Ky threw her hands above her head, curling her fingers into her palms and curling her tongue 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 scent, that 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 wretched in 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 sweet rotten flesh.
"What have you done to yourself?" crooned the familiar voice, and the black eyes glittered.
The bony fingers lifted from Ky's throat.
Saliva and lake water sprayed across Síl's hollow-cheeked face as Ky coughed twice. She twitched backward, blue tongue flicking against white fangs, each one as shiny as an ocean pearl—but her lips remained thinly curved at the corners.
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 and weeds at her feet. 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?"
Ember… 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, wet slap stung Ky's cheek, forcing her head down and making her skin tingle with a rush of familiar shame. "I do not lie, Sister. I am alone."
Síl sniffed, tilting her head and eyeing Ky as one might eye a tasty fish, when one had not yet decided if it was 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, holding it up to the moonlight. 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 would be a far better end than that which our clan may 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. 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—which was considerably taller than her sister.
"What do you think they did to me, when I returned that night without you? If I return to them 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 catching you, 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. Worthless Little Fish… now see what you have done…
"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 you resist, as proof that I found you and judgment was meted."
Ky opened her eyes, her scalp prickling. She reflexively twitched her fingers through her tangled hair, and then forced her hand away.
"Well, Sister?" Something like pity—or sorrow—softened Síl's voice. "What will you decide?"
Síl had often flown into a rage at the slightest provocation, and her calm made Ky weak with dread; 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 blinked rapidly, remembering 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, and then smiled.
Relief coursed through Ky's veins, some of the tension flowing from her taught muscles. The eldest sister had been appeased, and all was well. Old ways, old rituals returned to her then, whispering to her heart… a thousand dark voices that bound her tongue and stifled her thoughts.
"Oh, my sister," breathed Síl, placing a gentle 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 bowed and her shoulders slumped without her consent.
"Yes. 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 touchable…
Ky snapped back to the lake, blinking several times as Síl's scowling face came into focus. Her heart withered: she had angered the sister.
"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.
"If you sing for the man, Sister, I shall tell the gathering that all has been atoned, and you will be spared their wroth."
Ky leaned away, but the strong scent of bitter herbs overwhelmed her. Her breaths came quick and frantic, and a quaver took hold of her voice. "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, the words ringing in her ears with a familiar echo.
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 gripped Síl's wrist with such force that the bones clicked together and yanked the clawed hand from her neck, slashing Síl across the face.
Síl stood in shock, blood trickling from the scratch on her cheek.
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 dashed through the muddy brambles, thorns snagging her ankles and snatching a few threads from the hem of her dress. A cold hiss misted her neck, and before she could twist around a pair of arms encircled her.
Magic thrummed in the air.
Ky's limbs weakened, and her thoughts were drowned by that beautiful voice.
"You know how this ends."
Síl spun her around, her pale face glimmering in the moonlight, and Ky clenched her fists. She would never whimper or cower before her sister again.
With bruising force, Síl threw her down the gentle 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 realized it was not an idle threat. 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, her fangs gleaming in the starlight, and Ky knew that she would not be fooled. 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 as she grasped cold flesh; the water closed over their heads.
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 fury and a peculiar numbness sheltered her from the blows.
The water stank of siren blood…
Bubbles rushed past Ky's face as she grunted with effort, curling her toes around any rock or rotting log that she could find as they descended into the murky depths. A pair of fangs sank into her shoulder, yet even that pain was dulled, peripheral to the tremendous anger and fear roiling 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.
Ky squealed, more bubbles rushing past her face as pain wracked her skull. Síl had maneuvered herself above her sister, and her fingers dragged at Ky's hair. 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.
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 strand 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 shadow flashed away, 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 crown of branches held her firmly in place 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.
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 of black hair—it floated freely around her forehead, waving like a banner from the crooked branch of the tree.
A swirl of blood floated before her eyes, muddying the greenish hue of the lake before fading away in the moonlight.
Foolish Little Fish...