“One day you’ll be accepted, Deira, by every being of this darkening land. You’ll see. Even the creatures, big and small, will love you.”
My eyes closed and my mind opened to the memory of Mother’s softly spoken words, of her sweet-smelling breath as she pressed her cold lips against my cheek and cradled me in weak arms. “You’ll see.”
I sighed deeply and opened my eyes, seeing the never-ending snow carried by the wind. A strong gust lifted my loose hair and sent it billowing in all directions around me.
If only her words had been true.
Above me, the white and gold banners of my House whipped and snapped in the steady current. From my vantage point atop the highest tower, Murias, once a shining city of warmth and light, lay buried beneath a thick blanket of snow. Once, vibrant green hills, forests, terraced temples, and fountains prospered under a brilliant blue sky. But that was long ago. The cold had crept so slowly across the land, stealing the warmth and turning the days into a dull, solemn gray.
Death loomed over Innis Fail. Our world was dying. We were dying.
And I was to blame.
“Daydreaming again, Deira?”
I straightened, turning to lean against the stone ledge of the tower as Lidi inched her slender frame onto the battlements. “I’m finished with my duties,” I said over my shoulder, prepared for the coming lecture.
Mother’s only confidant, Lidi had witnessed my birth and then, when I was left alone, she’d taken me from the Woodlands, through the great Plains of the Thunderer, and across the lake to the island of Murias where she continued to watch over me.
She tucked her straight silvery hair behind one ear—something she always did right before a lecture. “How many times must you be told?” She grabbed my shoulders, turned me away from her, and began pulling my hair into a tight bun. “Your hair must be kept up. And where’s your veil? Left to float on the breeze, no doubt. I don’t know what draws you here…”
Despite the cold, I loved the tower, loved letting my hair down in defiance.
“Ow! Don’t pull so hard!”
“You’re lucky I brought another veil. Lucky no one knows you come up here. You know how much trouble you’d cause if anyone saw you?”
Aye, I did. But then, I didn’t care. “The veil doesn’t hide everything. They all know what I am.” A monster.
“And I’ve heard this argument how many times? Everyone here may know what you are, but they don’t need to be reminded… Besides, our visitors do not. Best keep it that way.”
I rolled my eyes even though she was right. If they saw my head uncovered and my red hair flowing in the breeze—evidence of my mixed blood, for red hair was purely a human trait—I’d spend the next two moons up to my elbows in some undesirable task.
As Lidi tugged on my hair, I admired the view. From here, one could see the other snow-covered islands in the lake and beyond our own shores, the Plains. And perhaps, beyond that, the path my father, Conlainn Mac Roich, had taken to be free of my mother’s kind, the Children of D’Anu.
What I wouldn’t give to be free of them, too, I thought bitterly.
I let out a heavy breath, wincing as Lidi pulled my hair again. “Do you think he made it?” It was a question I’d asked ever since coming to Murias in my sixth year. It was now my twenty-first.
Lidi’s hands stilled for a spell before continuing in earnest, using pins to attach a spare black veil to my head. “You must stop thinking of him.” She yanked my hair to emphasize her words.
“But there were others, before the war, who made it back to Eire.”
“Legends all.” Lidi stepped beside me, taller than me by a head. “Whether he made it back to the human realm or not, he abandoned you, leann. Do not give him such honor. He had to know what your life would be like without him...”
An embarrassment to the ruling House of Anu. A life of being shunned and looked upon with disgust, fear, and prejudice.
A slow burn spread through my chest. What else was I to do, but defend him? Believing he loved me and left for a purpose was far better than the believing he’d abandoned me.
“Look there.” She pointed to the far shore where tiny pinpricks of light appeared. First just a few then more, until the lights swarmed like thousands of angry fireflies above the snow. The faint rhythmic beat of war drums carried across the lake on the wind. A tingle swept beneath my skin and lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.
Lidi gripped my arm. “The Legions of Sydhr,” she whispered in awe. “The Fire Breathers have finally come.”
I swallowed, my eyes riveted on the illuminated shore. “Sydhrs don’t breathe fire any more than you or I.”
“Perhaps.” She paused, staring out over the frozen landscape before turning to me with her usual prim expression. “At least now we have a chance. With the House of Sydhr finally allied with the Houses of Anu and Taranis, we have a chance to defeat Nox of Annwn and fix the damage those horrible humans—” Her cheeks and the tips of her ears flushed red. “Oh, Deira, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean...”
I shrugged and the smile I tried to give her faltered. “You speak the truth.” The cold had begun to sink in, deep inside, to my very bones. “I can’t help what happened in the past any more than I can help what I am, though I wish I could.”
Her arm slipped around my shoulder. “I know. And I’m sorry for what I said. One day this war with Nox will be over. And they’ll forget.”
But we both knew no one would ever forget.
I, with my red hair, short stature, and tainted blood, was a reminder to every Danaan in the land. I alone reminded them of loved ones lost, of greed and betrayal. I alone carried the blood of a people reviled and hated by those of this world, for it was my human ancestors who stole the Light, the Lia Fail, from our world, causing the darkness and frost to creep across the land and steal the glow of eternal youth from our cheeks. And now the House of Annwn, the Underworld, had broken peace and taken advantage of the darkness to wage war.
No, they would never forget or forgive me for the half-blood that ran through my veins or the blight on my soul because of it.
An alliance with the Fire Breathers, as Lidi called them, would ease tensions and travel restrictions on the lake, making it easier for me to find a boat. From there, I’d return to the Woodlands and claim Mother’s abandoned estate for my own. All my earlier petitions to leave Murias had gone unanswered or had been denied. But no more. I was grown. The time had come for me to leave. And the distraction of visitors coming and going would make it easier to get off the island.
“We should be getting back. If the Legions of Sydhr have arrived, the Council will convene, and we must feed them all.”
She groaned. “It’s going to take forever to restock the storehouse after this.”
“Aye,” I replied, feeling hopeful at last. Things were about to change.
* * *
The tension and heat from the kitchen struck me as soon as we entered. Most days I aided Lidi there, salting meats and fish, or pounding raw roots and plants into pastes, or drying them for use as herbs. Other days, I apprenticed to the scribes in the Hall of Records.
Knowing my duties, I washed my hands in the basin, snagged an apron off the hook nearby, and set to work washing and chopping greens.
Before long, the heat in the kitchen grew and so did the ache in my feet. I’d chopped, washed, kneaded, cleaned, and swept. Servers, dressed in white tunics trimmed with gold cloth, finally arrived to take the first of several courses to the Great Hall.
Even though this ritual had taken place every night since the House of Taranis arrived to discuss an alliance, each time the servers lifted their trays and filed through the wide double doors, a sense of longing and wistfulness filled me. When the doors opened, the energy of the Great Hall seeped through; the low hum of many voices blended with the sweet sounds of music and laughter.
“Stop lingering at the door.” Bressia wiped her long, flour-covered fingers on her apron with sharp movements, eyeing me speculatively. Then she laughed. “Want to attend the Council, now do you?”
Heat shot to my cheeks. “No. Why would I?” But she’d seen my look.
“You in the Great Hall. Ha! That’ll be the day. Finish cleaning the pans and then see to the fires.”
My teeth clenched. I was so weary of being told what to do. Sometimes I wanted to rip my veil off and scream. In front of everyone. I missed Mother. Missed feeling loved and valued. Once it became clear how my mixed blood was viewed by my family, I learned quickly the value of indifference. But today was not one of those days.
Perhaps it was the anxiety in the air. For the first time in ages, three of the five ruling houses of Innis Fail had aligned, Anu, Taranis, and, hopefully, Sydhr, to fight against one of our own. More Danaans would die in the assault against Nox of Annwn. Nerves were raw. Everyone was on edge. As was I.
Keryn, one of the servers, hurried into the kitchen flustered and out of breath. Quickly, I poured her a cool glass of water. At least if I did it first, I wouldn’t be ordered to do it.
“There aren’t enough of us,” she said after a deep drink. “We need more servers.”
“Well, you won’t be taking my staff. Servers do little good without food to serve,” Bressia shot over her shoulder as she left to direct the making of breads and pastries.
I leaned against the counter. “I could help.” My heart skipped at the suggestion.
Keryn’s perfect silvery eyebrows rose. “You?” She said it with such disgust that I wanted to hit her. My fists clenched at my sides, but I forced down the anger with proficiency; I’d had years of practice, after all.
Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to serve—just because they didn’t think me good enough to do so. “There are so many in the hall, no one will even recognize me. I have my veil. I’ll keep my head down and serve from behind, and only the other houses.”