FOR RUTA, GENTLE AND FIERCE WITH BOTH HEART AND PEN.
She’d never seen fire as an enemy, not until it crept like a snake along the grass to where she lay bleeding, not until it struck. And even then, Lotta didn’t scream from the pain.
She screamed for Ansa, though. Screamed until the smoke choked off the sound. Her tears dried to a salty crust as she fought to keep her eyes open. Though she had no strength to rise, her fingers clawed in the blood-soaked dirt beneath her as she watched one of the monsters sling her daughter over his massive shoulder.
Only two days ago, she had resolved to hide Ansa forever and keep her safe, even if the priests from the city came calling with offers of copper piled to the thatched eaves. As soon as that red flame mark had appeared on Ansa’s right calf, Lotta had known what it meant. When her brother’s family had visited from the city yesterday and brought word of the Valtia’s death, it had only confirmed her fear. She’d heard the fantastical tales of how the Saadella, the heir to the Valtia’s magic, was chosen. She knew the Saadella lived in luxury at the Temple on the Rock. Many parents would give anything to see that kind of life for their child.
But once the Saadella became the Valtia, possessing the infinite fire and ice magic that sustained the Kupari people, the girl’s life would not stretch far into the future. And she would never have children. Would never know love. Would never see her parents again, not once they handed her over to the elders. She would belong to the people and the priests until the day she died.
Lotta hadn’t been able to bear the thought of giving Ansa up.
Now she was losing her all the same.
The raiders had come up from the water like demons, ax blades gleaming, the sweat on their grime-smeared faces glinting in the torchlight as they set fire to the outbuildings nearest the dunes. Grabbing his pitchfork, Anton had shouted for Lotta to take little Ansa and flee for the north woods, but they hadn’t had a chance. Anton had been cut down not five steps from their cottage, and Lotta hadn’t made it much farther.
Ansa, though . . . she had grabbed her father’s knife and slashed at her enemies. Tears streaming down her face, shrieks bursting from her throat, she had dodged between legs, jabbed at soft spots, squirmed away from grasping hands, and sliced at thick-knuckled fingers. A tiny five-year-old exacting a blood toll from vicious barbarians. Even as Lotta’s blood flowed fast and sure from her wounds, she’d felt triumphant at the sight of her daughter’s speed, her ferocity. That was Ansa. She could never be stopped.
Until the one with the yellow beard caught her. She scratched at his laughing face and kicked at his chest as he hoisted her up. The monster called to one of his fellows in his throaty, garbled language, smiling until Ansa sank her teeth into the back of his hand.
He grunted and dropped her. Lotta’s faltering heart leapt even as pain devoured her. But then Ansa threw her head back, and her ice-blue eyes took in the devastation around her, the cottage in flames, the screaming pigs being herded toward the shore, the demons plundering her world. . . . Don’t see me, thought Lotta. Keep running.
But Ansa’s gaze caught and held. And the sight of her mother, burning and dying, seemed to freeze the little girl where she was.
Yellow Beard scooped her up again. Ansa wailed, her skinny arms outstretched. “Mama!”
I love you, Lotta thought as the darkness closed in. Never stop fighting.
One day you will be powerful enough to kill all of them.
One day you will avenge us.
As the spray from the Torden kisses my face, I trace my fingertip along the four notched scars that decorate my upper arm, and then along the space below them, where soon there will be more. By the time the sun rises tomorrow, I plan to bleed all the way down to my elbow at least, and hopefully my wrist, though that might be too ambitious. I glance at Sander, to my left, dark hair, dark eyes, dark heart. He already bears kill marks down to his forearm, one at the bottom still new and scabbed over, earned from a reckless lone attack on wandering travelers a week ago.
He smirks when he sees me looking. “Down to my knuckle by morn,” he says. “Catch up if you can.”