(c) 2016 by C. F. Barrows
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art: C. F. Barrows
formatting: C. F. Barrows
illustrations: Ella Janowski
photo: Abigail Rienks
Scripture is taken or paraphrased from the King James Version.
This book is a work
of fiction. Any resemblance to actual places, events, or persons,
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book is dedicated to my friends and family who have stood by me and
believed in my work even when I didn’t believe in it myself. God is
at the head of all things good, but people like you are the hands and
feet He uses to accomplish His work. May He bless you richly for it.
shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy
presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my
bed in hell, behold, Thou art there.
I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of
the sea; even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall
I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me’; even the night shall
be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from Thee; but the
night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike
I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels,
present or to come,
height nor depth,
any other creature shall be able to separate us
the love of God through Christ our Lord.”
man looked dead, but it was hard to be sure. In the light of the
dying lantern above him, his face was
his eyes shut, and his chest too obscured for Zarea Kal to be sure it
was not moving. The keys at his belt swayed and glittered like
jewels, tantalizing her in a way no true gem ever could. She watched
them with eyes wide, her bow primed to notch and let loose another
arrow if the man rose.
her, Darek whispered, “What are we waiting for?”
silenced him with a wave of her hand, and her eyes flitted about the
area. A small camp, three men guarding it, none well-armed. Their
chest of supplies sat open to the air, dragged out earlier by the
largest of the three to allow for easier access during the supper
hour. That might have been wise, considering how much they ate from
it. But they'd never bothered to drag it back into the tent.
that was their mistake.
brawny guard still did not stir, but Zarea thought she heard him
mumble something unintelligible, and she released a shaky breath. The
man was alive, and she lacked the nerve to change that. Hopefully,
he would have the decency to stay unconscious until they were gone.
She notched another arrow and rose to a crouch. “Let's go.”
nodded, and they advanced. Zarea led the way into the camp and slowed
her step as she approached the man she'd shot. The sedative-coated
arrow that pierced his shoulder remained in place,
and Zarea's eyes flitted to the wound before she forced them to move
away. She dropped by his side and fumbled with the knot that tethered
the keys to his belt. She grabbed at what she thought was the right
end to loosen it and yanked.
The hissed nickname made her look up. Darek gestured wildly to his
belt and glanced at the tent nearby.
course. Zarea pulled a knife from her belt and began to saw. A few
heart-jolting clanks later, she pulled the keys free.
breeze blew through, and the corner of one of the tent flaps flipped
enough for Zarea to see inside. Her heart leapt
to her throat at the sight of the two sleeping men inside.
inhaled deeply and pulled an arrow from her quiver, then held it in
her left hand like a dagger while gripping the keys tightly in her
right. Darek rushed to her side and took the keys, then moved swiftly
to the chest of supplies. After several agonizing moments of peering
into the lock, of sticking one key after another into it without
success, finally there was a click and he pulled the key free. He
glanced at Zarea and lifted the lid.
breath caught at the sight of the contents. Stores of dried meat, of
bread, and even a bag of dried berries sat before them. They were not
much to look at, but she could not turn away, and her mouth watered.
How pathetic that she should desire these withered old morsels after
seventeen years of having plenty without having to lift a finger.
rifled through the chest to see if there was anything else of use,
then gestured to Zarea and mouthed, “The bag.”
rushed back to their hiding spot and snatched up the empty satchel
she'd left there. A few stale crumbs fell to the ground, and she left
them for the men to find. She and Darek stuffed as much as they could
into the satchel, stuffing a fair amount into their mouths, as well.
food stuck in Zarea’s throat, and she coughed, then froze
wide-eyed. She waited for the men to wake up, to rush out and see who
it was that was coughing on their precious food. But no-one came.
eyes were equally wide, his lips cracked as he whispered, “Water.
They must have some.”
tried to think. If she were these men, traveling through the plains
in the dry season, where would she keep a precious commodity such as
water? Not in this chest – she knew that already. She would want it
nearby, easy to reach when the need for refreshment hit her.
eyes strayed to the tent, through the flap as it waved in the wind,
and she caught sight of something that might be a jug by the larger
followed her gaze, and his face turned ashen as he shook his head.
“No, Kali. They'll wake up.”
need water.” Her knees wobbled, but she forced them to hold her up
as she crept to the tent and pulled back the flap. She caught her
breath as the light fell through the crack, all the way to the jug
and the man sleeping beside it. He stirred.
pair of hands clapped over her mouth and yanked her back from the
tent. She gasped, fumbled for the knife sheathed inside her tunic.
still,” a familiar voice hissed in her ear. “I'm not going to
ripped herself free of Darek’s grasp. “If you grab me again, I'll
in there, and they'll kill us both.” Darek lifted the full satchel
of food. “Please, Kali – we have enough for a while. We'll reach
the mountain soon, and when–”
telling me what to do,” Zarea snapped, snatching her confiscated
longknife from his grasp. She lifted her chin imperiously. “I give
the orders here, remember? We need water, and I'm getting it. Now
opened his mouth to protest, then clamped it shut and pulled his own
bow free, notching an arrow as he nodded and raised it to its ready
took a deep breath and, with her knife raised, stepped into the tent.
Every breath the sleeping men took, every twitch or mumbled word made
her jump, and she had to fight the urge to turn and run as fast as
her legs would carry her. She reached the big man's side and held her
breath, afraid the slightest noise would bring about sudden death.
She saw the jug, about eight inches tall, and nearly as wide, just
past the stranger's head. She tensed, took a careful step, placed her
foot mere inches away from his head, certain he would wake and sweep
it out from under her. Still
his snores filled the tent.
jug was inches away now. All she had to do was lean a bit, reach out,
pull it ever so carefully over his head, and...
jug’s weight knocked her off balance, and before she could so much
as reach out to stop herself, she fell
and found herself sprawled over the man's brawny chest.
that was when he gasped, his eyes flew open, and he threw Zarea back
as he groped for his sword. “What...”
the tent, his companion stirred. Zarea slugged the man beside her
and, in the split-second before he could react, snatched his smaller
water canteen from beside him and took off. Hands reached for her.
She pulled away, dove out of the tent. Footsteps shuffled behind her
and pounded into the open.
arrow whizzed free of Darek’s bow, and Zarea heard a strangled cry
as it hit home. She dashed forward to join Darek, but stumbled and
bumped into his arm, and another arrow flew loose, far off-course. It
hit the ground beside the larger man, who snatched it up as though it
were a child's dart thrown too far from its target. Darek stepped
fumbled for the knife on his boot.
big man swung the arrow at him. Darek ducked, cried out, used the
man's weight against him to throw him to the ground, and fell with
less imposing man charged at Zarea. Fear had stolen away
her sense of forethought – with a flick, her knife flew, and the
man fell. Zarea gasped,
her hand at her mouth. She hadn't meant to throw it. She didn't even
know where she'd hit him.
cry of pain drew her attention back to the fight on the ground. Zarea
turned, notched an arrow.
needn't have bothered. Darek swung a fist, and the man cried out,
freeing him. Zarea did not have time to process what had happened
before Darek grabbed her wrist and yanked at it. “Run!”
barely managed to retrieve the food satchel as Darek dragged her
along with him at top speed. Soon they put a fair amount of distance
between them and the camp, and Zarea wondered why the big man hadn't
followed them. Why had he not mounted one of his horses and taken off
after them by now?
she knew why, and the reason made her double over
stumbled from the sudden stop and fell to his knees a few feet away.
killed him,” Zarea gasped, unbelieving. “Darek, I killed that
did not answer, and at once Zarea noticed that his breathing was
different, quivering, punctuated with gasps and suppressed groans.
She stumbled over to him. “Darek, what...?”
was when she saw the blood.
eyes grew wide. “He stabbed you!”
fine,” he rasped. His eyes were full of pain, but he set his jaw in
determination. “Just a scratch... Caught me off-guard.”
is not a scratch,” Zarea snapped. “We have to find help.”
mountain,” he coughed.
groaned. “Hang the mountain – I never want to hear of it again!”
mountain, Kali,” Darek insisted. “There are places there, places
to rest, find water, and herbs to treat wounds. We can find them.”
was a mistake.” Zarea blinked back tears and fought to keep a stern
edge to her voice. “Darek, I was wrong. We never
have left home. We need to go back. We need to find my mother and
never make it,” Darek said firmly, his voice stronger than before.
His blue eyes pleaded with her brown ones. “We’ve gone too far
into the wilderness. We can't turn back now.”
shook her head violently. “No. We can make it, and once we're
die before we got there, or they’d kill me. And I’m not sending
you off on your own.” Darek gripped her hand tightly, using his
free hand to push against the ground for support to sit upright. He
grimaced as the pain overtook him again. “Help me walk.”
helped him to his feet, and for several steps, he leaned heavily on
her as he tried to regain his bearings. But at
he nodded and released his hold on her shoulder. “Let go. I can do
it on my own.”
nodded, still pale, his expression tormented as he lifted his eyes
towards the looming Rhenor mountains. “Let's get going.”
you tilt your head up a little? I can't see whether you're smiling or
Terahl flattened his lips and refused to comply. He kept his eyes
fixed on the page before him and tried to focus on scribbling notes
about the day's events, their plans, location, and current levels of
supplies without making any mistakes. He heard the telltale
scratching of another pencil and looked up. “I don't remember
agreeing to a portrait.”
told me I need to practice if I want to be any good.” Shaetha
Sohran lowered the graphite pencil she had been using on the sheet of
paper before her and frowned. “Can't you sit still?”
do you want me to do, think the words onto the page?”
smiled faintly and kept sketching. “Hasn't Yannah drawn you yet?”
would she do that? She thinks I’m a cad.”
likes to draw people. She says you can tell a lot about a person by
watching how they look, how they do things. It's fun to try and get
that onto the page.” She frowned and squinted at him. “Why don't
you have any facial hair? I've never seen you shave.”
rolled his eyes and clapped the book shut. “You don't have any
facial hair, either. Do I ask you about that?”
frowned, then looked down at her sketch and lowered her voice. “I'm
sorry. I was just curious.”
sighed heavily and gathered up the three journals he'd brought with
him – each for a different topic – and a cord to bind them.
“Where I'm from, people don't grow beards. That's just the way it
works. Now would you go be curious about someone else, please?”
Jorthen strode into the space between them and gave a grin that
likely only Sohrem knew was false. “I didn’t know that word was
in anyone’s vocabulary nowadays.”
hid her smile as best she could, then looked forlornly at her partial
sketch. “I'll never get this done.”
what done?” Jorthen slid onto the boulder beside her and pulled the
sketchpad from her lap to examine it. “Ah, another budding artist.
Soon we'll have our entire adventure captured in breathtaking
rolled his eyes and yanked the knot tighter, ensuring the journals
would not come loose from the cord holding them together. If there
was one thing worse than the glaring sun shooting daggers at his eyes
and burning his skin, it was Jorthen's behavior. It was one thing to
put on a brave face – it was quite another to flash a grin and say
that nothing was wrong when they all knew that something was. As
Shaetha had said, much could be discerned from the way the others
went about their chores around the camp, the unnatural way they
interacted, the forced smiles they gave whenever they discussed their
or later, they would have to admit that the trip home – or what
most of them called their home in absence of anything better – had
already gone south, and had taken their morale with it.
turned from the two conversing on the rock and made his way to the
tents. One tent was already raised, the one in which the primary
night-watchers would stay. It was chosen as such because of its
distance from the cliff, nearly twenty yards away. Wouldn't want any
half-asleep guardsman tumbling out of the tent and down the
mountainside, would they?
passed Sheth – who was hard at work setting up the women’s tent –
without so much as looking at him, though he knew the Kheleth looked
at him anyhow. Everyone was always looking at him. Even Shaetha, who
would hardly ever look anyone in the eye, seemed intent on watching
his every move, analyzing him for discrepancies.
caught himself following an all too familiar line of thought and
pushed it out of his mind. He entered his tent and dropped the
journals inside. The cord came loose, sending one flying off to the
side. It fell open, and Sohrem saw his own scrawlings chronicling
their time with the Serdak, their journey to the surface, and all
that had ensued since. He picked it up and let his eyes travel over
the last entry he'd made.
up camp on a small
plane some quarter of a mile from exit
point. Scouted area, found odd-looking plants which Kyra says are
edible. Few trees here. Identified foliage as edible, used by Kirat
when rations run out. Duration of trip
clapped the book shut and shoved it under the others, then roughly
bound all three up again and set them as far against the edge of the
tent as he could. The clanging of a hammer against a metal tent peg
echoed from outside, then a dull thump and a clatter. Someone
shouted, then growled, and the banging resumed.
mouth pulled to one side, and he exited the tent, this time stopping
to cross his arms when he got outside. He eyed Sheth's back a few
and noted the sweat spots on his tunic. “Having trouble?”
have you been?” Sheth muttered, dropping the hammer.
been journaling. Which is a lot more tedious than setting up tents,
swap with you in an instant.”
you wouldn't,” Sohrem muttered.
gave up on the tent peg and turned around, wiping his brow as he
stood. “What did you say?”
Sohrem glanced back at the place where he'd sat minutes ago and bit
his tongue long enough to keep himself in line. “You're too late,
anyhow. I've finished. There wasn't much to record today.”
picked up his hammer and slipped it into a tool satchel on his belt,
where it clanged into place atop what was probably a lot of mildly
useful junk beneath it. “Well, there must be something you could
glared. “I'm doing it now.”
Last I checked, you were looking for an argument.”
was coming over to offer help with the tent,” he said. “But since
my help obviously isn't wanted, I'll go find someone who knows how to
accept help without making accusations of the volunteer. Enjoy your
tantrum.” And at this, he turned on his heel and strode away.
stopped in his tracks, his jaw tightening with the effort of keeping
it shut. This was unnatural. If he had to do this many more times
today, his jaw would break.
followed him and stopped a few paces behind. “Look, I'm sorry. I
didn't mean to snap.”
for someone who doesn't mean to do something, you did it pretty
know. And I'm sorry. It's just...” Sheth hesitated, and Sohrem
heard his boots shuffling. “It's been a long couple of months.”
don't know the half of it,” Sohrem mumbled.
do realize you're not the only one who's having difficulty with this,
don't you?” Sheth said. “We all thought we’d be home by now.”
really, I hadn’t noticed.”
groaned and finally came into view. “Come on – be fair. Everyone
has been through a lot. If some of us are snippish or seem fake to
you... it's only because we want to go home.”
where is home, exactly?” Sohrem challenged. “Jaern? Delnam? Or
maybe Lans – which by the way, I refuse to call by whatever idiotic
name the Reshen councilmen decided–”
enough,” Sheth cut in. He caught himself and glanced away. “You
just had to bring up Lans, didn’t you?”
set his jaw again and focused on keeping his tone even. “If you
think you had it bad there... Well, all right, sure – you did. But
you weren’t the only one, so forgive me for not feeling too guilty
about mentioning it.”
wasn’t accusing you — I just... Look, all things considered, the
people in this group have been incredibly forgiving towards you since
didn’t do anything,” Sohrem said tersely. “Nothing that I would
have done if I hadn’t been under outside influence.”
Sheth said. “Whatever you say. But we’ve all tried to be
understanding of you and your... eccentricities. So at least try to
do the same for us.”
don’t understand, and you wouldn’t even if I explained. So don’t
before Sheth could get out whichever name he intended to use, Sohrem
shoved past him and said over his shoulder, “I don’t need anyone
breathing down my back or pretending to care about my problems, so
leave me alone.”
everyone is like your brother,” Sheth called after him.
ignored him as he kept walking, past the tent, past the curious eyes
of his fellow travelers, to wherever his feet would take him. It was
against the rules — anyone who knew anything about the area knew
how bad of an idea it was to wander off alone — but he’d rather
face a fight than hear one more lecture. Eventually,
he came to a place with a flat cliff about four feet square shielded
by a scattered set of trees. Here he sat and stared down the
mountainside, scrutinizing these lands which were so far from
anything he knew. His mind wandered, and something in his chest sank
as the words echoed in his mind, “Not
everyone is like your brother.”
thought of Tal, of the way he had always spoken his mind, never
minced words, even when he knew those words would get him in trouble.
His words were harsh, and much of what he said or did in later years
announced to the world that the last thing he'd wanted was a little
brother to watch over. But whenever true trouble came, he was always
there with a well-placed insult and a guiding hand, even if that hand
to somewhere no human would wish to go. Not like others who pretended
to care until trouble came, then turned on him in his weakest moment.
everyone is like your brother...”
Terrem, you're right about that.” He picked up a pebble from nearby
and tossed it down the mountain, watching it as it ricocheted between
obstacles, clattering around harder and faster by the moment until it
finally spiraled out of control and fell to its doom. He stared
it, then glanced dead-eyed towards the camp. “You’re right. And
maybe that's why I can't trust anyone.”
Shaetha stood from the boulder and started to follow the fleeing
Shamindo, but Jorthen caught her arm.
don't follow him,” he said, pulling her back to her seat beside
him. She stiffened at the contact, and he withdrew apologetically.
“If he wants to be alone, he won't take well to your following
bit her lip. “Is he really that angry that I drew him without his
doubt it. Something else probably set him off. Don't worry.”
after Sohrem for a few moments longer, then sighed and reclaimed her
sketchbook from Jorthen. “He's been so quiet lately.”
Sohrem?” Jorthen chuckled and looked upwards. “The sky isn't
falling. He must be doing all his talking when he's alone.”
not fair,” Shaetha snapped.
blinked wordlessly at her outburst.
flushed and swept a hand over her sketchbook to remove a stray
shaving. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say it like that.”
all right. I suppose I was out of line.”
barely lifted her gaze to Jorthen's chin. “I know some people are
having a hard time accepting the new plan. Doesn't it make sense that
he would, too?”
watched her for another long moment. Then his jaw clicked and he
shrugged. “I suppose so. It's just...” He squinted and looked
away, thoughtful. “I guess Sohrem likes his privacy more than he
likes making sure people’s feelings are preserved.”
looked away. “How long have you known him, exactly?”
years. I met him around the time he enlisted.”
frowned. “But he's a Shamindo. How could he enlist in the Reshan
guess he had connections.” Jorthen shrugged again and pulled a
canteen from his belt, then lifted the cap and took a long drink.
swallowed hard. “What's in that?”
finished his drink and wiped a hand over his mouth. “This? It's
water. What else would it–” He stopped suddenly, and as
understanding dawned, he tipped the canteen and let a drop of clear
liquid fall from the opening. “There. See that? Water.”
released the breath she'd been holding and blushed. “I'm sorry.
It's just, after everything–”
understand,” Jorthen assured her. He placed the canteen on his belt
again. “If I were you, I would ask, too.”
didn't really think you would... I mean, I wanted to be sure. But go
blew hard and leaned backwards,
clasping his hands behind his head. Shaetha could swear he did that
to show off the muscles in his now-bare upper arms, but she supposed
she didn't know his mind. He shrugged one broad shoulder and looked
at her again. “What else is there to tell? Sohrem showed up at
Jaern three years ago. He rode in with little to no explanation of
why he’d come, and some weeks later, he joined the Guard.”
didn't have papers or anything?”
hesitated. “The Guard's recruitment policy is laxer
than anyone cares to admit. I could swear I've seen a few ineligible
fifteen-year-olds accepted. Maybe younger.”
how did you know he was telling the truth about any of it? His age,
his name, even his race?”
the race part wasn't hard to tell. Just take a look at him when he
comes back and you'll see. He has ‘Shamindo runaway’ written all
bit her lip. “So you think he's a runaway?”
made a face at a rock formation to his far left and rubbed the back
of his neck without making eye contact. “Why all the sudden
interest in Terahl?”
shrugged, unable to come up with a satisfactory answer. She picked up
her pencil again, intent on fixing the proportions of her subject
even if he was not present for comparison.
took the hint and stood. “All right. There's no harm in being
curious, I suppose.”
seemed different lately. I want to know why. And it's a little hard
to understand why someone's changed when you don't take the time to
find out who they were before.” She glanced up at him, then shook
her head and scratched another line onto the sketchpad. “That's
lingered for a few more moments, but after a long enough time of
standing still, of watching her as though he sensed she had some
great secret to hide, he gave up and moved away.
released a slow breath and rested her pencil atop the paper. She
looked up again enough to see the ground a few feet away
and saw the telltale footprints leading away from camp. Her mind
raced again, and she groaned, putting a hand to her head.
what's wrong with me?
She'd always felt comfortable in the knowledge of her Creator's
existence, but this familiarity, this simple means of communication
with Him, was new to her. Yet it felt so natural after mere weeks.
Now she hoped He could see her heart as she stared
in the direction of the wayward Sohrem and prayed silently. There
are so many other things going on – why should I be worried about
Sohrem? He’s never been nice to me.
could hear no explanation, no audible assurance that she was thinking
rightly or chastisement for her misplaced concern. But the black
leather-bound volume on the right side of the boulder caught her eye,
and her fingers seemed compelled to open it, to turn the pages until
she came to a particular place, a particular verse, and here her eyes
soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”
wrinkled her nose and re-read the verse, then, convinced her eyes had
gone astray, read the verses surrounding it in search of the one she
needed to decipher her own mind.
there it was, and there her eyes kept returning.
“A soft answer turns away wrath...”
Whose wrath? Was Yahveh angry with her? Should she keep her concerns
to herself, mind her own business as everyone else did?
shuffled to her right, and Shaetha slammed the Scriptures shut, eyes
red-headed soldier who approached her stopped
and his mouth pulled strangely as he scrutinized her. “Oh –
sorry, I thought you'd see me coming.”
Shaetha shook her head and forced a smile for her brother. “It's
not your fault – I wasn't paying attention.”
must have been fairly engrossed — I called your name three times.”
you?” Shaetha frowned. “I didn't hear.” She set the Scriptures
aside again, and her eyes fell to the sketchpad in her lap. She
tapped the page with her index finger and sighed mournfully. “I was
practicing my sketching, but my subject apparently didn't want to be
reached out a hand, and Shaetha passed him the sketchpad. He examined
the drawing, an absurdly serious expression on his boyish face as he
hummed thoughtfully. After a few moments, he nodded approvingly. “Not
bad for a beginner. And that's...” He looked again. “Ah. I can
see why you had problems.”
don't know what was wrong,” she said, blushing again. “I suppose
I should have asked his permission first. I didn't think it would be
a problem.” Her mind began to wander again, but she wrangled it by
smiling at Lehn and venturing, “Do you really think it's good?”
better than anything I could do. Yannah must be a good teacher.”
quirked a brow.
hastened to add, “And she has an excellent student. Together you
make quite the winning team.” He looked at the drawing again, and
his smile faded slightly as he tapped the rendering of Sohrem's head.
“Why did you draw him like that?”
don't know. He looks sad.” Lehn shrugged. “Not that it's a bad
look – it just strikes me that Sohrem scowls more than he looks
what Jorthen thought, too,” Shaetha said quietly.
took a few moments before speaking to stare off into the distance,
then his jaw clicked and he squinted at her again. “So you've been
talking to Jorthen a fair amount lately.”
I?” She racked her brain for a record of any and all meetings with
Jorthen since they'd all gathered in Serdak territory. “I hadn't
didn't think you had,” Lehn said dryly. His expression contorted,
the way it did when he tasted something unpleasant.
there something wrong with talking to him? He was our leader, after
all. I mean, before... everything else. And we've agreed not to
discuss that, haven't we?”
have,” he admitted, then his mouth pulled strangely again. “But
it doesn't have anything to do with that. Or not much, anyways.”
waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't. “Then what is it?”
seemed to struggle with choosing his words before he spoke. “Jorthen
is one of those men. I know I haven't seen him in his element, so I
may not be an accurate judge of his character. But...” He frowned
deeply. “He just... I mean, he’s good-looking, and he has been
talking to you a lot lately...”
spread his hands. “Well, you’ll be sixteen soon. That's
not – Jorthen isn't...” She flushed and fiddled with her
sketchbook. “He’s been spending a lot of time with everyone,
trying to get them to like him again.”
but... you’re very pretty, Shaetha. It wouldn’t be much of a
stretch to think that every man here would want to flirt with you.”
supposed that the idea of someone like Jorthen fancying her ought to
be exciting, even if it was absurd, but instead she felt sick and
shuddered. “You think someone in the group might be interested in
more than a friend. Yes.” He hesitated and searched her face with
his brow puckered. “Have you been interested in anyone?”
turned to scan the camp, using the motion to delay her answer as much
as to get a look at the people there. She saw Sern bent by the fire,
brown hair just beginning to show signs of balding in the back, and
just beyond him, Yannah and Aviram sat beside each other and talked
about something the way siblings did. Kyra was cleaning a blade
nearby, but Shaetha averted her gaze quickly to avoid catching flack
She rested her gaze back on Aviram for a moment, considering. He was
a handsome young man with light brown hair that liked to fall in his
face, hazel eyes like Yannah's, and a dusting of freckles that
somewhat offset the untimely grey
here and there in his hair. She watched him for a moment
until he seemed to notice and she looked away.
fidgeted beside her. “That, um... that wasn't an invitation to look
just wanted to see if I would feel anything different.”
scrutinized her. “And do you?”
shook her head and brushed a wisp of golden hair out of her face.
“No. Just now I saw Aviram, the same as he always was.”
see how sad he is,” she said quietly. “And I feel sorry for him.
But nothing... different.”
when you look at Jorthen – how about then?”
reached over to squeeze Lehn’s hand with one of her own. “He’s
another traveling companion, nothing more.”
deflated with relief. “Good.”
managed a smile. “You were afraid I was in love with Jorthen?”
turned red again. “Not in love, but maybe softened. And...” He
looked off in the direction Jorthen had taken and narrowed his eyes.
“I don't trust him.”
you don’t have to worry.” She stood, gathering up her sketchpad
and pencil. She opened her mouth to tell him something,
but then thought better of it. “If I see Jorthen again, I'll let
him know you have your eye on him.”
doubt that. But if he tries to do anything he shouldn't, slap him and
scream. I'll be there.”
should have been merely a joking threat made her feel sick again, but
she hid it as best she could. “It won’t happen, Lehn. I promise.”
looked at her long and hard, then sighed through his nose. “All
right. If he does show interest, you can make the call on whether or
not to slap him.” Then under his breath, he muttered, “And it'll
be my distinct privilege to kill him.”
bit her lip and let Lehn pass
her on his way back to camp. She sat down and tried to interest
herself in her former activities, but her mind wandered again, and
her thoughts echoed the verse she’d read.
soft answer turns away wrath...”
she gave up. She stood, leaving her pencil and the sketchpad where
they sat, and after checking to make sure Lehn didn't notice her
movements, she followed a trail of footprints away from the camp,
praying they were far enough up the mountain that she would not come
to regret how obvious it was that she was not a soldier.
must have been a rebellious tent.”
grunted at Yannah's assertion and continued to rub salve over his
hammer-struck fingers. “It was in cahoots with my other tools.
I can get through my chores without dying.”
smirked and held out a metal cup. “Here. Drink this.”
took the cup and sniffed at its contents. The drink looked brown and
thicker than water, and the steam rising from it had an enticing
aroma. He raised a brow. “What is it?”
don't know — it was in one of the bags we got from the Serdak. Sern
said it would help your energy.” She glanced over her shoulder at
the man hunched by the fire and softened her voice. “He's worried
nodded. “I know.” He took another sniff of the liquid, then took
a swig. It was stronger and hotter than he'd expected, and he coughed
as some of it went down the wrong tube, scalding everything on the
way down. He was surprised that he could still feel anything between
his mouth and his stomach. As soon as he could breathe again, he
blinked hard at Yannah. “And this is supposed to help
mouth quirked, but she bit back her full smile. “He said the Serdak
would usually put something in it to sweeten it. The soldiers
wouldn't, but most people would.” She wrinkled her nose. “Is it
really that bad?”
but it's strong.” He looked long and hard at the cup before blowing
carefully and taking another sip. As he did, he felt a little
stronger and more awake than he had previously. After a moment, he
shrugged. “Well, I can't taste it now, but I think it's working.”
took another drink, then noticed Yannah’s pinched expression and
distant look. “What, did you put poison in my cup?”
smiled faintly and shook her head. “No. It's just... I'm worried
about you, too.”
sighed and set the hot drink next to the tent. “Yannah, I'm fine,
really. I'm just tired.”
says you've volunteered for a night watch.”
always assigned to it anyways. Besides, someone has to keep an eye on
Sohrem and Jorthen to be sure they don't do anything untoward.”
what I mean,” Yannah said. “You're not yourself. You've been
short with everyone, even Sern and... with me.”
winced. “I don't mean to be.”
know that, but not everyone does.”
finished treating his hand and picked up the cup again, then walked
away from the tent and squinted at the sun as it descended through
the sky. He took a sip of the dark liquid and sighed. “It doesn't
look the same, does it?”
pair of arms came from behind and wrapped around his waist, and
Yannah's head came to rest against his back. “We'll get home soon.
Sern knows the way — he'll get us there.”
let himself relax for a moment. It felt good to have Yannah here with
him, and being in anything other than an argument with her was pure
bliss. For a few moments, he let himself feel that way – calm,
content, comfortable in the presence of the girl for whom he cared
then a thought crept into his mind that spoiled it all.
chewed on the nagging question in his mind for some time before he
got up the courage to voice it. By this point, Yannah had shifted to
his side, her arms still around him, head on his shoulder as though
there was no place she would rather be. He winced and fixed his eyes
on the reddening sky. “Yannah, can I ask you something?”
light brown hair became even more tousled as she nodded against his
it ever seem strange to you?” He looked down to gauge her reaction
to the question. “How little time it's taken for this to progress?
Our relationship, I mean.”
brow furrowed, and she tilted her head up to look at him. “No.
We've always gotten along, and we've been through enough in the past
few months to make up for a year of knowing each other.”
know, but...” He hesitated. “What if... it's
not enough? What if we don't really know each other, but think we do
because of all that's happened? Maybe we’re just making up a story
in our heads, and we don’t really know where we’re going with
pulled away from him for the first time since the conversation began.
Confusion clouded her eyes. “Are you saying you don't want to court
I... I don't mean that. I'm surprised, that's all. Most relationships
don’t move this quickly.”
crossed her arms. “Well, ours did. Is that such a bad thing?”
I mean–” He sighed and spread his arms wide. “Look, Yannah, I'm
sorry. I didn't mean to suggest anything like that. It’s just...
Any good story can get choked by poor planning or by trying to rush
the ending. You're important to me.” Here his face heated. “And...
I don't want to lose you because I was too eager to have you.”
stared at him for a few seconds, then looked down. “Sorry.” She
tucked another strand of mousy hair behind her ear and managed a
faint smile. “I guess we really are on edge. But... do you really
think we've moved too quickly?”
don't know.” Sheth managed a chuckle, more to release tension than
to express amusement. “I've never done this before. I don't want to
mess it up.”
bit her cheek, then sighed. “We can discuss it on the way home.”
winced again. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make things... you
she said quietly. “I know.”
discuss it before we get to Delnam. I promise.”
nodded and peered further into the camp. “I'd better check on
Shaetha. She's probably given up on me by now.”
nodded. “All right.”
fell for a moment, then Yannah rose up, pecked his cheek, and walked
away. Her frame was still slight, her braid still unruly, and she
still ducked her head ever so slightly as she walked. And when she
glanced back at him again, her eyes were the same color as when he'd
first met her — a shade somewhere between blue and green, turned
by some lighting and different colors of clothing. Except for the
length of her hair, nothing about her had physically changed.
yet so much else had changed.
forced himself to turn back to the tent, and prayed for Yahveh to
guide his thoughts as he got back to work.
were only ten of them. Ten foreigners, but Zarea could not tell who
had sent them. They were too diverse. At least two looked Khelethar,
one Kirat, a few Reshen, and some she could not quite identify. One
had red hair such as she’d only seen in religious art — possibly
another Kheleth. But then, the Reshen were mixed-breeds by their very
nature, as were the Serdak. All of them could be from different
regions of the same melting pot. But they had supplies. Plenty of
them. Even some medicinal salves.
long as they had those supplies, their origins did not matter.
echoed behind her. Zarea ducked behind a boulder and crouched as far
down as she could while still being ready to run. Her side was
exposed to the camp, but a half-built tent blocked it. Hopefully, the
Kheleth she had seen working on it would not glance her way.
men came into view, both Reshen, by their look. One was tall with
dark brown hair, dark eyes, and a soldier’s stride. Too bad the
weapon on his belt could cut her down at a moment's notice — she
might have liked a closer look at him. The other man was a few years
younger – perhaps twenty – and had middling hair and
strangely-colored eyes. He looked as though he might slump over and
give up the effort of walking at any moment. An easier target, should
she face him in battle.
tall man nodded and rounded the corner towards the other side of the
tent. His companion, however, turned aside and took a seat on a
nearby boulder. After glancing around as though to ensure that he was
alone, he pulled a small knife from his belt, took a piece of wood
from the ground, and began whittling.
handled her bow with trembling fingers. She had to get into the camp
for a closer look. A raid would do her no good if she wasn't sure she
had a reasonable chance of finding what she'd come to retrieve.
from nearby startled her, and she pressed her back to the boulder,
drew and notched an arrow on instinct. It took a moment to calm her
breathing enough to make out the words and where the voices
originated, but at
she perceived that they came from the tent beside her.
some trouble with the tent-maker's life, Terrem?” If she had to
guess, she would say the voice belonged to the tall man who had
man sighed. “I think I'd do a better job with it if I could read a
book on the subject, at least.”
stiffened. The softened consonants were consistent with a Khelethar
accent, and the voice that spoke them sounded closer than she'd
anticipated. Zarea glanced that way. The Kheleth man stepped into her
but did not shift behind the boulder, for fear the whittler should
see her. Her heart pounded again. They would catch her now. She knew
Kheleth did not seem to see her, and instead looked down at his hand
and grimaced. “Great. I thought that was dirt there.”
looks nasty. You should have Sern take a look at it. An untreated
infection out here could be deadly.” The tall man stepped partially
into view, and Zarea tried to calm herself by watching him instead of
the Kheleth who should have already spotted her.
idea. If she distracted herself, even for calming purposes, then she
would be slow to escape, should they see her. She watched the Kheleth
not a physician. He's a soldier and a scholar. I should know.”
with those salves
from the Serdak, I'd say any of us has a fair chance at being at
least a somewhat effective physician. Even Shaetha could smear
something onto a wound if she had the stomach for it.”
It was all Zarea could do not to dash up the men, grab them and
demand these medicines. She did not know how they were made, and the
idea of using something produced by the Serdak mongrels churned her
she had no choice.
quiet exclamation from the whittler made Zarea jump, and she nearly
bolted. But she managed to stay. It would do her no good to run. She
needed that salve,
and she needed it soon.
if they saw her and captured her... what then?
would have to come back later.
I need the salve now. I need to take it back and...
how would she get back if these foreigners caught her and executed
her for thievery? It was broad daylight, and most, if not all of them
were armed. Even if she managed to incapacitate one, would it be
It wouldn't. She would have to come back after nightfall, when they
were complacent and preparing for sleep, and take the salve
whittler sighed heavily, and Zarea took that as her cue. With one
last glance at the Kheleth man to be sure he hadn't seen her – and
a longer glance at the dark-haired man beside him – Zarea plotted
her course away from the boulder and left. As she stalked away and
only silence caught up with her, she promised herself quietly, “I
will come back, and I will get that salve.”
was no more room for cowardice or foolish hope that an easier option
would present itself. She would get the medicine tonight, no matter
was quieter here, easier to think. Sohrem's legs hung over the edge
of the cliff, and he swung them absently, sending a few pebbles
clattering down the mountainside. The height would bother most
people, and the fact that there was no-one around to help him if he
toppled over the edge should have disturbed him. But instead,
it was a comfort.
least if he toppled over the edge, he wouldn't have to deal with
anyone else dragging him back up, screaming at him for his stupidity.
everyone is like your brother.”
from the past crept to the edge of his consciousness. He shut his
eyes, willed them to leave, but they came all the same.
dark hallway. An eerie scratching on the air. Tal looming over him,
eyes glowing silver, his words cutting like knives...
“You think you can tell me what I can and can't do? ...If you're
going to make such a nuisance of yourself, then maybe you shouldn't
be here at all.”
nuisance... You shouldn't be here... A nuisance...”
smacked himself on the forehead and snatched up a stone from beside
him. Tossing it over the edge did nothing to make the memories stop,
but it was something he could do, something that was his choice, and
that no-one could prevent him from doing.
was a decision, and it was his own. He still had to get used to the
crack sounded behind him. He stiffened, gripped the dagger at his
belt. Footsteps shuffled, quick and light. He turned just in time to
see someone duck behind a tree to the left. A wisp of blonde hair
flew behind the spy before it was tucked behind the trunk with the
rest of her.
sighed and turned forward again, rubbing his forehead with the hand
he would have used to draw his weapon. Why did she keep doing this?
stretched, and he questioned his own sanity at seeking to end it. “I
know you're back there.”
a moment, nothing happened. But then the footsteps came again, slower
and more cautious this time. He turned to see exactly what he'd
expected – a petite girl of fifteen years, in a loose blue tunic
that should be worn by a boy instead of hung over her obscured frame,
wearing pants and calf-length boots that looked equally wrong on her.
Still, the color of her tunic made her wide eyes seem even bluer as
she bit her lip and approached. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to
not a problem,” he mumbled, unsure whether he wanted her to hear it
or not. Such a lie was foreign to him. It was enough courtesy to make
him sick, so he cast a glare at her more because it felt natural than
from any true anger. “What are you doing here? You’re not
supposed to leave the camp without an escort.”
Shaetha crossed her arms, unsure what to do with herself. Her cheeks
flushed, and she looked more like a little girl caught eavesdropping
than a teenager being interrogated about following
someone off into the middle of nowhere. “I wanted to see if you
were all right. You seemed... upset.”
frowned. “And what?”
what if I'm upset?” He shrugged and looked back out over the
cliffs, tossing another pebble down them. Another choice. Almost too
quietly to be heard, he mumbled, “Who really cares?”
care. I... I don't like it when people are upset.” She drew a deep
breath as if bracing herself. “So, tell me. Why are you upset?”
matters to me.”
it shouldn't.” The words came out more sharply than he'd intended,
and he felt as much as saw her flinch. He rolled his eyes at his own
stupidity and looked down again. The words “I'm
couldn't seem to make their way past his lips. “Get
out of here”
sounded like a more appropriate sentiment. What was wrong with him?
moved to his right, and he blinked when Shaetha sat down beside him,
not at the edge, but near it.
some reason, the proximity bothered him, and he pulled back. “What?”
sorry I sketched you without your permission.” She bit her lip yet
again. “Will you forgive me?”
Forgive her for what? Seeing too much? Being too honest with her
portrayal of him? Somehow the thought of her apologizing made him
feel angry and ashamed at the same time, and he looked away again. “I
don't care. Draw what you like.”
beat of silence following did not comfort him. The conversation was
over, wasn’t it? She'd offered help, and he'd refused it. End of
she stayed seated, gaze fixed on him.
tried not to squirm. “What, are you analyzing me for another
just trying to figure it out,” she said softly. “Why are you
afraid of me?”
locked eyes with her, and his jaw tightened automatically. “I am
lie, another wince that he couldn't stop from coming. He was terrible
at this. Maybe the blunt honesty that had earned him his nasty
reputation wasn't so bad, after all. It was safer. It kept people
don't believe you.”
could say nothing, couldn't even look away as she stood, smiled sadly
at him and walked away, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear
as she walked away.
looked down and clamped his jaw until he was sure it would break. A
fell over him, and he let it fall. It was a comfortable thing, a safe
That was all that mattered, really. So what was his problem?
in my own way,
and tossed yet another pebble over the edge. He followed its course
with dull eyes until it fell out of view. I'm
my own problem.
didn't know how long he sat there, staring down at an airborne share
of stone that he couldn't even see anymore. He saw the cliffs, saw
the blurry forms of trees and the darkening tint of the sky. But that
was only what his eyes observed.
played through his mind's eye was different. At
it was all in shadow, all blurred and far away, too distant to touch.
It shouldn't have drawn him in so, shouldn't have been worth a second
glance. But those shapes dancing across his vision, the way they
moved, swirling purple and black and amber, coming closer, growing
throat tightened. He felt air rasp through his throat and realized he
hadn't been breathing. But he was breathing now, too quickly, too
harshly, every muscle tense. The shadows moved closer, pulling
together, forming something. He shut his eyes, tried to will the
shapes away, but he could feel them now, drawing nearer, clutching at
him, reaching for his throat.
whisper echoed through his mind. “You
have been chosen...”
were here. They were at his throat, choking him, suffocating him. He
tried to breathe, failed. Every muscle tensed, then trembled. The
shadows moved to stroke his face, moving up to his forehead, back to
his temple, stroking, caressing, piercing...
heard a strangled cry as he fell back onto the ground, and his throat
ached, but he didn't care. They were here – she was here. Tal was
wrong. It was all real – it had all happened.
she was here for him.
stung his eyes even as he forced them to remain shut. A sob rose and
escaped him. The whispers came again, closer, seeping into him. “You
have been chosen...”
This ended here. He would not succumb to these memories. They had
fled him for years, only rarely daring to creep back into his
conscious thoughts. The worst they had been over the past year or two
had been the occasional nightmare, which he purged as soon as he woke
and never revisited. So would he fall prey to them now, to the
products of his own memory and imagination?