The Girl the Sea Gave Back – Adrienne Young

“Give me the child.” Turonn’s hands reached for the girl cradled in his wife’s arms and she looked up, her swollen eyes glistening. “They’re waiting, Svanhild.” She touched her daughter’s face, tracing the curve of her brow with the tip of her finger. “I will carry her,” she whispered. Her black hair fell over her face like a veil as her bare feet hit the cold stone floor and she stood on weak legs. When Torunn stepped toward her, she moved from his reach. The comfort of her husband would only turn the river of pain in her chest into an angry ocean. So, he let her go, watching her step into the ice-blue light of dawn spilling through the open door. He took the bow from where it hung on the wall and followed, his eyes on the hem of her white linen gown. Below, every soul in Fjarra stood at the water’s edge to witness the funeral rites. The bitterly barren headlands that had been the home of the Kyrr for generations were iced over, though winter was gone, and Svanhild couldn’t help but think her daughter would be cold, even if she was dead. The wind pulled the thin cloth around her slight frame as she walked the winding path down the steep incline to the violent waves crashing on the beach. There, her people waited. She looked straight ahead, tightening her arms around the girl’s body, and one cold drop of rain hit her cheek.

The clouds churned overhead, the rumble of thunder echoing the pounding heart in her chest. She looked up into the blackening clouds, where the nighthawk was circling, and uttered a curse on her breath. She’d consulted the Spinners of Fate before her daughter was born six years ago and they’d told her what future lay ahead. But she still hated them for it. The three Spinners who sat at the foot of the Tree of Urðr weaving the destiny of mortals were as cruel as the cold waters that had pulled Svanhild’s daughter beneath the waves. Her pleas to save her child had gone unheard, swallowed up by the raging sea that surrounded the headlands. The boat was already waiting in the shallows. Its carved prow craned over the beach in the shape of a serpent’s head and garlands of willow were draped over the sides, where a maze of runes and ravens’ wings was burned onto the hull. Inside, long stalks of nodding avens and lupine were piled in an offering to their god, Naðr. The people were silent, their eyes on Svanhild as she stood on the beach, peering down into the face of the girl.

Her skin like milk, her hair like ink. The black marks that covered her skin wound around her arms and legs in patterns that Svanhild had made herself only a year ago. They were the same ones that covered the skin of every Kyrr standing on the beach, a labyrinth of ancient prayers that had been passed from one generation to the next and that signified her as a child of Naðr. But even the gods couldn’t spare mortals from the hands of the Spinners. Turonn set his hand onto Svanhild’s shoulder and she blinked, sending hot tears falling into the fine linen. She waded out into the icy water, the gown clinging to her hips and legs, and the rain began to fall harder as she leaned over the side of the boat to set the girl down carefully, nestled into the soft violet-and-blush blooms. Turonn took hold of the prow, shoving the boat out onto the water, and Svanhild swallowed down the sob in her chest until it was a heavy stone in her stomach. After all, what right did she have to cry out? The Spinners had told her this day would come. She’d known it the moment the midwife had placed the tiny child into her arms. And now that it was here, she’d send her daughter to the afterlife with strength, not with frailty.

And when she saw her again, she would stand proud of her mother. The boat’s edge slipped from her shaking hands as it caught the gentle current and Svanhild stood there until the cold of the water crept into the center of her bones. Until she couldn’t feel anything but the biting wind on her face. The sound of fire-steel struck behind her and she looked over her shoulder to where Turonn was nocking a flaming arrow, his face drawn with deep lines and his dark eyes reflecting the storm above. He looked to Svanhild, standing like a ghost in the gray water. She gave a sharp nod and he lifted the bow, his fingers tightening on the draw. He pulled a deep, even breath in through his swollen throat and let the string creak before he released the arrow and it flew. It arched up over Svanhild’s head and every set of eyes on the beach watched it vanish into the clouds before it reappeared, dropping from the sky like a falling star. It hit the boat with a crack and Svanhild wrapped her arms around herself as the hungry flame caught and spread. The scent of burning elm crept toward them in a swath of smoke as the boat grew small, drifting into the thick fog until it disappeared.

And when Svanhild blinked again, it was gone. The Shores of Liera, Svell Territory Night still hung heavy as Jorrund opened the door to his small house in the Svell village of Liera, far from the frosted shores of the headlands. Only the outlines of the tallest trees were visible, but he knew the path well enough to walk it in the dark. He slung the satchel over one shoulder and took the bundle of wood under his arm before he set out, winding through the sleeping village. He rubbed at the ache in his cold hands, his boots crunching on the pine needles that covered the worn trail, and looked up to the dark branches, where even the birds had fallen silent. In only minutes, the sun would rise up over the fjord beyond the trees and wake the world. But Jorrund didn’t want to be there when the Svell chieftain knocked on his door. Not before he’d sought Eydis. Not before he’d asked for her guidance. It had been only days since news reached Liera of the massacre to the east.

The demon Herja had reemerged from the sea to spill the blood of the Aska and the Riki clans and for the first time in generations, it looked as if their gods had buried their feud. Now, the clans on the fjord and the mountain were weakened and the Svell people were hungry for the war they never could have waged in the past. They looked to their chieftain, awaiting his answer. But Bekan looked to Jorrund, the Tala. Chosen as the mediator between the people and their god, he was interpreter of Eydis’ will. But she had been silent, not a single omen or sign lighting the two dark paths ahead: one to peace and one to war. The trees came to an abrupt stop, opening to the dew-covered meadow, and Jorrund set down the wood. He took the fire-steel from his robes and opened the satchel, pulling the bowl and herbs from inside. But movement in the trees ahead made him still, one hand going slowly for the knife tucked into the back of his belt. His fingers curled around the handle slowly, his old eyes trying to focus.

A streak of white moved through the dark forest like a floating torch. But it wasn’t a flame. It was a woman. She stood between the trunks of two trees, wrapped in a dark robe. The length of her white hair spilled out from the hood, falling down her shoulder like a running river. She watched with sparkling eyes as Jorrund stood, his faltering breath fogging out before him in the cold air. When her entire face came into the moonlight, he stopped breathing altogether, dropping the bowl at his feet. The look of her was too strange to be mistaken. Like the eyes of a hundred-yearold woman on the face of a child. It was a Spinner.

A Fate Spinner. “Hello?” he called out, taking a careful step toward her. But she didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. Her pale eyes only seemed to deepen and a chill ran over his skin, the tingling reaching down the length of his arms to the fingers that were still wound tightly around the handle of the knife. He’d heard stories of the Spinners. His own mother had told them to him and he had, in turn, told them to the children of Liera. But never had he been visited by one. And if that was who stood in the forest before him now, there were only two things she could be bringing. Life or death.

She reached up, pulling the hood of her robe down, and stepped into the path with bare feet. Jorrund looked over his shoulder, to where the trail back to the village disappeared in the darkness. Maybe this was the sign he’d been waiting for. He’d called out to Eydis, but perhaps it was a Spinner who’d answered. He followed her with tentative steps, the length of his robes catching the tall grass that lined the path. She moved through the trees like a creeping fog and the farther they walked, the colder the air grew. The smell of the sea blew through the trees, thick with the scent of a spent storm. The light of morning appeared in the distance, only beginning to illuminate the fjord in a blue haze that reflected off the thin crust of ice hugging the shore. The Spinner stepped down onto the rocks without a sound, leaving the cover of the trees, and Jorrund stopped, the toes of his boots at the edge of the path. The beach was littered with a tangled maze of driftwood and rockweed, washed up by the violent winds that had blown in during the night.

The Spinner walked among them, making her way into the fog that had gathered in the small cove ahead. A faint cry twisted on the soft breeze, and Jorrund tilted his head, listening. It wasn’t high-pitched enough to be a bird, but there was something unsettling about the broken sound. It rose above the sound of the water, coming in gusts with the wind. He stepped onto the rocks and walked toward it, the beat of his heart matching his quickening pace. The Spinner disappeared and he pushed into the haze after her, following the fading echo. The fog thinned as he neared it, and the water calmed, lapping up onto the rocks under his feet. On the beach ahead, the silhouette of a boat emerged. He turned in a circle, looking for the Spinner, but there was only the cliff and the trees that encircled the cove. The sound rang out again and the chill that had found him on the forest path turned sharp.

He eyed the boat, pulling his knife free and lifting it before him as he stepped forward warily. His boots ground on the rocks and when the head of a wooden serpent appeared before him, he froze. His eyes focused to see the narrow face, an open mouth with an unrolled tongue reaching out toward him. Naðr. There was no mistaking it. The god of the Kyrr was the serpent that was carved into the prow, but what was a ceremonial boat like this doing so far from the headlands? Sacred runes and staves were etched into the blackened hull. He took another step, his hands running over the carving of a flying raven half-erased on the charred wood. The boat had been on fire, probably squelched by the storm. And there was only one use for a boat like this—a funeral. The wail echoed out again and Jorrund flinched, raising his knife again as he peered over the side of the boat.

Inside, a small girl was crouched in a nest of wilted blooms of wildflowers. The black marks of the Kyrr covered her pale skin. Twisting, knotted symbols that made a patchwork of secrets began at her ankles, spreading over her entire body and reaching up her throat. The breath caught in his chest as the girl looked up to him with large, red-rimmed eyes. Her trembling lips were painted the palest shade of blue, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees as she hugged them to her chest. His gaze fell to the strange symbol on her chest, where her tunic opened. A large, open eye encircled by the branches of an oak tree. That, too, was something he’d only heard of in stories. The mark of a Truthtongue. One who could cast the rune stones and see the web of fate.

He lowered the knife, letting out a long, heavy breath. It was no accident. After days of calling out to his god, the Spinner had appeared to him in the forest and led him to the beach. She’d entrusted the child to him. Surely it was Eydis who’d sent her. He turned, searching the beach for the white-haired woman, but she was gone. There was only the sound of the water. The howl of the wind. He reached into the boat, taking the girl’s weak body into his arms, and she curled up against him, shivering. But he knew what would happen if he took a Kyrr child to Liera, especially one with the mark of a Truthtongue.

The Svell would fear her. The chieftain may even kill her. But if Jorrund wanted to give the Svell leader the answer he needed, it was a chance he would have to take. He set the girl onto the rocks and gathered the wildflowers into a heap before he hit the fire-steel in three clean strikes. The sparks caught the dried leaves and petals and the white smoke swirled up above his head as it spread. The wind picked up and the fire found the hull, devouring the wood until the flames rose up taller than he stood, disappearing into the gray sky. It was a betrayal. An ill omen. But it wasn’t the Svell he’d answer to in the afterlife. He’d answer to Eydis.

So he stood, his back to the wind, the girl at his feet. And together, they watched the boat burn.


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