Authors: Zoe Marriott
Nine Years Later…
y mouth tasted of dust and iron.
The cool white mists that rolled down the mountain slopes in the early morning had burned away, and the sun was directly overhead. Now and again, a sudden, blinding flash of light would pierce the silvery-blue-leaf canopy, dazzling me. I had learned to walk with eyelids half closed. My hips and feet ached like a half-healed bruise. Sweat itched at the small of my back, in the bends of my knees and elbows. Waving strands of dark hair had worked free of the braid pinned up around my head and clung damply to my skin no matter how often I tried to brush them back.
I’d been walking a long time.
I was blowing hair out of my face again when the dry earth gave way beneath my left boot. I lurched sideways and snatched at the waxy tree roots thrusting out of the hillside to drag myself away from the edge. The path was dangerously narrow and winding. If I tumbled off, it was a very long fall down the steep layers of terraces into the river I could hear thundering below. I’d likely never get the chance to climb back up again.
I regained my footing, then sighed tiredly, letting go of the roots to shake red soil from my hands. The first few times the path had betrayed me, my heart had pounded and my fingers had shaken, but I was too weary to get excited about these brushes with death any more.
The bush ahead of me rustled.
Something was shifting in the foliage. Something big.
A bandit? No. The bush wasn’t big enough.
Animal, then. Leopard?
I couldn’t outrun a leopard.
My feet felt as if they had rooted into the crumbling earth. I swallowed hard, and slowly, slowly,
reached back for my father’s axe, which was secured across the top of my pack—
A massive blue pheasant burst out of the bush. The fan-shaped copper tail nearly grazed my face as the bird flew upwards, filling the air with a frantic beating of wings that seemed to mock my speeding heartbeat. As it disappeared into the trees, my hand fell limply from the axe. Just a bird. Just a bird.
I squeezed my eyes shut, taking deep, careful breaths as the world swam around me.
Too weary to be excited by brushes with death? Oh, Father – the lies I tell.
My stomach rumbled loudly, and I let out a weak laugh. My stomach cared nothing for fear. I scrubbed my face roughly with dusty hands. Then, turning off the path, I clambered up the slope until I found a thick clump of glossy purple shrubs that would hide me from anyone passing below. I sank down into the shelter of the leaves and shrugged off my leather pack. My shoulders crunched with the movement. I groaned, stretching out aching legs and rotating my feet in their heavy boots. From my new vantage point above the path, I could see the bright glint of water through the trees. The River Mesgao. Not far now. I just had to follow the river and it would take me where I needed to go. My blood surged with hope and longing – and fear.
I had come such a very long way.
Out of habit, I reached for Da’s axe first. Untying the hide straps that held it across the top of the pack, I took a moment to check the blades over. The axe was precious, and not just because it was nearly all I had left of my father. If I could not offer to split logs, bring down rotted outbuildings and drag out stubborn stumps, there would be no reason for anyone to offer me a bite of food or a night’s stay in their hayloft. I could not rely on luck or the mercy of strangers. Both were uncertain at best.
When I was satisfied that the axe was in good condition, I opened my pack and looked at the contents with resignation. I’d traversed the foothills and crossed into Ruan through the low passes of the great Subira range as soon as the winter ice had thawed. Offers of employment had been scarce in the two weeks since. This part of the world seemed mostly inhabited by gnarled, bone-hard shepherds and goatherds who looked as if they had grown up out the red earth and grey rock of their mountain home. They stared at me, towering over them with my big awkward hands and feet, and my foreign-looking eyes and axe, and shook their heads wordlessly, faces a mixture of suspicion and scorn. Even if they did need my help, they had little to offer in return. My food supplies were dwindling rapidly. All I had left now was a small package of dried mutton, tough and chewy, and the remains of a block of sharp white goat’s cheese. I’d had earned the cheese two days ago, climbing down into a ravine to retrieve a strayed nanny goat.
I put away the meat, which would last longer, and slowly ate the cheese, trying to make each bite last as long as possible. I licked the white crumbs from my fingers and washed it down with a gulp of tepid liquid from a half-f waterskin. Unless I came across a farmstead or a village where I could trade labour for food soon, I would have to stop for a day or two and set up traps to snare fresh meat. I shrugged restlessly at the thought of the wasted time.
I needed to keep moving. I needed to find the Goddess in the Fire.
The quiet was shattered by a loud
, followed by the tinny ring of a bell. I jumped and pressed a hand to my heart. After a moment, I heard the familiar clomping noise of hoofed feet growing closer. I put away my waterskin and closed up my pack, giving my hands a moment to steady.
Calm down. No one wants to hurt you here. And this herd might bring a shepherd who requires your strong back.
I leaned forward and peered cautiously through the leaves. There were four shaggy-coated goats with impressive horns ambling up the path, their goatherd behind them.
He was dark-skinned, darker than me, with a bright red cap crammed down over unruly black curls. I guessed he was probably a year or two older than my own seventeen; square and burly and fit-looking, he moved lightly over the uneven ground, guiding his flock with a wooden quarterstaff. I grimaced. He would need no help from me. Anyway, I made it a practice to avoid young men, especially lone ones. Knotted-up old fellows with grey hair and bent backs were safer.
I waited impatiently for him to move on. His steps were slow and his path meandering, as if he were lost in his own thoughts.
There in the cool, shadowy cave made by the leaves, I could feel my eyelids growing heavy. I was tired from my weeks of travel. In a moment I’d be falling asleep and wasting half a day. I forced my eyes wide in an effort to stave off the sleepiness – and saw a glint of light in the scrub below the path.
A cold shiver moved over my skin. My gaze skittered across the hillside, tracking the glint. Polished metal, moving stealthily through the undergrowth. The shape was unmistakeable.
Now that I knew it was there, I could see bits and pieces of the man carrying it. He was thin and ragged-looking and wearing dented, mismatched armour. He had very pale skin and yellow hair – both were greasy and streaked with dirt. And he wasn’t alone. There was another man hiding behind a tree further down the path. That one held a sword.
Before crossing into the mountains I had done a day’s labour at a border farm and stayed the night in their hayloft. The farmer’s wife had warned me that the Rua hills were infested with rebels who had been banished by the Rua queen after the civil war. The men had been soldiers once. Now they were thieves and bandits. But even without this warning, I’d met enough people in my life who wanted to do me harm to recognize the eager tension in these men’s bodies, the grimness on their faces.
They were going to ambush the goatherd. Steal his animals. Kill him.
Stay quiet. Don’t fight. Stay out of trouble.
This was none of my business. The goatherd was a stranger. He was nothing to me. He wouldn’t care about my fate if our positions were reversed.
Stay out of trouble. Don’t fight.
I squeezed my eyes shut. It didn’t help. The images were inside my head, and I could not escape them. I saw my mother’s face: cold as clay, eyes milky and opaque, blood and foam dried around her mouth. The body of a teenage boy, sprawled on fallen leaves, his face destroyed. I saw my own hands, smeared with blood. Priests holding the unlit torches, their faces cold and righteous. Two boys, faces sneering, stones flying through the air. I saw my past.
I saw death.
Fine tremors shook my body as I stared down at the goatherd’s cheerful red hat.
Stay out of trouble.
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
I can’t watch him die.
I’m the only hope he’s got.
My fingers fumbled with the sackcloth-wrapping around the axe. The goatherd was almost beneath me now. The bandit ahead of him was rocking forward, making ready to move.
The goatherd stopped. Turning back, he grabbed the horns of one of his animals that had strayed up the slope. As he dragged it back down onto the path, the bandit stepped out from behind the tree, sword raised.
Father, protect them.
Keep my blood from spilling
A scream of terror and defiance ripped from my throat. I crashed out of the bush and charged down the hillside, hitting the path with a bone-shaking thud. The bandit staggered back in shock. I swung my father’s axe wildly. It hit the bandit’s blade with a grating
that nearly deafened me. The sword was dashed from the man’s hands. As he stared at his empty fists, I kicked out as hard as I could. My heavy boot drove straight into the soft tissue between his legs.
The bandit doubled over, retching. I whacked him on the back of the head with the iron langet of the axe, cringing at the meaty thud. He collapsed onto the path.
I stood gasping for a split second, stunned by what I had done. Then I turned and seized the goatherd’s arm. “Run!”
I tried to tow him forward, but it was like tugging the limb of a tree. He was no taller than me, but his muscles outweighed me. I couldn’t budge him, and he just gawked at me, open-mouthed.
“Are you a halfwit?” I shrieked. “Come on!”
I yanked at his arm with all my might – and felt the path dissolve under my heel again. I stumbled back, releasing the goatherd as I pinwheeled my arms, desperate to retain my balance. The goatherd, finally provoked into movement, reached out and caught my wrist, as if to pull me back.
Instead, he was dragged over the edge with me as the earth I was standing on disintegrated. We hit the slope. The goatherd let go of my wrist as I rolled over and over; brush and vines whipped across my exposed skin and clouds of dry earth billowed up around me. I clung desperately to Da’s axe as the blades whirled dangerously close to my face.
The pick of the axe snagged on a giant, pale root and my fall was halted with a jolt that nearly ripped my arm from its socket. I looked down to see my feet dangling out into space. The river glinted below.
Coughing out a mouthful of dirt, I inched my other arm up to grab the root and, grunting with effort, heaved myself up onto my feet. I freed my axe, keeping a strong grip on the root. Then I looked around for the goatherd.
He was just above me, straightening up on a small plateau scooped out of the hillside. He was covered in grazes and dirt, and he had lost his red cap, but the staff was still in his right hand. He stared down at me, and I noticed for the first time that his eyes were a pale greenish shade that looked odd against his dark skin.
“Get up here.” His voice was low and rough.
The hand he held out was trembling.
Anger, or fear?
I hesitated for a second, looking at those odd, cold eyes. But his hand looked strong enough, and he had no reason to hurt me right now. I reached out and let him haul me up over the lip of the plateau. As soon as I was on level ground he dropped my fingers.
“Arian!” someone shouted. It was a male voice: deep and commanding. There was a skittering noise of small stones falling and a movement in the bushes, as if someone was climbing down. “Hello! Are you hurt? What’s happening down there?”
“I’m not injured,” the goatherd called back. “Did you get the other one?”
“No, he disappeared as soon as you went over the edge. Is she all right?”
“Who cares? The whole thing’s ruined now, thanks to this – this idiot.”
I felt my jaw drop. “I just saved your life.”
“You? You couldn’t save your own backside with both hands.” He shot me a look of cold anger. I flinched, hands clenching on my axe haft.
He ignored me and craned his neck, apparently looking for the man who had called out to him. Something was wrong here. Where had this other person come from? There hadn’t been anyone else on the path. Only me, the goatherd and the bandits. Was this some kind of trap? And if so, for whom?
I started to edge sideways, eyes searching the hillside for handholds. Whatever was going on, I didn’t want to be caught in the middle of it. I turned just as a bandit swarmed up onto the plateau, knife in hand.
His face was twisted with rage. His eyes were fixed on the goatherd’s back. “Rua
Without thinking, I threw myself forward, thrusting my axe up like a shield. The bandit’s long blade hit one of the metal langets and sheered sideways with a screech. Sunlight sizzled from the edge of the knife, blinding me. Pain flared across the back of my hand.
Black dots danced in my vision as it cleared. I stared at the red drops welling up on my skin.
The bandit turned on me, his knife slicing down in a vicious arc.
A wooden staff capped with silver knocked the knife from the bandit’s hand, and then whirled around and swept his legs out from under him. The man toppled off the edge of the plateau with a hoarse cry and disappeared down the slope below.
“Clumsy,” the goatherd said gruffly. “You let him get you.”
He reached out as if to touch my hands that were still curled, white-knuckled, around the haft of the axe.
“No.” I choked the word out and stumbled backwards. I dropped the axe, still staring at the blood. The sweat was turning to ice on my skin. My next breath clouded in the air. “Don’t.”
“Let me see,” he snapped.
“Get away!” The words warped and changed in my mouth, emerging as a snarl. “Run!”
The bushes stirred overhead, and a second man, taller than the first, dropped down lightly onto the plateau, unsheathed broadsword in hand. He wore brightly polished plate armour and a helm that obscured most of his features. A pair of dark, glittering eyes flicked to my face, and he swiftly sheathed the sword.