What if you knew how and when you will die?
Csorwe does—she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.
But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.
But Csorwe will soon learn—gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.
A.K. Larkwood’s debut fantasy The Unspoken Name publishes February 2020 with Tor Books.
The Chosen Bride
By the touch of thy hand shall the black lotus bloom
Thus shall we know thee, handmaid of desolation
By the corruption of the seas
By the fading of all things
Thy name shall be forsaken and thou shalt be my bride
Thus spake the Nameless One upon the plains of dust.
–from The Book of Unmaking
The House of Silence
In the deep wilds of the north, there is a Shrine cut into the mountainside. The forest covers these hills like a shroud. This is a quiet country, but the Shrine of the Unspoken One is quieter still. Birds and insects keep away from the place.
In the valley below the Shrine is a temple known as the House of Silence. Its acolytes leave offerings at the foot of the steps that lead up to the Shrine, but they do not come any closer.
Every fourteen years, in spring, when the streams in the hills began to thaw, a procession leaves the House of Silence. The Prioress rides in a palanquin with six bearers. Despite the cold these bearers are naked from the waist up. Every other day of every other year they are farmers and woodsmen, but on this day they have an ancient purpose to serve. They walk the road of white stones that leads into the hills.
Going before them all is a girl of fourteen, wreathed with flowers and veiled in white. At her side she leads a spotless bull calf on a gilded chain.
The procession halts at the foot of the steps to the Shrine. Here is a stone altar, in which a channel is carved. Here is a vessel set at the lowest point of the channel. Here is a bright, sharp knife.
The girl leads the calf to the altar and they cut its throat. The blood runs black in the dim spring light. It splashes on the frozen stone and flows into the vessel.
She takes the bowl of blood. She climbs the steps to the Shrine. She is never seen again.
One month before the day of Csorwe’s death, a stranger came to the House of Silence. Csorwe did not see him arrive. She was down in the crypt, listening to the dead.
In the underbelly of the House there were many cellars, hollowed out in the grey strata of the sacred mountain. Deepest of all were the crypts, where the eminent dead among the Followers of the Unspoken Name were sealed to strive for rest. Rest was not something that came easily here, so close to the Shrine of the god. The dead scratched at the walls and cooed in sad imitation of living song.
Csorwe was sitting in the antechamber trying to pick out the words, as she did from time to time, when she heard someone coming down the passage. She drew her feet up into the alcove, hoping she might not be noticed. A bubble of candlelight approached and opened. It was Angwennad, one of the lay-sisters.
“Csorwe, dear, come out from there, you’re wanted upstairs,” said Angwennad. The other lay-sisters called Csorwe miss or, unbearably, ma’am, but Angwennad had been Csorwe’s nurse, and there were certain liberties permitted to her.
Csorwe slipped down from her perch. She didn’t think she was late for afternoon prayers, but it was easy to lose your place in time—even, as she knew, when you only had so much time to lose.
“There’s a pilgrim here for you,” said Angwennad. “Very foreign. Shabby looking, although I can’t say I’m surprised about that. They’re saying he came through the hills on foot.”
Pilgrims visited the House of Silence every now and then. Most of them wanted nothing more from Csorwe than a blessing, but Angwennad was looking at her with a soft anxiety that suggested this visitor needed something more demanding.
Upstairs, Angwennad took her place at the back of the hall. The priestesses were already kneeling in rows down either side. Prioress Sangrai took Csorwe aside and explained that the pilgrim required a prophecy, as was his right.
The acolytes set out lacquered trays and tapers, and the Keeper of Black Lotus went from tray to tray, tipping out dried leaves and stems of lotus from her censer.
When it was time, Csorwe set off alone down the centre of the hall, toward the dais at the far end. The hall was lit only by candles, and by the dim glow of the lotus as it began to smoulder. The faces of the others were like pale thumbprints in the haze.
At the dais, the Prioress and the librarian stood to one side with the stranger. Csorwe got a brief look at him as she approached, but she kept her eyes down and her pace stately. On the dais was a high-backed chair. Csorwe took her place here, holding her head high, looking straight ahead. The rows of priestesses and acolytes, the Prioress, the librarian, and the stranger, all blurred and faded at the periphery of her vision. All she could see was the darkness and the empty air occupying the great vault of the hall.
The fumes of the lotus rose among the pillars, sweet and elusive. Once the Keeper of Black Lotus had completed her round, she came to Csorwe with a porcelain cup, in which the seeds and petals of lotus gleamed in resin. It gave off a fine, black, coiling smoke.
The Followers of the Unspoken Name bowed their heads all at once, repeating in one murmuring voice:
“Unspoken and Unspeakable One, Knight of Abyss, Overseer of the Eaten Worlds, praise and reverence unto your Chosen Bride. May she intercede for us.”
Csorwe raised the cup and took a breath. Cedar, pepper, incense, and underneath it all the irresistible perfume of the lotus. Her sight darkened, and a pleasant ache crept up her limbs, followed by a numbness. The lights in the hall were very far away, and they shimmered as though underwater. With each breath, they dimmed a little more.
In waking life, Csorwe had walked every one of the crypts and cellars beneath the House of Silence. She knew them by sight and by experience, by touch and by heart. Under the sway of the lotus, she felt the shape of them as though she had them in her mouth. The whole mountain was riddled with hollows, and at the heart of the mountain was the greater void.
She plummeted through the dark, and felt the eyes of the void upon her.
The presence of the Unspoken One crept in slowly at first, like the first reaching wavelets of the tide, rising gently, prying into the burrows of sand-creeping things. And then all at once it was impossible to ignore: a vast invisible pressure, a single focused curiosity that weighed her with impersonal hunger.
Then, a voice, and a face. Back in the hall of the House of Silence, the stranger was kneeling before her, making the salute of sealed lips in respect. His face rippled and gleamed, swimming as though reflected on the surface of a pool. Although he must have been at least forty years old, he had no tusks at all. He was the only foreigner Csorwe had ever seen, and she wished she could see him more clearly.
“Chosen Bride, I most humbly ask a boon of the Unspoken One,” said the stranger. He spoke Oshaaru with a curious accent.
“What is it that you desire?” It was Csorwe’s own voice, but, of course, she did not feel her lips move. The Unspoken One held her in its grip.
“Knowledge,” said the stranger.
“Knowledge of that which has passed away, or that which is to come?” said the Unspoken One. Its attention flickered over Csorwe’s thoughts, testing. It found no resistance. She had been schooled for this. She was a clean vessel for the voice of the god.
“Knowledge of that which lives in the present moment,” said the stranger.
This was unorthodox. Disrespectful, even. Csorwe braced herself for the anger of the Unspoken One. It seemed to notice her attention, and she felt a kind of reassuring caress, like the chill that rises from an open tomb.
“Speak, then,” it said, still using Csorwe’s voice.
“Unspoken and Unspeakable One, where is the Reliquary of Pentravesse?”
Csorwe had the same familiar feeling of plunging uncontrollably through nothingness. Bright objects flickered and passed out of sight. And then she felt the touch of the Unspoken One again, turning her attention.
She saw a rosewood box. It was eight-sided, inlaid with gold, about the size of a man’s clenched fist. It seemed close enough to touch, but this wasn’t Csorwe’s first time prophesying and even through the fog of lotus she knew it was only a vision.
A close, thick darkness gathered around the box, like a velvet bag drawn tight, and then the box itself disappeared from view. The vision ended, as though deliberately snatched away. She reached for it again, fumbling into the dark, but couldn’t reach it.
“It is hidden from my sight,” said the Unspoken One.
Disgust and disbelief were emotions unbecoming of a god, but the Unspoken was certainly capable of displeasure.
“But it does still exist?” said the stranger. He did his best to keep his voice level. Csorwe did not miss the note of satisfaction.
“It is intact,” said the Unspoken One. That was as much as the stranger was going to get, it seemed. The Unspoken One drew back from her, like a wave falling back down the shore, leaving only a sheen of brightness where it had touched, and then nothing.
She was herself again, on the dais, in the House of Silence, with the bitter aftertaste of lotus in her mouth. Her head swam, the cup fell from her fingers, and she fainted.
Csorwe slept through afternoon prayers, woke in her own cell, and stumbled down to the refectory for dinner. The black lotus was not known for its gentleness after the fact. Her head felt both thick and fragile, like a hard-boiled egg, and her throat burnt as though she had been screaming.
A group of novices—Csorwe’s agemates—were clustered around a single table. Some of them looked round when she entered, but most paid no attention.
Until Csorwe’s thirteenth birthday she had lived and studied with the novices. Still, she had no friends among them. The Chosen Bride of the Unspoken One was set apart by protocol, but also by pragmatism. There was no point cultivating the friendship of a Chosen Bride. Most of the novices came from farming families; they understood that it was no good getting fond of the pig before the season of butchery.
Csorwe took a bowl of cabbage soup and sat at another table. The others were all talking about the stranger. He was a wizard, it seemed, from a far-off city that none of them could pronounce. They got quieter and quieter until the whole group was gathered around Ushmai, who was whispering that she thought the stranger-wizard was good-looking.
Csorwe sat and ate her soup, thinking it through. In thirty days it would be the time. That meant twenty-nine more dinners after this. She tried to pay more attention to the soup, to take her time with each bite and savour it properly, but the lotus made everything taste like rust.
Her thoughts kept wandering back to the stranger. If he was a wizard, why was he so shabby? Where were his servants? What was it he wanted so badly that he had come all this way alone? The box she had seen in her vision must be very valuable, or very sacred, or both.
The novices fell silent in unison, and Csorwe looked round to see what had startled them. The stranger was standing in the door to the refectory. He had to stoop to enter.
Csorwe peeped up at him, pretending to eat her soup. He had dark brown skin, a huge amount of hair bound up in a clasp, long pointed ears, and a full beard. She had never seen anyone like this before. Oshaaru such as Csorwe were grey-skinned and golden-eyed, and the few men she had ever seen were clean-shaven.
He wore a long, ragged, outlandish coat, patched all over so that it was impossible to tell what the original cloth had been. There were traces of embroidery in among the patches, threads of gold and silver that glittered when he moved. It was possible he had been a rich man many years ago, but only if he had been a beggar since then.
Still, he didn’t look like a poor man, at least not like the poor country men who lived near the House of Silence. Stooping was not a habit for him.
He looked around the refectory for a while, and then, to Csorwe’s horror, he sat down opposite her.
“My name is Belthandros Sethennai,” he said. “I believe we’ve met, though I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself at the time.”
She said nothing, looking down at the half-eaten bowl of soup.
“There’s no need to worry. I did check with the Prioress. She finds it theologically permissible for you to speak to me.”
It wasn’t the theology that had been bothering her so much as the watching eyes of the novices, but she looked up at him. It was very odd to see an adult without visible tusks. His face looked so innocent and unguarded without them that it was difficult to gauge his expressions.
“I wanted to thank you for your indulgence of my curiosity, earlier on,” he said.
Csorwe stared at him. It was both absurd and improper to accept thanks for prophecy. She imagined him pouring a glass of wine and thanking the bottle.
“I hope the experience was not too draining for you,” he said. She shook her head. “I wish I could express how much the information means. I spent so many years investigating the history of the Reliquary without even beginning to imagine it might still exist in fragments, let alone intact—but I won’t bore you with ancient history. I always manage to believe people are interested in my research, despite all evidence to the contrary.” He smiled. “If you can spare me a little more of your time, the Prioress tells me you might take me to visit the library?”
In the library of the House of Silence, there was a book bound in the skin of a murdered king, or so it was said. There were books in cipher, books in obsidian, books in whale hide. There were atlases of ruined cities and blighted worlds. There were useless maps to every treasure ever lost to time, and lexicons of every forgotten language. The library of the House of Silence was a monument to entropy.
It was also beautifully warm, because the librarian had bullied Angwennad into bringing her twice the usual allotment of firewood.
The librarian was sitting at her desk when Csorwe came in with Belthandros Sethennai. Her name was Oranna. She was young enough that Csorwe remembered her initiation from acolyte to priestess. Her eyes were the colour of beeswax, and she wore silver caps on her tusks. She didn’t look up as they came in, but knew exactly who was there; she had perfected this trick as an acolyte and it served her well as librarian.
“So,” said Oranna. “The Reliquary of Pentravesse. If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said you’d come to the right place.”
“But today… ?” said Sethennai.
“Today, it transpires, though contrary to all logic, that the Reliquary still exists. That which lives in the present has no place here. Here you will find the truth only about those who are dead, and that which is dust.”
“That’s a pity,” said Sethennai, wandering down a row of shelves. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his awful coat, as if he had to restrain them from touching the books. “Still, I’d like to see what you have on the Reliquary. Even if it’s nothing but lies.”
Oranna’s brow twisted with suppressed aggravation. “Csorwe,” she said. “Stop hovering by the door, will you, and come and sit by the fire.”
Csorwe did as she was told, and settled down to watch a phalanx of sparks creep up the side of a log. When Csorwe was little, Angwennad had told her about imps who lived in the hearth and warred over the ashes. It was painful to remember that now. She should have put those things behind her.
She sat and half listened to Oranna and Sethennai. The librarian was never eager to take down one of the books, and her distaste for the stranger was palpable, but she had opened a heavy folio and was looking for her place.
“The Reliquary of Pentravesse is said to mark its passage through the world, in the sense that a scythe marks its passage through the grass,” she read. “Seek patiently. Listen for strange accidents, disastrous coincidences, events that slip their reins. You may chart the progress of Pentravesse’s final work through an unsuspecting world. This is the nature of the curse upon the Reliquary.”
“Greed and ambition pursue it,” said Sethennai, as if he too were reading aloud. “Bad luck, ill judgment, and unintended consequences follow in its wake.” He smiled at her. “But the idea is irresistible.”
Csorwe happened to look up just as Oranna did, and saw the look that passed between the librarian and the wizard. Imagine two spies who pass in the street and recognise one another, before each disappears into a dif.erent crowd. Ordinary wariness is replaced with shock, delight, terror—and then the moment passes.
Csorwe saw Belthandros Sethennai only once more in the House of Silence. He stayed in the guest wing, visited the library from time to time, and troubled nobody, as far as Csorwe knew. Her time was taken up with preparations for the day that was to come. There was no ceremonial name for it. Csorwe thought of it as THAT DAY. She prayed and meditated for hours each day. She studied The Book of Unmaking and The Dream of Fly Agaric with the Prioress. She fasted and burnt lotus as the books required.
These preparations were tiring. At first, she slept each night as though she were already dead. Then she began to wake in the small hours, and lie awake, in the grip of a sickly fear, as though just realising what was going to happen to her. As though she hadn’t known since she was old enough to understand it. On her fourteenth birthday she would go up to the Shrine of the Unspoken One and that would be the end of her.
The summer would come. There would be another Chosen Bride. The novices would get their adult tusks and make their vows as acolytes. The world would continue, but she would be gone.
One night she got up from her cot, unable to stand it any longer, and let herself out into the corridor. Here I am, she thought. This is me, in two weeks’ time. Here I am, walking up to the Shrine. This is the end. This is how it will feel at the end. Thy name shall be forsaken and thou shalt be my bride.
The flagstones were ice cold underfoot. There was no light, but she knew the House of Silence too well to trip. She climbed the stairs to the library, at first thinking only of the steps in the mountainside. Then she saw the line of golden light under the double doors of the library, and thought of the warmth of the fire and the comforting smell of pine smoke, the truth about those who are dead and about that which is dust.
She went into the library as quietly as she could, avoiding the door that creaked. Somehow, she hadn’t thought there would be anyone inside. She had imagined the fire wasting all that heat and light in solitude.
She knew at once that she had made a mistake. The librarian and the wizard were there. Sethennai sat by the hearth, as though bathing in the glow of the fire. His ragged coat hung on the back of his chair. Oranna was taking a book down from a high shelf, and froze as Csorwe came in, like a cat surprised in the act of stealing scraps. Csorwe stepped back, let the door swing shut, and scuttled back into the dark.
She knew at once that she had seen something she should not. Whatever the meeting in the library had meant, it was not for her eyes, and the punishments for idle curiosity were severe.
Hasty footsteps followed after her. Incoherent flashes and shadows fluttered over the walls: the light of a lantern carried by someone in a hurry. Oranna caught up to her without much difficulty.
“What are you doing, Csorwe?” she said, in a low voice, careful not to wake anyone else. Csorwe was beginning to realise that she wasn’t the only one here who had broken the rules. “It’s the middle of the night.”
Csorwe couldn’t explain. She shrank back into the darkness. A moment later, Sethennai appeared at Oranna’s shoulder.
“Couldn’t you sleep?” said Oranna, and then her face cleared, as though she understood, and was somehow relieved. “You’re afraid.”
Csorwe nodded. At that moment she couldn’t have said whether she was more afraid of Oranna or the Shrine.
“Ah. The Chosen Bride,” said Sethennai. He hung back behind Oranna, in the dark, and Csorwe couldn’t tell from his tone of voice whether he was suspicious or just curious. “Having doubts?”
Oranna ignored him, still looking down at Csorwe. “Fear is no fault,” she said, quoting the Book. “It is right to fear the Unspoken One. The only fault is to seek out consolation in falsities.”
Csorwe nodded, staring down at her bare feet.
“I knew the Chosen Bride who came before you,” said Oranna. Csorwe startled. This topic was not forbidden, but it was almost unthinkable. Csorwe thought she was the only one who had ever wondered about it. “We were novices together. She was afraid at first, but when the day came she was quite calm. You will find the same peace, I’m certain. Remember your meditations.”
Csorwe assented, and Oranna led her back to her cell. The librarian was not known for such considerate gestures. Csorwe wondered whether Oranna meant it in honour of the Bride she had known. She wished Oranna had said more about her. What was her name? What had she said and done? Perhaps Oranna was the only one who remembered.
By the time she got to sleep, she had almost forgotten about Sethennai.
Another sleepless hour suspended between midnight and dawn, one week before the day of sacrifice. Csorwe wrapped herself in a blanket and went down to the crypts. Her slippers scalloped the dust as she wandered.
The dead were never quiet in their cells, but they were loudest by night, singing their tuneless, wordless song and battering at the doors. Csorwe went on past the smaller cells, toward the grand, central chamber where the Prioresses of ages past were buried, sealed behind a great iron door.
Some of the old Prioresses had been so virtuous they had sewn up their mouths; they died from thirst rather than utter a blasphemous word. The door was marked with the sign of sealed lips, and Csorwe made the salute automatically: three fingers pressed to her lips, between her tusks.
The iron bolt was so cold it ached to touch, as though it drew the living warmth from Csorwe’s bones. Metal shrieked on stone as she drew it back and lifted the latch. At the noise of the door opening, the dead fell silent.
She saw the revenants at the edge of the circle of candlelight, standing among their biers like dinner guests waiting to be seated. Slowly, as though they were shy, they began to approach her. There were dozens of them, wrapped in their shrouds, reaching and watching. She stepped toward them, shutting the door behind her, and walked out into the gathering crowd of the dead. Their bony fingertips ran through her hair and brushed against her bare skin with a kind of desperate gentleness.
Csorwe sat down on the edge of a bier and they gathered around, as though she had brought news from the living world. The Prioresses had lived and died here in the House of Silence, and though the presence of the Unspoken had revived their bodies, their souls had returned to the earth. Their eyes were empty sockets. There was nothing they could tell her.
That day arrived. Csorwe moved like a mannequin from one place to another, not really noting where she was or what was happening. They dressed her in white silk and lace, and crowned her with white dog roses. Angwennad told her that she was a brave girl, that the years had passed so quickly, that she had never really believed the day would come.
She was anointed with resin. The scent of lotus mingled with the animal smell of the sacrificial calf. Everything was set in motion. This was the end. It was almost over.
The procession reached the altar at the foot of the steps. The priestesses came forward to kill the calf, their yellow habits blazing against the mossy stone of the hill. Csorwe stared directly ahead, and saw the knife as a flash of light in her periphery.
The blood of the calf filled the bowl to the brim and spilled over. They held out the bowl to her and she took it, clasping the slippery metal in both hands with difficulty.
Then they drew off to each side, and all—the priestesses, the acolytes, the Prioress and the bearers of her palanquin—bowed, once. The librarian watched as Csorwe turned to face the steps.
The way rose steeply. If she had looked back she would have seen the tops of the priestesses’ heads, and the House of Silence below them, and beyond that the forests, rising and falling like black waves, far into the distance. Perhaps as far as the village where she was born. She did not look back. She looked down at her reflection, as it rippled in the bowl of blood.
She reached the top of the steps. The wind plucked at the hem of her dress, raising goose pimples on her calves. Her shoulders ached. Weeds blew in the wind where they grew between the slabs of stone. There were mosses, and small grasses, and flowers that had survived the frosts.
Nobody had walked here for hundreds of years but those who were chosen as she was chosen.
She tried not to think about the flowers. They were scentless. She had seen them so many times. She had seen as many flowers as she needed to see. She had eaten enough cabbage soup. She had listened to the dead scratching at the walls for long enough. It was time. If she faltered now, she would never go on.
She turned her eyes to the doorway. It yawned in the side of the mountain, raw, open, and lightless. Neither moss nor grass grew close to the rock face. No living thing was permitted to pass through this way but she who had been chosen. She walked toward the door, and stepped through.
She came into a round chamber, whose walls were hollowed with passages that led deeper into the mountain. In the middle of the chamber was a shallow pit, faintly delineated by the light from the doorway.
At the edge of the pit was a notch of smooth stone, wide enough for her to kneel comfortably. It was impossible to tell whether the place had been smoothed as a kindness or simply worn down by centuries of use.
She thought of the girls who had come here before her, and brought with them the offering of blood for the Unspoken One. If they were so chosen, so perfectly selected for this honour, perhaps they had known the same uncertainty, here in the silence of the halls under the hill. Perhaps they had spent the last minutes of their lives like this, lost in apprehension in the dark. But perhaps it had been easy for them. Perhaps they had done what had to be done, and gone straight on into the deeper places, to find what waited for them.
She knelt down by the edge and tipped up the bowl; the blood ran into the pit, gleaming in the darkness. At once the interest of the Unspoken One closed on the room, and again she felt the full force of its regard pressing in on her. It knew her. It recognised her. The room was empty; nothing breathed here but Csorwe herself. The Unspoken One waited farther on, deeper down in the mountain.
Soon she began to feel self-conscious. Her knees and shoulders ached from long kneeling in one position. The pit had been sucked dry of blood. The Unspoken One was there, but it offered no guidance. The chamber was still dark; the passages beyond were even darker.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” she said, out loud. “Where am I supposed to go?”
“An excellent question.”
There was a man in one of the passages. She jumped to her feet, and the empty bowl clattered on the rock with a blasphemous jangle.
“Where do you think you are supposed to go?” said the intruder. It was a voice that suggested power and confidence, but it was not the voice of a god. Her fear gave way swiftly to outrage.
“It’s you—I know you,” she said, bracing her hands on her hips. “You can’t come here. Come out of there. You’ll die.”
Belthandros Sethennai stepped out into the chamber, smiling mildly. He held a lantern in one hand, and he watched her almost as intently as the Unspoken One did.
“So you can speak,” he said. “I did wonder.”
“If you don’t leave here it will kill you,” said Csorwe. The Unspoken One was in the room all around them, in the very weight of the air. “This is blasphemy. You can’t be here. Nothing alive is allowed to leave this place.”
There were laughter lines bracketing the man’s mouth, and they deepened as she spoke.
Csorwe crossed her arms and dug her nails into the soft flesh of her inner elbow. “Don’t laugh at me. How dare you. This is my death. It was marked out for me.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. He strode across the room to get a better look at her, stepping lightly over the pit and raising the lantern. She saw that the sleeves of his coat were rolled up and he was wearing a pair of heavy leather gauntlets. “Death awaits us all, O Handmaid of Desolation. But I don’t have to die here, and nor do you.”
She had hardly dared to dream that something like this might happen, that someone might decide there had been a mistake. It was blasphemous even to imagine it.
“I’m not coming with you,” said Csorwe. “This is a false consolation. You can’t make me leave.”
Sethennai leant back against the wall nearby. “I won’t make you do anything,” he said. “If you want to go down into the cave and see what the Unspoken One makes of its offerings, please yourself.” He took a breath, steadying himself against the wall as though concentrating. “It’s unfair of me, I know, to spoil the crowning purpose of your young life by turning up and making cruel remarks. If you’re certain that this is what you want, I’ll make myself scarce, and leave you to your transcendent experience.”
Csorwe knew when she was being made fun of, and clenched her hands in her skirts. “This was my honour,” she said. Tears of anger prickled in her eyes. “I was chosen for this.”
“Well,” said Sethennai. “Now you have been chosen for another occupation, unless you prefer to die in the dark rather than work for me. Do you imagine you are the first Chosen Bride to doubt the fate assigned to her? Plenty of your predecessors ran away rather than face the Unspoken in its lair. Most of them froze to death in the woods, and their remains still lie where they fell.”
Csorwe turned her back on him. This was a mistake: now she was facing the way back out onto the hillside, back to the weak sunlight and the frozen grasses. The Shrine was too high for her to see even the roof of the House of Silence, but she saw the distant shimmer of mountains, the forest, the hills, the white arcs of birds rising on the wind.
“I can’t,” she said. “Where could I go? I would freeze to death too.”
“It’s very difficult to run alone,” said Sethennai. “You would not be alone. You would be with me.” The laughter was gone from his face; his brows drawn together in concentration. His gauntleted hands were clenched tight at his sides. Deep in the mountain, the Unspoken One was beginning to notice him.
“The Prioress—” said Csorwe.
“She will never know you’re gone,” said Sethennai. “Make your choice, Csorwe. Stay here, or come with me. We are running out of time.”
“But the Unspoken One will know,” said Csorwe. She could feel the beginnings of its outrage already, building and crackling under the earth.
“Yes,” said Sethennai. “It will. The secret of greatness is to know when you should risk the wrath of god.”
He took off his gauntlets and held out a hand, and she took it. His hand was smooth, long-fingered, bearing a gold signet; hers small, blunt, and stained to the wrist with calf ’s blood.
“Come along, Csorwe,” he said, “and let the Unspoken One cry for you in the pit.”
Excerpted from The Unspoken Name, copyright © 2019 by A. K. Larkwood.