Ky threw her hands above her head, claws curling into her palms and her tongue pressed against the roof of her mouth. The breath had been soundly knocked from her lungs, the sense rattled from her mind, but ten seasons of lonely wandering had not washed away the memory of that bittersweet scent, that spellbinding voice. And no one, man or siren, had ever pulled her hair—or flung her to the ground in such a fashion.
They would not dare.
They had no reason.
But this creature dared and had much reason, and bilious terror rose up in Ky's throat. If the cruel fingers had not been so tight, she might have retched for fear. Instead, she pressed herself lower into the mud to appear as small and harmless as possible; after all, she was only a Little Fish.
A claw pricked the neckline of her sodden dress, peeling it away from Ky's shoulder. She stilled as the shadowy face bent close to hers, moist breath heavy with the stench of crushed leaves and rotten flesh.
"What have you done to yourself?" crooned the familiar voice, and the black eyes glittered.
Bony fingers lifted from Ky's throat.
Saliva and lake water sprayed across her sister's hollow-cheeked face as Ky coughed twice. Sil twitched backward, baring her sharp white fangs, each as shiny as an ocean pearl—but her lips remained thinly curved.
Ky shivered; she trusted the smile even less than the openly hostile greeting.
Síl stood very suddenly, her water-dark hair trailing in the mud. Ky coughed once more and slowly righted herself, cupping her fingers around her tender throat and swallowing several times. Her heart pounded wildly, and her head throbbed with the beat of it.
"Who gave you these rags?"
Ky glanced up, chest constricting; Síl stared back with cunning eyes.
"Where have you hidden him?"
The night air thrummed as she bent it with her words, each casual lilt and shifting tone as powerful as a mortal shaper's most elaborate spell.
Where have I… no. There is no man. There never was a man.
Ky shifted her gaze to the wide lake, searching the rushes for some small distraction; a fluttering moth gave it to her. "I have hidden nothing."
A cold slap stung Ky's cheek, forcing her head down and as her skin tingled with a rush of familiar shame. "I do not lie, Sister. I am alone."
Síl sniffed, tilting her head and eyeing Ky. It was the sort of eye that one might cast upon a tasty fish, when one had not yet decided if it were worth the trouble of catching and eating…
Ky stumbled back with a cry as the sleeve of her woolen dress was torn asunder, wrenching her shoulder with a white-hot flash of pain. Hissing, Síl clenched a fistful of limp fabric, her fingers tightening around it; it reminded Ky of the way she sometimes wrung the necks of little birds.
Her voice was deceptively quiet.
"Every law and sacred vow of our people, you have broken. And not once, but now again! How many times must you spite your own tongue, Sister? How many times must you disregard the good of our people for your own selfish schemes?" Her dark eyes sparkled like wet river stones, and she shoved the tattered wool under Ky's nose. "His scent is fresh on you, Sister… as it was fresh upon the mountain path, and fresh upon the mountain's door."
There was nothing that Ky could say to that—her heartbeat quickened, her breath caught, and any song she may have sung to allay Síl's suspicions died upon her tongue.
"I should tie you up in these rags and leave you to starve… it may yet be a far better end than that which our clan shall offer."
Ky whimpered, gathering the skirts around her waist with shaking hands. Her fingers faltered and she would have lost her grip if her claws had not already sunk into the sturdy wool. She remembered the Elder and his beautiful voice—a voice which no one, mortal or deep-dweller, would ever hear again. She remembered the terrible sound he had made when—
"Did he give this to you, Sister?"
A cold finger pressed against Ky's face, below her eye. It traced the faint ridge of scar tissue until it reached her chin, and stopped there.
There never was a man.
The silence stretched on so long that the crickets began cheeping in the tall grass again, and Ky felt her toes sinking slowly into the mud.
She pressed her lips together, heartbeat quickening.
"Keep your secrets, then; I shall hear them all soon enough." Síl's face twisted, her smile tightening at one corner and her nostrils flaring. "The gathering of clans will accept neither your silence nor your lies."
Ky stepped back, her foot squelching free of the mud, but Síl drew herself up to her full height, her face twisting.
"What do you think they did to me, when I returned that moonless night without you? If I return to the elders empty-handed once more, they shall pluck out my hair before all the clans!" Síl wailed softly, raking her long white fingers through her thick red hair.
A shudder worked its way through Ky's body, from the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet.
"For ten seasons, you have wasted my life… I have given up everything—" Her snarling lip twitched, and Ky jumped. "—for a thankless halfwit! Whenever I came close to luring you away from your madness, you fled, prolonging the inevitable. You have only proven yourself the coward our clan believes you to be. When you disappeared into the mountain… I confess, I almost left you to your fate." The snarl faded, and Síl blinked slowly at Ky. "But I could not abandon my only sister."
A second wave of shame crashed over Ky, colder and more powerful than the first, and she closed her eyes. The air thrummed, twisting around her like the shadow under the mountain.
"I followed you, and waited for you, though it was but a chance I should see you again," whispered Síl, her sorrowful tones sweeping over the lake like an ocean mist. "I am to bring you before a gathering of the clans, to speak for your crimes—or present them with the skin of your head, should all else fail, as it has been done since the shaping of our people."
Ky opened her eyes, her scalp prickling. She reflexively twitched her fingers through her tangled hair, and then forced her hand away.
"Well, my foolish sister?" Something like pity—or sorrow—softened Síl's voice. "Come willingly, I beg of you… for I am bound by oath to our clan, and I know what I must do."
Síl's calm made Ky weak with dread; when would she reveal her true intentions? When would she punish the worthless little fish for her crimes? But she could not overpower her elder sister. There was no other choice, unless it was to escape along the path to the ocean. And what would happen when she was caught again? If Síl failed, would they send more elders to fetch her?
Ky twitched her ears and sniffed, her fingers tapping against her thigh… she could still feel the cold touch of the Lonely One as he snatched at her legs, desperate to yank her down from the wall and devour her twice over.
Ember had been there to put a sword through his heart.
Not even Ember could stand against an entire clan…
Nor would he know where to find her.
You cannot flee forever.
"I will return with you," whispered Ky, lowering her head, "as you well knew I would."
Síl watched her carefully for several moments, her mouth flat and her eyes empty—and then smiled.
Relief coursed through Ky's veins, some of the tension flowing from her taught muscles. All was well once more, for the eldest sister had been appeased. Old ways, old rituals came back like the tide, binding her tongue and stifling her thoughts.
"Oh, my sister," breathed Síl, placing a hand on her tattered sleeve. "How long it has been… but at last you have hearkened to my song, and all shall be as it once was."
Unease writhed in the pit of Ky's stomach, but her head was already bowing to the wise and powerful voice. She did not want to think anymore, for thinking brought conflict, pain, and confusion.
How much better to let the wise one think for her; what a fool she had been to run so far away.
"Yes," murmured Ky. "All shall be as it once was…"
But what might have been shall never be.
She would no longer sing for Ember. Perhaps one day, when the pain had dulled and the memory of his face and voice had faded into darkness, she would sing again for the moon—but the moon cared not for her melodious words; the moon did not smile down at her, or whisper its admiration.
The moon was cold, and distant.
She curled her fingers into her palms, swallowing a lump of regret.
Not like Ember…
Ember was warm… and earthy…
Ky snapped back to the lakeshore, blinking several times as Síl's scowling face reappeared. Her heart withered: she had angered the eldest. She must speak quickly, and soothe her wrath.
"Have you heard nothing I have said?"
"Forgive me," Ky whispered, the words barely slipping past her trembling lips. She straightened the remaining sleeve of her limp dress, swallowing hard. "My thoughts wandered."
"See that they do not wander again." Sil straightened, absently winding a lock of damp hair around her finger, lips pursed and eyes narrowed. "Tomorrow we depart for the gathering of the clans. But tonight, my beloved Sister, we shall feast."
Ky went rigid.
Síl trailed her hand down Ky's bared arm until their fingers clasped, cradling her smaller hand in both of her larger, bonier ones.
"Sing for the man, Sister. I shall tell the gathering that all has been atoned, and you will be spared their wroth."
The voices rose in a chorus: Sing! Speak! Shout!
The name Ember leapt to her tongue, but she bit down on it, horrified. Ky leaned away, but the strong scent of bitter herbs overwhelmed her. Her breaths became quick and frantic, and a quaver took hold of her words. "There is no man!"
"None of that, Sister." Damp breath washed over Ky's forehead, rank with rotting flesh. "He cannot have wandered far, and I would have him. For your sake do I require this—once you have gnawed on his bones, you will remember yourself."
"I am not hungry," Ky whimpered, a distant memory pricking at her conscience.
A confident smirk wormed its way across Síl's mouth, her cheeks hollowing. "You will eat, Sister… you always eat, when you get hungry enough."
Swallowing, Ky tried to shrink away, but the elder siren grasped her throat again, the smile blooming across her face. "Must you learn all lessons twice over? If you will not sing for him, I shall. I shall seduce him, enchant him, cajole him and expose him to you as the fool I know him to be – for all mankind are fools. And as I part his throat from his body, he will believe it was you—"
Ky snatched Síl's wrist with such force that the bones uttered a grinding creak, and – yanking the clawed hand from her neck – slashed her sister across the face.
Síl froze, as still as a carven stone.
Three crimson scratches marked the left side of her face, dark blood trickling from the deepest valley.
Síl's mouth opened, black eyes empty.
Ky had never spoken to her in such a way.
Straightening, Ky smoothed her palms across her bedraggled skirts and leveled a glare at her sister.
"I will not be coming with you," she announced, surprised by the strength of her own voice. "You will never lay your eyes upon the man who holds my heart. And I will never return to my people, for they are my people no longer. Submit yourself to their rituals, if you wish—I care not—but as for me, I will look to the south, and walk until my feet fall off or I find some magic that can free me from my past."
Lifting her chin, Ky turned away and stumbled through the muddy brambles, thorns snatching at the hem of her dress. A cold hiss misted her neck, and before she could twist around a pair of arms encircled her.
The words thrummed, each voice of the earth bending to their will.
Ky's limbs weakened as her thoughts were drowned by a chorus of whispering magic.
"You know how this ends."
Síl spun her around, moonlight and gleeful expectation shimmering in her eyes. Ky clenched her fists and pressed her lips together, scarcely breathing. The expectation flickered and died, replaced by a flash of terrible rage.
With bruising force, Síl threw her down the slope toward the shallows. Brambles scratched at Ky's bare feet and she stumbled backwards into the lake, choking in surprise. Síl descended much more slowly, twitching her fingers and humming all the while.
A few stray wisps of magic appeared in the branches of the trees behind her, blinking through the summer foliage.
"I vowed to the clan that I would bring you back for penance, but I did not promise them that you would be in one piece."
Ky tried to run, but her legs would not move.
Síl marched down the embankment, splashing into the water with a vengeance. "I was lenient once before, and for that I paid dearly. Sing for the man, and keep your tongue."
Her claws flashed under the moonlight.
"Refuse, and I shall tear it out, and make you eat that before I feed him to you, one bite at a time."
She spoke with such a patient quietude that Ky was left in no doubt of her intent: Silveli did not make idle threats. The world smeared before her at the thought—she could taste the salty blood between her teeth even now—but if she could divert Síl's attention and perhaps lead her further from the mountain, she might not find Ember.
And that was worth the loss of a tongue.
"Tear it out, then," Ky sniffed, heart pounding hard beneath the damp wool. "'Tis not as if there will be more love lost between us."
Síl observed her for a moment, as if gauging her resolve. Then her smiling lips slowly parted, fangs gleaming in the starlight, and Ky knew that she would not be dissuaded. She would sing for Ember. He would come to her. And he would be devoured.
Síl's tongue curled as she took a breath—
Blood in the water.
The world went black, a sound like the roaring ocean filling her ears, and the earth tilted. A painful impact shuddered through her frame as she collided with another body, and something soft gave way beneath her ramming shoulder. Stars danced before her eyes, her claws sank into cold flesh, and the lake closed over her head.
Síl shrieked, slashing at her throat, but Ky twisted and writhed through the dark waters, forcing them ever deeper. She moved along the bottom of the lake, kicking off the pebbly surface with her legs while wrestling for control of Síl with her hands and arms. The dress tore, and she was dimly aware that sharp claws had raked across her face and bosom, but her skin tingled with numb fury, sheltering her from the blows.
The water stank of fragrant siren blood…
Bubbles rushed past Ky's face as she grunted with effort, curling her toes around every rock and rotting log that she encountered as they descended into the murk. A pair of fangs sank into her shoulder, yet even that pain was dulled, peripheral to the tremendous anger and fear roiling together in her chest. She grabbed Síl by the throat and chanted ancient curses.
It was a quiet battle, muffled by the lake.
Neither of them could summon Ember if the open air would not carry their cries.
Let the water choke her song.
Let the water take them.
Somehow, some way, Ky would keep her here—until Ember was long gone, and her voice would never fall upon his ears. It was, perhaps, impossible, but there was nothing else to be done. A fool's hope, as Ember had once said.
A shadow pulled her attention to the left; something rested on the bottom of the lake—they had crossed almost to the other side, and were nearing shallow water. Ky squealed, more bubbles rushing past her face as Síl's fingers dragged at Ky's hair.
She flung out an arm, struggling to wrench her hair away from Síl, and an algae-covered branch scraped her skin.
A dead tree.
Her fingers encountered taught strands of hair, but she could not free them: Síl's hands darted in and out, weaving every lock into the branches.
Ky bit and scratched, but the more she fought the closer she came to gouging an eye out. She caught a fistful of her sister's hair and tugged her closer, flailing with her other hand.
Their fingers locked.
Seething, Ky burrowed her claws into her sister's arm and bared her fangs in a desperate howl. But Síl darted away, quick as a shadow. Ky's elbow extended with a loud pop and her neck snapped back, held in place by the skeletal crown of the tree. Her howl was choked by a yelp as water filled her lungs, and her fingers flew open in pain and surprise. The specter of her sister vanished at once, leaving nothing but a gentle current and a stream of watery moonlight behind.
Ky wailed into the murky abyss, singing every foul oath and word of deep persuasion that she could recall, but Síl did not return.
The wicked arms of the branches held her fast, even as the tattered woolen skirt pulled her toward the bottom of the lake. Cursing, she twisted her arms, reaching behind her head—but her hair was hopelessly knotted.
Panic gnawed at her mind.
Ember will die.
Ember will die… because of you.
Ky frantically dug her fingers into the matted knots of hair and a few strands came loose; the rest snapped under her insistent tugging. She tightened her jaw and yanked a second time, ripping away a full lock—it floated freely around her forehead, waving like a black banner from the crooked claws of the tree.
A swirl of blood floated before her eyes, muddying the greenish hue of the lake, and then faded away in the moonlight.
Foolish Little Fish...