The woman’s screams faded, and a baby’s cry took their place. Sodar had been waiting for this moment. He smoothed his blue robes and followed close on Ancient Tosan’s heels, stepping inside the beige tent. Sodar squinted once inside, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. No candles were needed at this hour, but a dark shadow still covered the room. In one corner of the birthing tent he could see Ancient Tosan speaking with his wife Lana – one of the two witwomen assisting with Aegen’s pregnancy. It seemed she had caught the lean man before he could approach the new mother and her baby, and the priest was grateful that allowed him a moment with Aegen and her child. He stepped towards the middle of the tent and saw an older witwoman holding the sebum-slick babe, a blanket haphazardly wrapped around its body. Sodar quelled his instinct to sprint to the infant. Instead, he tempered his elation that Tuor’s line continued and approached the mother with a calmness that belied his excitement. It had been a hard birth. Aegen was lying still atop the birthing mat, her pale face framed by sweat-soaked ringlets. Sodar didn’t want to wake the exhausted woman, but a sense of uneasiness poisoned his gut. She’s not breathing, he realised. In a flash, the priest was kneeling at her side.
He shook her shoulders, first whispering and then shouting her name. A moment later, he felt Lana at his shoulder, her slick red hands on his wrist. ‘She’s dead, Brother Sodar.’ Sodar flinched away from the witwoman’s touch. He rubbed where her bloody fingers had made contact and felt the wetness smear his wrinkled skin. ‘Was it the child?’ He struggled to say the words as he turned to look at the babe. Tosan had taken the infant from the second witwoman – a bony grandmother named Kelga – and held the newborn in his hands, but instead of cradling it to his chest, Tosan held it out at arm’s length and stared in revulsion at the bundle. ‘Ancient Tosan?’ The slender ancient didn’t look up. ‘The child,’ Tosan said. ‘Sodar, he’s a Son of Keos.
’ ‘He’s what?’ Tosan held the infant out towards the blue-robed priest. ‘The child,’ he repeated, lifting the blanket, ‘is a Son of Keos.’ Sodar’s heart thudded in horror. The babe’s piercing blue eyes caught his attention – a mark of blessing from the god Odar – but saw nothing to warrant calling the child a Son of Keos. A wisp of light brown hair crowned the infant’s head, and he seemed unremarkable. Sodar’s brow crinkled and he was about to challenge Tosan’s judgement when the baby moved, waving his hands in front of him. No. His hand. One hand. ‘Gods,’ Sodar swore.
Tosan covered the infant again. ‘Aegen carried the child. She was the vessel of Keos, and the vessels of Keos must be broken.’ Lana nodded in confirmation of her husband’s words, and the priest found his attention drawn to the witwoman’s bloody hands and then to the dead woman – and this time he saw it: a dark red stain pooling on the birthing mat beneath her skull. They killed her, Sodar realised. They killed Aegen, and I wasn’t here to stop it. ‘Take this thing away,’ Tosan said, passing the infant to Lana. ‘You know what to do.’ The witwoman bowed, her brown braids swinging behind her back. ‘The beasts of Keos shall consume the Sons of Keos.
’ ‘Be certain you witness its death. The beasts won’t feed till nightfall.’ ‘Ancient Tosan,’ Kelga said, stepping forward. ‘Lana may want to return to the Academy and your new daughter. I could take the infant to the woods.’ Tosan stroked his thin black goatee. ‘Lana?’ ‘The witgirls can take care of Myjun for me while I’m gone,’ Lana said, wiping her bloodied hands on the infant’s sheepskin blanket, and then dipping it in the pool of blood. ‘But it would be good to have some company.’ Tosan nodded. ‘The Brakewood has never been a safe place.
You would be well served to have a companion to share the night’s watch.’ He eyed the bloody bundle in Lana’s arms, then fastidiously wiped his palms on his grey-black cloak. ‘The father is also a vessel of Keos. Wait until he has been bound and then take the infant to the woods.’ Tuor, Sodar thought, knowing the blacksmith would be waiting outside to meet his child. I can’t abandon him … but I can’t save him and the infant. ‘I apologise for inviting you, Sodar,’ Tosan said, lifting the tent flap. ‘There will be no infant to bless this day.’ He paused, halfway out of the tent. ‘I think you should stay, though.
It would be good for the villagers to see their priest breaking a vessel of Keos.’ Sodar lowered his eyes, schooling both his tongue and his temper. ‘Forgive me, Ancient Tosan, but I must decline. My strength is not what it once was.’ The ancient grunted, clearly unsurprised by Sodar’s answer, and left. Kelga sniffed and went about gathering up the blankets piled on Aegen’s birthing mat. Moments later, Sodar could hear Tosan shouting above the babble of the assembled crowd. The tent shuddered as quick hands dismantled it, and light flooded in as the tent collapsed around Sodar and the two witwomen. A few farmers began to separate the segmented tent walls, and suddenly Aegen lay exposed to the crowd. ‘Aegen?’ Less than a stone’s throw away, Tuor stared in horror.
‘Aegen!’ Tuor rushed to his dead wife’s side and gathered her up, pressing her limp frame to his chest. ‘Aegen, Aegen …’ he repeated, a talisman against the bloody truth in his arms. Behind the blacksmith, Tosan approached with Winsor, the Eldest of Ancients, and a half-dozen masters from the Academy. The master avatars wore their traditional bloodred tunics, while Winsor wore the red and black chevron-patterned robes of a headmaster. ‘Bind the vessel of Keos,’ Winsor instructed. ‘Bind them and break them. We cannot permit their taint to spread.’ Tuor looked up from Aegen’s bloody corpse, searching for the child his wife had carried these last nine months. He spotted the sheepskin blanket in Lana’s arms just as Sodar stepped in front of him, blocking the babe from sight. Their eyes met, and in those seconds the priest tried to convey all that he dared not say.
I’ll keep him safe. I promise. I will keep him safe. Tuor was a mass of sorrow and fury, but then it seemed he understood. Whereas, only moments before, the stout man had been tightly coiled to fight for his son, he now gave him into Sodar’s protection. Something passed between the two men – a silent goodbye whose depth only a mourning father could fathom. And then the master avatars were on him. Tuor fought for long enough to gently lower Aegen’s body to the ground, and then he reared back, throwing off the first men to have grabbed him. Sodar and the two witwomen fell back from the crowd as the remaining master avatars joined the fray, pinning Tuor’s arms and legs and then binding them with tough cords. Even beaten and bound, the blacksmith still thrashed and kicked, worming his way across the earth until he reached his lifeless wife.
He curled his own broad figure around hers, protecting her from what was to come. Sodar was helpless to aid his friend. But Tuor had sacrificed himself to save his son, and Sodar had sworn to protect him, so he kept his eyes fixed on the bundle in Lana’s arms and shadowed the two witwomen as they moved away. They had reached the edge of the village square when he heard Elder Winsor’s ageing voice struggling to rise above the roar of the crowd. A moment later, Tosan’s booming baritone rang out instead. ‘A Son of Keos has been born among us,’ Tosan shouted. ‘Our duty is clear! The beasts of Keos shall consume the Sons of Keos. But to us lies the burden – nay, the privilege – of breaking the vessel of Keos!’ A few villagers cheered at this, and Sodar found it difficult not to stop and take note of them. He knew what he would see if he looked back, because he had seen it before: the villagers would be gathering stones, and then, too soon, the Breaking would begin. While he had paused, Lana and Kelga had left the square.
As the pair made their way east through the village, Sodar followed at a discreet distance. Behind him Tuor’s cries were being swallowed by the roar of the crowd. ‘Cleanse the filth!’ screamed one voice. ‘Spawn of Keos!’ shouted another, all to the snarling chant of ‘Break-their-bones!’ Sodar forced himself onward, trying not to pick out individual voices from the mob. Distance blended the screams into one murderous cacophony, and then a new wail sprang up ahead of him. This one was high, constant, and piercing – the sound of a hungry baby, frightened and alone. But not for long. Because Sodar was coming for him. Lana lay still at the edge of the forest clearing, her breath rising and falling steadily in mimicry of sleep. To her right she saw Kelga’s hunched silhouette framed against the starry sky.
The bony old witwoman paced back and forth, her attention on the babe they had placed near a copse of blackthorn, yet there was an anxiousness to the woman’s movements that concerned Lana. At first, she’d thought the grandmother simply wished to support her. That made sense. Lana had given birth to a daughter only a month ago, and it was uncommon for witwomen to return to midwifing so soon. But it wasn’t as if Lana was participating in the reaping – that would have been too much even for her resilient body – and observing the death of a Son of Keos was hardly rigorous. All Lana need do was stay awake till the beasts of the Brakewood came, drawn by the child’s cries and the blood on the infant’s blanket. But Kelga had persisted in her commitment to witness the child’s death. It surprised Lana, not because the older witwoman was frail – Lana had often seen the crone endure trials that overwhelmed other witwomen – but because Kelga was selfish, solitary, and consistently uncaring towards others. Indeed, Lana suspected Kelga’s sour demeanour was the chief reason Witmistress Kiara had asked her to stay behind for the reaping. Yet here Kelga was, offering to keep vigil with Lana and even insisting that she take the first watch.
Lana had declined at first, but Kelga had worn her down. Rather than sleep, Lana had watched Kelga grow increasingly restless as the forest grew darker. A cold prickle of dread crawled into her blankets as the older woman finally settled herself against a tree trunk. Minutes passed. Clouds floated over the forest canopy and Lana became filled with an unreasonable fear. Something was wrong. She slowed her breathing, listening intently to the forest as Kelga’s silhouette blended with the shadows. She could not pinpoint the reason for her fear, so she combatted it the only way she knew how: by being prepared. In one hand, she held a fistful of mushroom spores; in the other, her reaping knife – the same stiletto she had plunged into Aegen’s skull. She heard the soft crunch of careful feet stepping on dry sticks and leaves behind her and tensed, suddenly realising Kelga had moved.
‘Why do you feign sleep?’ A long moment passed. ‘Because I fear death,’ Lana breathed. ‘It is wise to fear what we do not understand,’ Kelga said, her voice creaking. ‘But death comes for us all.’ ‘Do you bring it with you now?’ The old woman’s laugh was dry and husky, and Lana’s fear deepened. She loosened her blanket, preparing for the attack she knew would come. ‘You should have let me take the child,’ Kelga said. Lana shifted in her blanket, meditating on Kelga’s words as realisation dawned. ‘You’re a Daughter of Keos. A handmaiden of death.
The rumours about the schism … they’re true.’ ‘I am no handmaiden,’ Kelga replied evenly. ‘Death is my shadow. He follows me wherever I go … and he is here now, calling for the child.’ The boy’s crying had quieted, and it seemed sleep had finally claimed him. Lana glanced towards the babe in the grove. ‘And calling for you.’ Kelga struck. The dagger plunged down so hard and fast that Lana could barely dodge. The blade bit deep into her shoulder, narrowly missing her chest.
She twisted, wrenching herself free, and threw the spores into Kelga’s face. The old woman screamed, her bony hands clawing at her cheeks and eyes as she fell back – but the spores were potent, choking her, silencing her. Lana dragged herself to her feet and stumbled into the centre of the clearing. She knew the spores in Kelga’s throat would quickly blossom and bloom, expanding until they crushed Kelga’s windpipe and suffocated the old hag, so Lana used the moonlight to assess the damage the old woman had inflicted. The wound was deep. Worse, Lana had torn the muscle in ripping herself free of Kelga’s knife. If she didn’t staunch the flow of blood now, she wouldn’t survive the walk back. Lana tore a strip off her blanket, one end in her teeth, and began wrapping her injured arm. ‘Your instincts are commendable,’ Kelga croaked. Lana turned to see Kelga stagger into the moonlit clearing.
Vomit flecked the witwoman’s lips, but she breathed freely. It seemed Lana’s aim had been poor: instead of choking the old woman, the spores had claimed Kelga’s eyes: they were clouded over, the same colour as her bleached-bone hair. Lana backed away from the crazed witwoman and noticed that Kelga followed her more with her ears than her eyes. ‘You’re a blind traitor, Kelga, and the anointing that lets you find Chaenbalu has been destroyed. You can never return to the village.’ Kelga cackled, her warped voice rising. ‘I never intended to return. I’ve been waiting for that infant my whole life, and I shall take him from this backwater village for ever.’ She crept closer to Lana, her knife still drawn, the weapon poised to strike. Lana retreated, hastening towards the babe at the edge of the grove.
Whatever Kelga’s plans, she wanted to preserve the baby’s life, and she had not denied being a Daughter of Keos. Lana’s best chance was to kill the child now. She moved with purpose. If I kill it, she thought, her plans will be thwarted and I can run for Chaenbalu. It was the safest path. Lana had no desire to fight the old woman. Kelga was blinded but Lana could only use one arm, and she had no idea what tricks the old crone might have at her disposal. Kelga sensed Lana’s intention and tried to intercept her, but Lana got there first. She struck hard and sure with her stiletto. It met nothing but air and earth.
The babe had disappeared. Lana turned, searching for it, but there was no sign of the infant. A moment later, Kelga was on her, screaming. The hag slashed, her curved knife swinging wide as Lana leaned back to dodge the blade. At the same time, Kelga’s empty hand struck Lana’s chest, sending her backward into the blackthorn copse. Dozens of the barbed black needles punctured her thighs, back and arms, their ridged, two-inch-long spikes holding her firm. Lana struggled against the briars and felt more sharp thorns embed themselves deep in her body. She screamed – a wail of fear, frustration and pain, which became a frothy cough as the thorns constricted her chest. Kelga hobbled forward, a silhouette in the moonlight, until her outstretched palm touched the blackthorn. Her milky eyes stared up at the dark sky and she bent an ear towards Lana.
Kelga cackled, then bent down to retrieve the infant that was not there. ‘What did you do with it?’ Kelga barked. Her head spun about as though she were trying to locate the infant with some sixth sense. ‘Where is the Vessel!’ she screamed. Lana’s laugh came out as more coughing. She spat at the woman instead, tasting blood. ‘Keos took him,’ she snarled. ‘I hope he takes you, too.’ ‘There are worse ways to die than blood loss and blackthorns,’ Kelga growled, reaching out with her curved knife until it prodded Lana’s chest. ‘Where is the child?’ she demanded, the knife carving into Lana’s flesh until she gave a bloody scream.
A stout staff swung from the darkness, smashing Kelga across the back and driving the witwoman to her knees. The old woman howled and spun, throwing her arm in the air and pointing her bony fingers at her unseen attacker. ‘Bàsaich!’ she screamed from on her knees, her fingers curling towards the stranger. The staff flared silver then faded to a dull glow in the darkness. Lana blinked, trying to make out her saviour, and was shocked to see the village priest step into the moonlit clearing. ‘Sodar?’ Lana scarely believed her eyes, and still less when she saw the sheepskin bundle clutched in the old man’s arms. ‘What … what are you doing?’ The priest advanced on Kelga, his staff ready, and the blind woman shrank back across the clover-filled clearing. The moment Sodar came within striking distance, Kelga threw her knife at the priest’s belly. He knocked the blade aside with a flick of his quarterstaff then brought the solid oak down on the woman’s head. Kelga collapsed beneath the blow and Sodar lifted the staff once more, this time taking it high overhead, ready to smash the old woman’s skull.
But she didn’t move again. Sodar hesitated, then he lowered the wooden weapon and turned back to Lana. Inside the sheepskin blanket, the cursed babe cooed. ‘Quickly,‘ Lana panted, tasting blood. ‘You must help me destroy the Son of Keos and warn the Academy. Daughters of Keos have infiltrated the Wit Circle.’ The priest didn’t move. Instead, he stared at Lana with hard eyes and a frown. ‘You’re in no position to make demands, Lana banTosan.’ He spared a glance at the unconscious old woman.
‘You said Kelga has lost the ability to return to Chaenbalu.’ Lana nodded then coughed, bright blood flecking her lips. ‘She could return, though,’ Sodar continued, ‘if she had a guide.’ Lana gasped as an acute pressure seized her chest. ‘Who would bring her back? She wanted to save the Son of Keos.’ ‘And that is why I am letting her live.’ The priest returned his gaze to Lana. ‘But you. You would have killed the boy as quickly as you killed Aegen.’ Sodar shook his head, his grey-white beard caressing the infant’s face.
‘If Kelga cannot return to the village, she is no threat. With Odar’s blessing, she may even find her way out of the Brake before the beasts consume her. You’re a different matter, though, for if I let you live, you would condemn us both.’ Lana blinked as her vision began to fuzz and blood trickled from her mouth. Her body felt distant from her, and she had trouble holding onto her thoughts. ‘I had feared I would have to kill you,’ Sodar continued, ‘but it seems Kelga has taken care of that for me.’ The priest’s cool grey eyes watched as the world grew colder around Lana, and she realised she would die here, without ever seeing her husband or daughter again. Her body slumped backwards, and this time even the bite of the blackthorn couldn’t rouse her.