power,” she finally said, taking up a long, wooden staff and walking toward me,
closing the distance between us. I realized it was her wand, not a staff. The
tip looked woven, like strands in a basket, but even as they bowed from the
staff itself, they rejoined to make a fine tip. They said witches could use
their wands to spin the fates of lesser men.
lesser. My eyes narrowed at her closeness.
that,” she continued, undeterred. “They waste what little power they have by wagging
their tongues too much.” She smiled as she approached, stopping only when the
bottom of her crimson skirts brushed the tops of my boots. “But not you. You
observe first and speak only when it’s necessary. Even when your mother doesn’t
warn you beforehand.”
thickly as she lifted a hand and let her thumb ghost down the lumps and bumps
of my braid, pausing over the iron serpent coiled around it. She took in my
shield. “I need you to come with me now, Liv.” She turned her back to me and
began walking away from the shore.
“How do you
know my name?” I asked, refusing to follow her retreating form as she walked
toward the wood.
She turned with
a knowing smile on her lips. “Because someone very important has a message for
her trek, using her wand to help her up the slope, weaving herself into the
oaks and pines as if she was a scarlet thread in the forest’s vast tapestry.
scent of blood filled the air and we entered the spot where the animals had
been slain. They hung from thick branches in the trees above us, their blood
leaking into pots and jugs, buckets and bowls. “We must sit amongst them,” she
said, laying down her wand. She gathered her fine gown and sat on the forest
floor. “On Winternights especially, there is more power in the dead than in the
Hodor had stood
there earlier. He split his rope to hang each of the animals we brought to
later smoke and preserve.
each of them. The scrawny lamb that was born too late in the year and wouldn’t
survive the cold, the goat with the lame hoof, the runty piglet who was born
months ago, but wouldn’t grow despite the amount of food she ate.
Now they were
dead, hanging limply from branches, and the witch wanted me to sit with her
beneath them, surrounded by captured puddles of their blood.
stared at me and waited for me to comply with her request. I slowly walked
forward, the wind stirring the strands of hair escaping my braids as I stepped
beneath the animals. The moment my backside touched the forest floor, a strange
energy washed through the air.
animals hanging above us began to writhe. The lamb let out a pitiful bleat and
the pig weakly grunted. The cocks flapped their wings and flew in circles. Blood
droplets landed on us. I ducked and shielded my head with my arms, looking to
the witch as goosebumps erupted over my skin.
She sat calmly,
completely unaffected. Her cool, brown eyes were fixed on me.
went still again as a gust of wind tore their spirits away once more. My heart
fluttered as I watched them rock back and forth, the ropes that held their
weight creaking on the rough limbs until they finally went still.
of blood splashed into the containers beneath them, wrung out by spirit and
A slow smile
spread over the völva’s berry-stained lips. “There is power in blood and bone,”
the witch offered.
Power in words.
Power in blood
Power in the
Winternights had always been a raucous mixture of celebration and
spine-tingling fear. The dead walked the earth and joined us as we bade
farewell to summer and greeted the frigid winter, bade farewell to the earth’s
life and let death claim it again, as it had claimed our kinsmen. We were
nearer to them on this night, for they dwelt in the coldness of death now after
their walks in the sun, among the living.
“Why did you
ask for me?”
“I told you.
Someone has a message for you.”
She untied a
small pouch from the belt at her waist and withdrew a wad of leaves, placing
them in her mouth and chewing them. She rolled her neck. Her silken hair fell
over her shoulders as she rocked forward and back, forward and back. Her
movements, once smooth, became jerky and erratic. Her breathing became labored.
She wrung her hands. Her legs fidgeted.
A burning smell
filled the air. Not one of oak chips or firewood, but one that smelled of
I scooted away
clamped onto my ankle. “No!” she snapped. “Do not retreat. She is near.”
I looked over
my shoulders, all around the shadowy wood. If someone was close, I couldn’t
sense her. No branches snapped. No leaves rustled.
another small bundle of herbs from her pouch and offered it to me. “Chew.”
I shook my head
when she insistently pushed it toward me. I didn’t take it from her. “It is the
gateway to the weavers… to the norns.”
through my head, through my ears. “The norns?” I asked breathlessly. The
weavers called for me? By name?
to speak with you. This is the only way.”
dipped her fingernails into a pot of lamb’s blood and flicked it toward my
face. Small droplets sprayed my skin.
She shoved the
wad of blood-soaked leaves into my hand. My clammy palm wrapped around them,
then unfurled. It wasn’t wise to eat certain plants. Some would cause visions,
but some… some killed. And völva often sacrificed humans to the norns and to
They would drug
them, and when they did not know their head from their feet, the witches would
tear the heart from their chest and hold it, still beating, in their hands,
calling out to the gods to show what they’d done for them.
“I won’t eat
“But, Skuld—” The witch’s voice cut off. Her
breath hitched, then a squeak escaped her throat. My mother stood behind her,
the tip of her knife biting into the woman’s skin, her knee in the witch’s
The runes began
to writhe on her forehead, cheeks, and throat as she called upon her magic, but
my mother didn’t care. She held her blade tightly and refused to relent.
What is she
doing? The witch will kill us both! Or Skuld may decide to clip the threads of
our lives for refusing her… I leapt to my feet.
“I believe she
declined your request,” Mother gritted.
dark eyes locked on mine. “You are making a mistake. You’ve seen the first sign
of what is to come.”