HEARTHSIDE STORIES: A Bond of Blood and Ash, by Kristin Jacques

Armin winced and whined in his sleep. She shifted him closer on the hard cot, but the lean winter had left her body with too many sharp angles. He buried his tear stained face in her hair, where scent and proximity unwound the tight knot of his nightmares so that he relaxed against her. She envied him that unconscious peace.

She stroked a soothing hand down his back and stared through the bars of their cell. Her unfocused gaze snapped to attention as Elder Prast strode toward them.

“Armin, wake up,” she whispered, her voice scraped raw. The taste of ash still lingered in her mouth. Her brother stirred and startled against her as Prast slammed an open palm against the bars. He glared down at them, his expression one of vitriol and venom.

“You’ve been claimed,” he sneered.

Azzy shared her brother’s wild-eyed bewilderment.

“But he—” Armin began. She silenced him with a squeeze of his arm and shook her head. It didn’t matter the how or the why, they couldn’t afford to question it. Not when a single wall separated them from the burning room.