to speak of her since her departure. Every night Anya wept over her sister in careful silence, because when Willem overheard her tears, she said sharp and cutting things that haunted Anya for days.
If you’d had her courage, you’d be walking now instead of crying.
I’d rather it had been you. You count costs in ways she never does.
It was no use Anya trying to reassure herself that Willem’s temper was the result of the god’s restlessness, either—her mother had always been harsh. The year of disfavor only honed an edge that had already been there. It coupled with a gnawing guilt over Ilva’s going that Anya had felt since her sister’s departure and left her in constant misery, though she tried to hide it.
In truth, it was not only eagerness over Ilva’s return that took Anya out to the final clearing each day, though she’d plenty of that. There was also the need to see Ilva first: to look her over, and learn what she’d given to the god, and grapple with the low, relentless regret Anya now carried. She knew it would not abate until Ilva was safe beside her again, an offering triumphant, who had purchased grace and peace for all of Albion and had an adventure besides.
After starting Philomena and Sylvie’s fire and fixing them a late breakfast, Anya took to the woods. She slipped out of Weatherell’s village proper without a backward glance, because she knew every inch of what lay behind her. How each cottage had been built up against the trunk of a tall, spreading tree. How every door had been painted with a protective rune, to ward off ill luck. How the branches overhead glittered with charms, which stirred when the breeze picked up and filled the village with intermittent hollow sounds.
Weatherell was everything Anya knew. She’d never left the village, and never would. There she’d been born, and there she’d die. The Elect, which Weatherell’s Arbiter and selectmen were part of, said it must be so. How else could a girl be born every eighteen years to serve as a sacrifice and a spotless lamb, free of the pride and failings that ran rampant in the country beyond Weatherell’s bounds?
But such things were not for Anya to worry on. Holiness and boundaries were the province of the Arbiter and the Elect. Sacrifice—the making of it and the surviving of it, the raising of daughters who might be fit for it—was the province of girls like Anya Astraea and her sister, Ilva, who had gone to the god.
Though perhaps elsewhere things were different, Anya sometimes thought blasphemously. Perhaps elsewhere, sacrifice belonged to the sufferer with his band of thorns, and the girl and her child were left intact. Perhaps there might one day be a world in which she did not constantly catch glimpses of bones overheard and feel a sudden stab of regret, and of an indefinable wrongness.
The path to the final clearing looked entirely different now than it had when Ilva left. When she’d gone out to Albion, the woods had only hinted at summer to come. Now everything was green and lush and full of life, smelling of rich earth and growing things.
Anya ghosted down the trail, running her hands along the velvety tops of wildflowers and hardly having to look to find her way. Two months to the day since Ilva had set out from home. Longing and fear and guilt pooled at Anya’s core. How much more time would pass before her sister’s return? And how had she fared on the mountain? How would the pieces of their new life fall into place?
When she stepped into the final clearing, wind was combing through the branches of the beech tree, setting its charms to chiming. The long grass stood sweet and green, dotted with white flowers, and overhead stretched an expanse of blue sky ringed by tree branches. It was as much of the sky as Anya had ever seen, and today soft clouds and a few distant birds scudded across it. Anya took a breath of good clean air and thought to herself that the worst must surely have passed. She’d survived two months of Ilva’s absence. Two months alone with Willem, and her sharp, inexorable tongue. Two months of feeling like half instead of whole. It could not be long now before Ilva completed her work and returned to Weatherell to take her place among the ones who went.
And when Anya drew closer to the beech tree, her heart leaped painfully in her chest. Though Philomena had said it could not be so, Ilva sat among the roots of the tree, leaning against its trunk.
As Anya ran to her, Ilva’s face lit with a fleeting smile. Then Anya’s arms were around her sister and she was sobbing, all the tears Willem had scorned pouring out of her in a flood. Ilva was everything she’d hoped for, everything she’d longed to have back, everything she’d ever wanted to be.
“I hurried,” Ilva whispered. But she did not put her arms around Anya in return.
As the force of Anya’s relief calmed, she rocked back on her heels.
“I hurried,” Ilva said again, her voice a quiet rasp. As she spoke, Anya saw for the first time that her sister’s skin was flushed, with fever and a pair of angry scars that crept up from under the collar of her woolen shirt. Ilva’s breath came shallow and fast, and her eyes were dim and unfocused. Her hands, resting on her lap, would not stop shaking.
Anya fumbled with the neck of Ilva’s shirt, loosening its drawstrings until she could see her sister’s chest and the place where the god had touched her. Her breath caught at the sight of a vicious red handprint, inhumanly large, burned into the skin over Ilva’s heart. There was no sign of the sufferer’s pendant, though the scarlet band that marked a Weatherell girl still wrapped around Ilva’s neck.
“What is it? What’s wrong? What did you give?” Anya asked, the words coming out in a panicked jumble. “Ilva. Ilva. Show me what’s the matter. Show me so I can fix it.”
For a moment, Ilva’s eyes rolled back and fear cut deep at Anya’s core. But her sister rallied, catching her breath with a pained hitch and fixing her gaze on Anya with an effort.
“Everything hurts,” she breathed.
“What did you give?” Anya asked again.
Ilva swallowed and winced, as if even that small action pained her. “Nothing. I gave him nothing, in the end. He told me there was no sacrifice he’d accept. When I said I would give him whatever he asked for, he reached out a hand. And oh, Anya. He is so terrible. It’s a struggle even to stand before him.”
For a long moment, Ilva fell silent, her breath coming hard and fast as the feverish color drained from her face, leaving her gray and drawn instead.
“He reached out,” she whispered, “and placed his hand on my heart. And when he spoke, all his anger and his fire and his bitterness went into me. I can feel them in me yet, eating up my insides, and everything good and alive went out of me and into him, too. He touched me, and I knew it was the beginning of the end.”
Tears pooled in Ilva’s eyes, and her voice was barely audible, even above the scant breeze stirring the grasses. “Just when I thought I would die, he turned away. But I gave him nothing, Anya. Do you understand? I gave him nothing, because he took from me instead.”
Ilva’s hands in Anya’s were no longer trembling like delicate leaves. Now they shook like the earth beneath Weatherell, which occasionally rumbled and shifted. As Anya watched in horror, the shaking spread. All of Ilva shivered and jerked, as if caught out in the bitterest cold.
Anya drew her own hands away and sat helplessly by, with one fist pressed to her mouth and the other to her middle, as some unseen, insidious force wracked her sister.
At last, the shaking stopped and Ilva was still.
“Ilva?” Anya asked.
No answer. Froth stained one side of Ilva’s face, her head had tipped back as she shook, and her lips parted a little. Anya had seen many a dead thing in the woods around Weatherell, and her sister had the aching, unnatural look of something life had left behind.
“Ilva?” Anya’s voice broke on the word.
With the shallowest gasp, Ilva’s chest rose and fell again.
“Don’t go.” The warning came out ragged, cobbled together from caught breath and splintered bones and the last dying embers of Ilva’s once-indomitable will. “Whatever happens, don’t go.”
“I’m right here,” Anya sobbed.
“No. That’s not… don’t go. Don’t let anyone else go. Promise me.”
Anya took Ilva’s hands in her own again. “I promise.”
“Be brave, little moon,” Ilva said, her eyes fixing on Anya’s one last time. “Will you…”
Her voice trailed off, and Anya waited.
But Ilva was still.
She did not move.
She did not blink.
She did not breathe.
After a few moments, Anya Astraea, who had sent her sister out to be a living sacrifice, curled up on her side with her head on Ilva’s lap. Everything inside her had gone still too—still as stone, or as the frozen forest earth at midwinter.
Anya lay motionless until the sun went down. Then Philomena got up from her place by the hearth and led the people of Weatherell to the village’s final clearing. They found Anya there, lying beside the cold, stiff body of their failed offering. Anya would not rise, and had to be carried back to the village, for when Ilva left her again—this time irrevocably—her scant courage had utterly failed, swallowed up by a sea of guilt.
She dared not move.
She dared not blink.
She dared not breathe.