Chapter ONE – Liss
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Cradelow Valley

The Darkbane elves were a wary clan, the root of their mistrust muddled in centuries' old dogma. They had lived in unbroken isolation in Cradelow Valley for three-hundred years, convinced that their exile was a fair punishment for their ancestors' sins. The elders of the clan's Council forbade anyone from trying to leave the valley, claiming that only death lay beyond the mountains.

As a result, Liss had spent her entire life in Cradelow. When she was born, one of the clan's birthers lifted her out of her Bearer's womb, cleaned her off and sent her to the children's tent, where she'd stayed for the first five years of her life. Cloistered with the other elf children, she'd been taught her letters, how to keep a tidy space, and above all else, how to suppress the sinful urge to deceive.

Every morning began the same way, reciting the Darkbane pledge within the windowless panels of the children's tent:

It is not my right to tell a lie. Do not deceive, do not decry

the truth of the Goddess when she has sworn,

'If we shall not uphold the law, this will be our great downfall.'

It is not my right to tell a lie, and if I shall, then all will die.

It was a radical pledge, especially the last bit. Liss had known this down to her bones from the time she could remember. She'd never understood why so many spoke the words with reverence, even her friends.

When she was six, she'd graduated to the juniors tent, which was not in actual fact a tent, but a roughly hewn barracks carved into one of the great gray mountains flanking the basin of the valley. Inside was a large sleeping area with rows of identical cots and two washrooms, one for boys and the other for girls. Decoration was limited, and youthful fantasies were less tolerated with each passing year.

The night before her Sixteenth–ten years into her tenure within the juniors' tent–Liss stayed up late drawing runes she'd found years ago in an old tome from Before. Before Cradelow and their sequestered existence. Not much was known about that time, only what had been passed down through the generations or gleaned from the few historical texts which had survived.

“What's that one for?”

Her friend Dev leaned across his bed to watch her draw, supporting his weight on his hands. They were the same age, only Dev was a couple of months older and about two feet taller than Liss. He wasn't family, not technically. The Darkbane didn't acknowledge their offspring or raise related children as kin, and Dev didn't share a bloodline with Liss, but she often thought that he fit the definition as she understood it in the old stories. They were like siblings or cousins.

“Shhh!” she whispered, pressing a finger to her lips as she glanced around the long, narrow room they shared with eighteen other juniors. 

Hazy moonlight filtered through small vents cut into the high ceiling, supplementing their elven night-vision. When no one stirred, she dropped her hand. “This one,” she said, adding a finishing touch to the rune she'd been sketching, “alters appearances.”

“Like a changeling's magic?” Dev's dark eyes lit up, winking like the stars they rarely saw shining over the valley.

"No. Like our magic."

She held out the drawing to him, the edges of the notebook paper curling and yellowed with age. There was newer paper she could have used, but what fun would that be? Her notebook was her most prized possession, apart from her antiquated tome of runes. She'd found it among the old stories in the children's tent when she was five, shortly before she'd found the tome, and no one had stolen it or made her share. Probably because no one else had wanted it, with its musty smell and blank, brittle pages. But it was a precious treasure to Liss. She'd grown a fondness for things from Before. Her collection was growing so large that she had hidden things, lest someone find all she had amassed and name her a deceiver.

"Well...?" Dev raised his eyebrows. "How is it different from changeling magic?"

"This magic is much more subtle." She set her notebook down on her crossed legs, squaring her shoulders. Her white hair was twisted into two long braids that swayed against her neck as she turned toward Dev. "In your case it might turn your brown hair blond, or your eyes blue. It might upturn your straight nose or alter the line of your jaw. It might even give you some facial hair, who knows." She grinned at his look of offense. "With enough subtle changes, one could create a remarkable difference."

Dev grunted, running a hand along his smooth jaw. "Remarkable, huh?"

"Oh, don't be such a boy," Liss scoffed. 

Dev had been so touchy lately. She supposed it had something to do with his becoming a man. The facial hair was missing, but the height and deep voice had arrived a while ago. Pretty soon, the Council would require him to become a Seed. It would be a few years yet before Liss would be expected to become a Bearer, but she already became nauseated at the thought. Unlike some clanswomen who seemed to enjoy their Engagements, Liss didn't consider the so-called sacred ordeal a blessing. It sounded more like a curse. She didn't want to carry a baby around in her belly or bear anyone's child, and she didn't want Dev becoming anyone's Seed either.

Would they still be close after they were forced to grow up and take on the added responsibility of increasing the clan's dwindling numbers?

It was a bleak future she hated to think about, even as it crept closer year after year. Day after day.

"Don't be such a girl, then," Dev grumbled.

Liss didn't know how to reply, didn't know what he meant. She flipped her notebook closed and tucked it under her pillow. "I'm going to bed," she said in an undertone. "Try not to talk in your sleep."

"I don't talk in my sleep."

"According to the Council, we're damned if I tell a lie, so..."

Dev leaped off his mattress and loomed over her, graceful as a wildcat. His whispered breath was hot in her ear. "Don't say things like that, not out loud. You're getting too bold, challenging the clan way and collecting all your trinkets from Before. I'll protect you as best I can, but please, try to think toward the future. We're not kids anymore. Soon enough–"

"I don't need your protection," she hissed, pushing on his chest until he sat back on his heels. "Soon enough everything changes for us. Don't think I don't know it. I just hate it... I wish it was like Before."

"Well, it's not." His voice softened. "There’s no magic left except Hona’s storms. Your runes are pretty, but what can they do? You won't be able to change your face and walk out of here. Before is gone."

"Says who?" 

Liss knew it was dangerous to give voice to such thoughts. Their people may have lost their magic, but they hadn't lost their keen hearing.

"The Council. Everyone. Liss, please. You have to be more careful. Tomorrow you'll be sixteen, and all these imaginative opinions won't be tolerated."

"If you had read everything I've read from Before, you'd wonder the same as I do, whether the Council is as all-knowing as they claim. What's beyond the mountains, Dev? Hmm...? Haven't you ever wanted to find out?"

"Nothing," he whispered, grasping at her hand as if his touch could stop her from speaking. "Desolation, storms, that's all." Eventually his grip loosened, and he moved back to his own cot. "We can talk about this tomorrow after rounds. I'll meet you by the stream after your Sixteenth."

Liss didn't want to go to her Sixteenth ceremony, to stand there and be told that any act or utterance of deceit would rain destruction down on the clan. That the Goddess Hona had decreed it so at the end of Before as retribution for the arrogance and flamboyance of centuries' past. It made little sense to Liss, this narrative of a tyrannical, vengeful Goddess who supposedly loved them.

Forbidding lies and deceptions was one thing, but promising death and destruction for the smallest infraction, even one as minor as an innocent whisper between friends in the middle of the night? That went beyond rationality.


"What?" he murmured, his voice fuzzy with sleep.

"Will you walk with me to the ceremony? Rana claims there's going to be some kind of announcement, and I'd like you nearby if it's a bad one."

"Rana is a gossip." He was referring to one of the other juniors, who was presently snoring several cots over. Her nickname was Rumor Rana for good reason, but it still made Liss nervous.

What if Rana was right?

"Please, Dev?"

"I thought you didn't need my protection."

"I don't." She huffed, twisting from her side onto her back. "I'm asking for your support. It's not the same thing."

"All right." He released a rasping breath and reached out an arm, tapping the smooth beam of lumber below her feather bed with his fingertips. "And for the record, I planned on walking with you. I was just giving you a hard time."

"I know."

Liss wanted to smile like she usually did when Dev teased her, but mention of the ceremony had sucked all the levity out of the room. It was true, after tonight everything would be different, and Liss feared that the narrow path laid out for her would prove little more than a quick dead end.


Unless she somehow found a way to change her fate.

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