Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Issue 47
Stories
Fixe
by K. C. Norton
What the Blood Bog Takes
by Barbara A. Barnett
I Was Her Monster
by Jessi Cole Jackson
Intertwined
by Kate O'Connor
Antique
by Jared Oliver Adams
IGMS Audio
Antique by Jared Oliver Adam
Read by Gabriel Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Topaz Marquise
by Fran Wilde
Bonus Material
Updraft
A Novel by Fran Wilde

Writing Fantasy

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

What the Blood Bog Takes
    by Barbara A. Barnett

What the Blood Bog Takes
Artwork by Anna Repp

On the Day of Sacrifice, my sister Asthore and I wait at the blood bog's edge, our feet sinking into the muddy shore. Asthore gawks with unbridled curiosity as the ceremonial procession emerges from the fog-shrouded forest; I watch with trepidation. Our clan-chief Fallon leads the procession, a sheepskin mantle draped across his sinewy shoulders and a wary look on his furrowed face. It has been many generations since the gods last demanded the sacrifice of a clan-chief, but the harvest has been meager this year, and many of our kinsmen have died raiding neighboring clans. And so Fallon walks with slow steps, leaden with the possibility that today the gods will call for his death.

My pity should rest with my clan-chief, as brusque and dispassionate as he is, for I can think of few fates worse than having one's corpse thrown into the bog, your own blood subsumed by that of the gods. But instead of Fallon, my thoughts turn to the young man at his side: the druid Ciaran. Ciaran glances my way, the wide-brimmed hood of his robe drawn low so as to shadow his face.

"All these looks between you two," Asthore teases, undeterred in her playfulness despite the day's foreboding air. "When is your druid friend finally going to ask for your hand, Seara? It's about time you move on to more interesting things than exchanging looks."

I give Asthore a light jab in the arm, trying to ignore the knot in my stomach. If the gods demand Fallon's life today, it will be Ciaran who must wield the blade. Staring at him now, I cannot help but remember the sweet freckled boy who, years ago when he was only just apprenticed as a druid, came to me in tears the first time he had to sacrifice a lamb.

Asthore turns her attention to Fallon, regarding him with morbid fascination. "Do you think the gods will demand the clan-chief's life?"

"I hope not," I say, sickened by my own imaginings of Ciaran drawing the ceremonial dagger across Fallon's neck, the blood pouring forth, as thick and red as the bog waters. It is a terrible fate, but without an acceptable sacrifice, the gods will scorch the earth and dry up the lochs, leaving us to die of hunger and thirst. I doubt the other clans would show us mercy after Fallon's raids.

Fallon and Ciaran lead the procession onto a wooden trackway that will take them across the blood-filled bog. The bearers of sacrifice follow, twelve men and women appointed to bring our clan's offerings to the gods. Our father processes among them, his steps unsteadied by the drink with which he fills our mother's absence. One by one, he and the other bearers vanish into the gray fog that hangs over the bog. I would think they had disappeared entirely if not for the bleat of the sacrificial lamb one woman carries in her arms.

"I want to watch," Asthore says, grabbing my hand. She knows my dread of the blood bog, yet pulls me after her, onto the trackway. I try to turn back, but others from our village press close behind us, as eager as Asthore to see the fate of our clan-chief. I am caught up in their tide. Our feet thud hollowly against the oaken planks. Beneath them, heaped brushwood is all that keeps us from sinking into the blood water.

The procession comes to a halt at the trackway's end -- the heart of the bog, where the waters are deepest and solid land lies beyond easy reach. I look back toward shore, longing for its dense woodland canopy of birch and willow. Here in the middle of the bog, I feel hemmed in, suffocated by fog and blood water and the smoky scent of peat.

"I want to go back," I tell Asthore. Even with so many of our clansmen surrounding us, I feel exposed, for beyond the trackway planks there is nothing but red marred with dark patches of sedge and moss, a wide and unknowable expanse where the gods dwell and judge our every step.

"Aren't you curious?" Asthore asks.

"No."

"One day you'll be tasked to carry an offering, and you won't have a choice."

I cannot argue her on that, and so I reluctantly stay, clutching her hand as if we are still children frightened by a storm in the night.

Ciaran begins his invocations, and one by one the offerings are dropped into the bog: grains, jewels, an iron-bladed sword, the blood of a lamb and then the lamb itself. The water ripples, as if the bog breathes, but every offering floats on the surface, refused by the gods. The fear among our gathered assembly grows as heavy as the clouds, making itself known in whispers and shuffling feet and the exchange of nervous glances. Ciaran's invocations grow more fervent; Fallon grows more pale.

Asthore squeezes my hand. "Do you think he'll have to kill him?" Her tone carries an apprehension that was absent the first time she inquired about Fallon's fate.

I shake my head, too unsure of my voice to speak. I do not want to see a man killed. But the laws of sacrifice are clear: if the offerings are refused, it is because the gods are displeased, and the only way to appease them is with the clan-chief's blood so that another man might better serve.

A flurry of murmurs and anxious glances draws my attention toward our father, who crouches at the trackway's edge. "If the gods will not have the finest I can craft," he says, reaching down to pluck a broach from the water, "then my daughters shall."

I gasp as he presses the broach into Asthore's free hand; no one has ever dared to reclaim a sacrifice before. Those refused are supposed to be gathered in a net and buried deep in the forest.

"Blasphemer!" Fallon cries, grasping our father by the collar. "You will bring the vengeance of the gods upon us, you drunken fool."

Blood-thick water drips down the broach and onto Asthore's hand. She stares at the broach, her brow creased, as if curious how such a thing had come to be in her hand.

"Throw it back," I tell her, worried by the wild look in Fallon's eyes, and by the fear in our father's. "Please, Asthore, throw it back."

"But what if --"

Asthore's words give way to a scream. I do not see what grabs her -- a hand, a claw, a tentacle-like twist of blood water, or some other horror I cannot imagine. All I know is that our hands are still clasped as she is pulled into the bog. I topple forward, dragged along the trackway planks, splinters catching on my dress and skin, but I do not let go of Asthore's hand.

"Asthore!" My father tries to run to us, but Fallon shoves him down onto the trackway.

"Do not interfere!" Fallon shouts to the crowd. "If the gods claim this girl, so it must be."

I pull at Asthore, but the bog holds her tight. It is as if she is encased to her neck in rock instead of blood water. Panicked voices surround us: our father's pleas for help, Fallon's admonishments that the gods' will must be done, Ciaran's insistence that people let him pass.

Tears stream down Asthore's cheeks, yet as she stares up at me, a strange calm falls over her. Her eyes darken, the green of them like a cloth soaked in the midnight sky.

"Let me go," she says. "I'm not afraid anymore."

I shudder to see such unnatural darkness in her eyes, yet still I clutch her. "No."

The bog waters bubble. Asthore is yanked from my grasp with such force that I almost plunge in after her, but someone pulls me back onto the trackway. Ciaran. His hood has fallen back, and he looks from me to the bog to Fallon with wide-eyed confusion.

"This shouldn't be," he whispers.

My father lets out an unbearable wail. I stare at the water, willing Asthore to rise, but all is stillness. Our sacrificial treasures float while my sister does not. Her outstretched hand slipping beneath the surface will be the last I ever see of her. With that thought, I sag into Ciaran's arms, my breath choked with the onset of tears.

"It is the will of the gods," Fallon says, a quaver of uncertainty in his voice.

I glare at him, my grief tinged with a sharp, sudden anger. I had no desire for Fallon's sacrifice before, but now that Asthore has been taken in his stead, I wish it had been so.

I have invited Fallon to join me beside the fire, yet he looms just inside the hut's doorway, watching as I polish the bracelet he requested from my father: a delicate emerald set between two twisting bands of gold. My father has grown too weak to rise from bed, let alone finish his work, but I have learned his craft well enough to see our debts paid.

"I am sorry for his ill health," Fallon says, looking to where my father lies twitching in yet another fitful sleep, so sweat-soaked that he has tossed aside the animal skins I earlier laid over him. "I suppose it is not surprising given circumstances."

"You mean his drink?" The words come out more sharply than intended. For all of my usual timidity, in moments like this, bitterness finds a way of loosening my tongue. But if Fallon is taken aback by my tone, it does not show in his stiff, impassive demeanor.

"I meant the loss of your sister," he says.

I have trouble believing his sympathy. Though it has been nearly a year, I remember the last Day of Sacrifice clearer than any other in my life. Fallon was not wrong to have called my father a blasphemer and a drunkard that day. And perhaps I offended the gods myself by trying to pull Asthore from their grasp. But Fallon's cold insistence that no one else help her -- right or wrong, he has never shown regret, and for that I cannot forgive him.

Fallon nods toward the bracelet in my hand. "Has your father spoken to you of its purpose?"

"His words are unintelligible of late," I say, though that is only half true. My father awoke screaming the night before, and when I tried to calm him, he told me Asthore had been standing in the doorway, dripping red with blood water, her hand stretched toward him. But I refuse to further reduce my father's dignity by telling Fallon of his ravings.

"The bracelet is a gift," Fallon says. "For you."

I nearly drop the bracelet in surprise. "Me?"

"We will have a good harvest this year. The crops look strong. The gods must be pleased with us once more." Fallon gestures toward the pile of half-finished metal workings at my feet. "After your sister's sacrifice, you should not have to toil on such things. And your father wishes for you to be taken care of."

I do not mind such toil, as Fallon calls it, but I am too troubled by his speech to say as much. Until the gods took Asthore, I was barely worth Fallon's notice. The reasons for his attention to me since then always seemed clear enough: I am someone who can be pitied, a timid, grieving girl with a drunken father, a mother long dead, and a sister claimed by the bog. Show one such as me kindness, and how magnanimous he looks to the clan. But now, with a gift of jewelry and talk of my future comfort -- would he truly go so far as to seek my hand?

Fallon sits beside me. He looks at me without meeting my eyes and shifts uncomfortably on the pile of ragged sheep skins. "I would have you for my wife."

And just like that I am trapped. I had thought to have a choice in my husband. I had thought it would be Ciaran. But Fallon is the clan-chief; I cannot refuse him. All I can do is silently curse the gods for taking my sister and leaving in her place this man -- one who thinks me so weak that I need to be taken care of, as if it were my father sustaining me all this time instead of the other way around.

"I am not worthy of such an honor," I say, and try not to choke on my words.

"If your sister was a worthy sacrifice to the gods, then you are worthy of me."

Fallon takes the bracelet from my hand and places it on my wrist. His fingers are rough, like bristle against my skin. The bracelet's emerald glints in the firelight. The finest of stones, and yet I cannot help but think that it adorns a shackle.

Among the many trackways that cross the bog, I stop short of the one that leads to the Druid's Isle, a thick mass of tree and rock surrounded by muddy shore. I need to see Ciaran, but my dread keeps me bound in place. This trackway lies a good distance from the one where the sacrifices are made, yet still I imagine blood-soaked hands rising to grab me and pull me beneath the waters. I imagine my mouth filling with metallic-tasting blood as I am held there forever, never drowning, always screaming. To the rest of my clan, my cries will be unheard, no more than bubbles rising to the bog's surface.

"Seara."

The whisper passes me like a breeze. I whirl, yet see no one. In the copse of trees behind me, all is silent -- no rustling branches to suggest anyone's presence, not even a bird's song. Before me, the bog waters are still.

"Join me, Seara."

The voice's direction is clear this time -- it comes from the Druid's Isle. No human figure reveals itself, but I spy movement through the brush on the isle shore. A mischievous laugh floats across the bog, one I used to hear so often.

"Asthore?"

I take a tentative step onto the trackway. The first plank groans and flexes under my weight. I freeze. Imagination, I tell myself. The oak is solid, yet I cannot shake the feeling that just one more step and the wood will crack and splinter and I will sink through the underlying brushwood as if it were quicksand.

"You don't have to fear this, Seara."

There is no mistaking my sister's voice. Another rustle in the brush, another laugh, and I am running across the trackway, toward the Druid's Isle, all my fear of the bog banished by the feverish certainty that my sister is not drowned, that she never was. She swam to the Druid's Isle and there she has lived all these months, waiting for me to find her.

"Asthore!"

Beneath my feet, oak gives way to the mud and bog grass of the isle's shore. Where? I think, circling till I'm dizzy. Where are you? A branch cracks, and I follow the sound, pushing through a thicket. The scent of hazel fills my nose, leaves brush my skin, and I burst into a clearing.

"Seara?"

Not my sister's voice this time, but Ciaran's. I lurch to a stop, my cheeks flushing. I spent all morning preparing how I would tell him about my betrothal to Fallon, but with Asthore's voice now echoing in my mind, all my words have left me.

"Are you all right?" Ciaran asks.

"I thought I heard . . ." My words trail off, crushed under the weight of my foolishness. Had I gone as mad as my father, imagining Asthore to be alive? "I'm sorry," I say, turning to leave. "I can't --"

"Wait, please."

I turn back, but stare at the ground, unable to meet Ciaran's gaze.

"Something's wrong," he says. "Whatever it is, you can tell me."

"I heard a voice, and it sounded like . . ." I shake my head. I was mad. I had to be.

"Asthore?" Ciaran suggests.

I look up in surprise. There is a wariness about Ciaran's bearing, as if my reply might confirm some great fear he harbors, and so I answer him truly: "Yes."

"I want to show you something," he says, taking my hand.

Ciaran leads me through the isle's dense brush, then up a slope, sure of the path though I can see none. Did he hear Asthore's voice too? I wonder. But I keep silent, distracted by the feel of his hand on my own. His skin is not so rough and creviced as Fallon's, more accustomed to rites and divinations than hunting and war.

"There," Ciaran says, pointing toward a large, moss-coated rock. He clambers to the top, almost slipping on the slick moss, then helps me up after him. We are not very high, but enough that we look down upon a large swath of the bog. A thin mist hangs over the blood water, yet in the near distance I can make out the trackway from which the sacrifices are offered.

"There," Ciaran says again, pointing toward the shoreline from which the trackway extends. "Do you see it?"

I do, and the sight fills me with dread. I remember how as children, Asthore and I would climb to a hillside overlooking the bog and tell each other what shapes we saw in the thick patches of moss and sedge. What I see now, though, takes no child's imagination. Where Ciaran points, the patches outline the water so that it looks as if a bloody hand is reaching toward shore. Toward our village.

"It's not uncommon for the patterns to shift over time," Ciaran says. "The bog waters rise and fall, the ground wears away. But this, the hand -- I've never seen anything appear so suddenly, so distinctly."

My father's nightmarish vision of Asthore suddenly seems more prophetic than mad. "My father said he saw her," I tell Ciaran. "My sister. He said she was dripping red with bog water and reaching toward him."

Ciaran nods, offering no surprise, no judgment. "I heard her voice. It led me here -- yesterday when there was nothing of note to see, again this morning when there was."

Could this hand in the bog be a mimicry of Asthore's, reaching out for help? I want to believe that, but the fingers bend at a claw-like angle that suggests a more sinister purpose. Join me. I shudder at the implication of those disembodied words that beckoned me across the trackway. You don't have to fear this, Seara.

But I do fear, for I remember the darkness in Asthore's eyes just before the gods ripped her from my grasp. My next breath catches in my chest, and all I can think about is getting away to a place where I cannot see the bloody waters and the terrors they hide. I scramble down the rock only for my foot to skid on the moss until I am falling face-first onto the ground below. Moist soil presses cold against my skin; something scratches my cheek, and the scent of decaying leaves fills my nose.

"Are you hurt?" Ciaran asks, helping me to my feet.

I answer him with a shake of my head. My aches from the fall are slight, not nearly so sharp as my embarrassment. One moment I feel dread, the next a pained awareness of what a bedraggled, foolish mess I must look in my fear. I try to brush the dirt from my woolen dress, but all I manage to do is smear it deeper into the damp fabric.

"You're bleeding." Ciaran takes my hand again and leads me to his hut, a round wattle-and-daub structure where we sit on a thick fur rug.

"What does it mean?" I ask, wiping blood and dirt from my skin with the cloth he has given me. "The hand in the bog?"

"I don't know yet." Ciaran laughs nervously. "That's a terrible answer for one whose duty it is to divine the will of the gods. But something changed when they took Asthore. Before her, the gods never claimed a living sacrifice. Only the inanimate, the dead. Now all the usual rites tell me nothing. Instead we are haunted by voices and bog hands -- signs I have never seen before."

It should trouble me that even a druid has no idea what these things mean, yet I find some small comfort in Ciaran himself, if not in his words. He reacts to the unknown with contemplation, not with my paralyzing fear or the false, blustering courage I have seen in men like Fallon.

"The day your sister was taken," Ciaran says, "the gods no doubt chose to punish your father for his transgression. But before that moment -- why do you think the gods refused every offering we made?"

I finger the bracelet on my wrist. "Because they were displeased with the clan-chief."

"And therefore by right that day Fallon should have been the sacrifice. But I . . ." Ciaran stares at the ground for a long moment, face pressed into his hands. Finally he lets out a sharp exhale and meets my gaze. "I waited too long, and for that I owe you a greater penance than I can give. I insisted on one too many offerings being thrown into the bog, foolishly hoping the gods would finally accept one because I was loath to perform my duty. Because I was weak. And now it is my fault that an unworthy clan-chief still lives while your sister is gone in his stead."

"No," I say, though doubt taints my voice. Ciaran is right: he could have acted sooner. I could be sharing stories by the fire with Asthore or teasing her about how often she pricks her finger when sewing. I would be giving no thought to Fallon, for his body would be in the depths of the bog, limbs bound and throat slit.

With that image, guilt washes over me. For all of his faults, Fallon is not an evil man. To wish him dead is a shame I can bear, something to fill the empty space left by Asthore's absence. But to wish the weight of that death upon Ciaran makes me sick at my own selfishness.

"You couldn't have known," I say, imagining all the possibilities of that day: if the harvest had been good, if Ciaran hadn't hesitated, if my father hadn't taken the broach, if Asthore hadn't insisted that we follow the procession in the first place. "None of us could have known. The gods have never taken anyone the way they did Asthore."

"Ignorance does not excuse my inaction."

"It does for me." I brush a stray lock of hair from his face. "If not for you, I would have fallen in after her. The gods might have taken me then too."

Ciaran cups my face in his hands. "I'd never let that happen. Even if it meant forswearing the gods, I would never let that happen."

For a long moment we are silent, sitting so close that my heart beats faster. I want nothing more than to pull him closer and feel his lips brush mine as I've imagined so many times, but the weighty bracelet Fallon gave me serves as a bitter reminder that Ciaran has hesitated too long again.

"You've been far more patient with me than I deserve," Ciaran says. "I've blamed myself for what happened to Asthore. I still blame myself, whatever you may say. And because of that, I've been afraid to ask you --"

"I'm to be married," I blurt. "To Fallon. On the next Day of Sacrifice."

Ciaran draws back, and despite the look of devastation on his face, my anger at the situation finally turns toward him. This he could have stopped. This he had to have known was a possibility. I glare at the bracelet, fighting the urge to rip it from my wrist and fling it into the bog.

"Fallon had my father make this cursed thing for me, and then . . ." A sob catches in my throat. "I didn't want this. I wanted you. You, and my sister back, and my father to be himself again, and everything in this world but Fallon."

"The next Day of Sacrifice," Ciaran says slowly, as if carefully weighing each heavy word before it leaves his lips. "If the gods do not take what the clan offers this year, I will have to kill Fallon. I will kill Fallon. Once I could have done so with the knowledge that I was only doing as my duty required, but now . . . now I will not be able to do so without fearing that I am acting too soon. Too eagerly."

Because of me. The words remain unspoken, yet they hang between us nonetheless.

"I should go," I say, standing.

Ciaran offers no word or motion to stop me as I make my way back toward the trackway. Once there, I step onto the first plank. I mean to walk slowly, to face my fear of the bog and maintain some semblance of dignity, but one step after another my pace quickens until I am running, even after land is once again beneath my feet. Only when the village is in sight do I slow, though part of me still wants to run. But I am trapped -- ahead of me, the home where I face a life bound to Fallon; behind me, that blood-red hand reaching toward shore.

When the next Day of Sacrifice comes, the morning is sickeningly bright. I would rather have a day to match my mood, the sky heavy with cloud cover and the land shrouded in its usual ashen gray. Instead, the world is aglow with more color than seems natural, from the shimmering green moss at my feet to the fiery leaves of red and yellow that canopy the forest. The gods have shown their cruelty once more, marking this of all days with beauty.

Fallon and I stand beneath the feathery branches of a willow tree, hands joined, surrounded by an assembly of politely smiling well-wishers who have gathered to see us wed before the sacrificial procession. Though my father is physically among them, sagging against his walking stick, the way he drools and stares at nothing tells me that his mind is trapped elsewhere, perhaps in a happier time when Asthore and my mother were still alive. But my father's speech has grown too infrequent and incomprehensible for me to ever know for sure.

Ciaran wraps a red ribbon around my and Fallon's joined hands. It is all I can do not to cringe. Fallon's palms are clammy, and his gaze flits about, only ever meeting my own for the briefest and most uncomfortable of moments. Not once does he smile. I grow queasy at the thought of tonight when I will be forced to share a bed with him. Will he look at me even then?

Ciaran's face is obscured by his dark druid's hood, but I hear him more acutely than ever as he speaks of the joining of body and spirit, two entwined as one, blood bound to blood. The torment in his voice is like a magic of its own, weaving invisible threads between us. But those threads can be broken, I am sure. I imagine my new husband catching a look between us and tearing through them as if they were no more than a gossamer cobweb.

Finally, the wretched ceremony ends and the sacrificial procession begins -- one dread traded for another. As the clan-chief's wife, I have no choice but to lead the way at Fallon's side, followed by Ciaran and the offering bearers. At first our procession is accompanied by the crunch of leaves and brush beneath our feet, but as we emerge from the forest, our footfalls become muffled by the soft ground of the bog's peat-scented shoreline. Before us, the blood water stretches toward the horizon, like a blanket of smooth, red silk. My pulse quickens, and I feel a pained longing for the past when I could have lingered here on shore, holding Asthore's hand, only ever following the procession at her behest.

I clutch Fallon's arm as we step onto the trackway. There is no comfort in the touch, but he is at least something to cling to; I suspect I am the same for him. Not that we can offer each other any true protection on the trackway, for the further we walk, the more we are hemmed in by the bog's wide expanse. And if the gods choose to claim me as they did Asthore, I doubt that Fallon will try to stop them.

I glance back toward shore. Where before the curious would have followed the procession, only a handful have today. Most of the other villagers watch from the forest's edge with a wariness as thick as the blood water.

At last, our interminable procession comes to a stop at the trackway's end, deep in the heart of the bog. Ciaran begins his incantations, and the first sacrifice is thrown into the water: a bundle of wheat, the finest of the harvest, but a small fraction of what will sustain our clan through the year ahead.

The gods refuse it.

The second sacrifice is offered: a young stag that could have grown to feed and clothe a family during the winter cold. But it is no matter, for the deer have been plentiful, the hunts successful.

The carcass floats beside the wheat shafts, unclaimed by the gods.

More and more offerings are tossed into the bog. Food and pelts, weapons and baubles, all refused. Useless, I think, watching them float. Useless trinkets and excess that could not save my sister, that can never equal her in value.

But can Fallon? The muscles in his arm tense beneath my hands; I can smell the stink of fear in his sweat. The other gathered clan members cast furtive glances toward him, the unspoken question on their faces: are the gods still displeased with our clan-chief after all?

My gaze strays to the place in the bog where the bloody hand reaches toward shore. I cannot make out its outline from where I stand, but I shiver, certain it is still there. But why? I want to scream. Why do the gods not make their intentions known instead of speaking in signs and symbols?

Ciaran calls for the next offering. I wonder if the others can hear the quaver in his voice, or if that tremor is something I feel instead of hear, a vibration through the threads between us. Whatever its source, I tremble along with it. For all of the times I've imagined Fallon dead, I know now without doubt that I would rather endure this marriage than see Ciaran kill him. I cannot bear the thought of Ciaran's compassion being overshadowed by guilt, fading from his eyes the way it has among the warriors in our clan, leaving something cold and hard in its place. But when the next offering lands unclaimed upon the bog's surface, Ciaran turns toward Fallon, then nods toward a man holding a length of rope -- not a sacrifice, but the means to bind one.

"There are more offerings yet to try," Fallon says. He grabs me by the arms, fingers digging in with bruising force, and holds me before him, a shield between him and the others. His desperate breaths are hot in my ear. "The gods wanted her sister before, perhaps they will take her now."

I twist and kick at him, but Fallon's hands only clamp down harder. Is this why he has married me? So that I am at his side to offer to the gods in place of his own life?

"It is my charge to interpret the will of the gods," Ciaran says to him, "not yours." Ciaran draws a dagger from beneath his robes, long and curved, its iron blade notched with teeth-like points. "Let her go and accept your fate."

"The gods do not want me!" Fallon cries with a madman's passion. As much as I shudder at the thought of him throwing me into the blood waters, in a morbid way I am also grateful, for one way or another, tonight I will not be forced to share his bed.

"Your clan-chief speaks the truth."

I gasp at the sound of Asthore's voice. We all whirl to find her climbing from the bog and onto the trackway, naked and dripping red, leaving bloody handprints on the oaken planks. Everyone watches in stunned silence as she rises to her feet, even Fallon, whose grip on me loosens. I shake free of his hold and stagger forward until I am at last face to face with my sister. Her eyes look even more unnatural than when the gods took her, filled with copper and red swirling against a backdrop of endless black. For a moment, I fear that though her body stands before me, Asthore herself must be gone. But then she smiles at me, and there is no mistaking the look of both mischief and tenderness that could only belong to my sister. I open my mouth, wanting to tell her how much I've missed her, but all I manage is a choked sob.

"You don't have to fear this," Asthore says to me, the words not so ominous as when I heard them disembodied on the Druid's Isle. But when she turns to address the rest of those gathered, her voice hardens. "I speak for the gods now, and they do not want your clan-chief, for losing such a coward is no sacrifice."

Asthore turns back to me, and though she does not speak, in my mind I hear the other words she said that day on the Druid's Isle: join me.

"A coward would not be missed," I say, "but I would be. At least by some." I look toward Ciaran at that, then at the unclaimed offerings on the bog, this time with understanding. I wrench off the bracelet Fallon gave me and throw it at his feet, so hard that he steps backward in surprise, nearly losing his footing. But were he to fall into the bog, I am certain he would float.

"We offer excess and vanities," I say. "Nothing of true value. But not this time."

Ciaran steps forward. "Seara, I will not --"

I hold up a hand to silence his protest. He thinks I mean for him to offer me as sacrifice, but I could never ask that of him. Not when I have a will of my own.

I take Asthore's hand and leap with her into the bog.

I have no sense of myself until I am rising from the bog waters and stepping onto the muddy shore of the Druid's Isle. How long has it been since my nose has filled with the scent of birch and peat, since my feet have pressed against soil and grass, since the breeze has elicited a pleasant shiver with the way it brushes my skin? Days? Months? I have memory of all those sensations, yet still it is as if I am experiencing them for the first time, a stranger in my own body.

Days, I realize. It has been only four days, for that is when I told Ciaran I would return. Asthore has taught me to call to him from the bog. To call to anyone. I can speak to our father and comfort him in his dying days. I could haunt Fallon if I chose, whisper to him no matter how far he runs in his exile from the clan. But I leave him to his cowardice.

Ciaran is not in his hut when I reach it, but he has left me a basin full of water and a woolen dress. I smile at the gesture, though such things seem trivial to me now. But I can imagine Ciaran's furious blush to see me in my current state, naked and dripping red, and so I cleanse myself of the bog water and dress.

I find Ciaran sitting on the rock where we once gazed out at the bloody hand reaching from the bog. Ciaran starts to rise, but hesitates. He stares at me for a long while, searchingly, as if to assure himself that I am truly there. My eyes must look to him as Asthore's did to me, swirling red with the depth of a thousand worlds.

I sit beside him and reacquaint myself with the way my weight presses down on the rock. Out in the bog, the sedge patterns have shifted. The hand is gone, for my sister no longer has reason to beckon me.

"I see a duckling now," I say.

Slowly, Ciaran's wariness fades and his lips curve into a smile. "I think it looks rather like a hawk."

"You were right," I tell him, taking his hand between my own so that I can feel the soft warmth of his skin. "Something changed when the gods took Asthore -- when they took someone living. They discovered a new way to speak to us." I look toward the bog. The waters are still, yet I can sense my sister coursing through them, delighting in more curiosities than she ever could have imagined in her mortal, flesh-bound life. "The gods desire a prophet, but Asthore has no interest in returning to this world again."

"And you?" Ciaran asks.

"I will be your link to the gods now. There will be no more need for rites and divinations. No more need for sacrifice. I will tell you their will."

Ciaran touches my cheek, and I sigh contentedly. Slipping through the bog waters is like a constant caress, but this -- this I have missed. This touch is more specific, more fleeting. And when Ciaran kisses me, when we leave the rock and lie together in the soft grass, it is as if a thousand fires light within me, one after the other, burning brighter and brighter until at last they flicker away.

Too soon after, my gaze turns again toward the bog.

"You will not stay," Ciaran says with sad certainty.

"I cannot stay. But I will come back."

I draw Ciaran close, certain the gods will let me linger for a moment longer. But even as I kiss him, I feel their call -- a pull toward the bog, where my sister waits. There Asthore and I are weightless, as liquid as the water, moving through each other, filled with knowledge we don't yet fully understand. There we are one with the gods, yet somehow freer than we have ever been. There, in the depths I once feared, we are home.

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