Excerpt for The Sehret Chronicles: The Survivor by , available in its entirety at Smashwords













The Sehret Chronicles

The Survivor

C. F. Barrows













Copyright (c) 2016 by C. F. Barrows



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Contact author at: mailto:contact.cfbarrows@gmail.com



Cover art: C. F. Barrows

E-book formatting: C. F. Barrows

Interior illustrations: Ella Janowski

Author photo: Abigail Rienks



All 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, alive or dead, is purely coincidental, unless otherwise indicated.









Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.











<>



This 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.



<>











Table of Contents



Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty



Pronunciation Guide

Discussion Questions

Author’s Note











<>

“Whither 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.

If 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 hold me.

If 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 to Thee.”

Psalm 139:7-12

<>

“But I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels,

principalities or powers,

things present or to come,

nor height nor depth,

nor any other creature shall be able to separate us

from the love of God through Christ our Lord.”

Romans 8:38

<>











Prologue



The man looked dead, but it was hard to be sure. In the light of the dying lantern above him, his face was blank, 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.

Beside her, Darek whispered, “What are we waiting for?”

Zarea 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.

And that was their mistake.

The 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.”

Darek 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 keys jangled.

“Kali!” The hissed nickname made her look up. Darek gestured wildly to his belt and glanced at the tent nearby.

Of course. Zarea pulled a knife from her belt and began to saw. A few heart-jolting clanks later, she pulled the keys free.

A 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.

She 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.

Zarea’s 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.

Darek rifled through the chest to see if there was anything else of use, then gestured to Zarea and mouthed, “The bag.”

Zarea 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.

The 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.

Darek’s eyes were equally wide, his lips cracked as he whispered, “Water. They must have some.”

Zarea 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.

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 man's bedroll.

Darek followed her gaze, and his face turned ashen as he shook his head. “No, Kali. They'll wake up.”

“We 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.

A pair of hands clapped over her mouth and yanked her back from the tent. She gasped, fumbled for the knife sheathed inside her tunic.

“Keep still,” a familiar voice hissed in her ear. “I'm not going to hurt you.”

Zarea ripped herself free of Darek’s grasp. “If you grab me again, I'll stab you.”

“Go 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–”

“Stop 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 stand guard.”

Darek 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 position.

Zarea 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.

The 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...

The 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.

And that was when he gasped, his eyes flew open, and he threw Zarea back as he groped for his sword. “What...”

Across 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.

An 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 backwards, fumbled for the knife on his boot.

The 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 him.

The 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.

Darek's cry of pain drew her attention back to the fight on the ground. Zarea turned, notched an arrow.

She 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!”

Zarea 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?

But she knew why, and the reason made her double over retching.

Darek stumbled from the sudden stop and fell to his knees a few feet away.

“I killed him,” Zarea gasped, unbelieving. “Darek, I killed that man.”

Darek 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...?”

That was when she saw the blood.

Her eyes grew wide. “He stabbed you!”

“It’s fine,” he rasped. His eyes were full of pain, but he set his jaw in determination. “Just a scratch... Caught me off-guard.”

“That is not a scratch,” Zarea snapped. “We have to find help.”

“The mountain,” he coughed.

Zarea groaned. “Hang the mountain – I never want to hear of it again!”

“The mountain, Kali,” Darek insisted. “There are places there, places to rest, find water, and herbs to treat wounds. We can find them.”

“This was a mistake.” Zarea blinked back tears and fought to keep a stern edge to her voice. “Darek, I was wrong. We never should have left home. We need to go back. We need to find my mother and tell her–”

“We’d 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.”

Zarea shook her head violently. “No. We can make it, and once we're home–”

“We’d 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.”

She helped him to his feet, and for several steps, he leaned heavily on her as he tried to regain his bearings. But at last, he nodded and released his hold on her shoulder. “Let go. I can do it on my own.”

“You're sure?”

He nodded, still pale, his expression tormented as he lifted his eyes towards the looming Rhenor mountains. “Let's get going.”



<>











Chapter One



“Could you tilt your head up a little? I can't see whether you're smiling or frowning.”

Sohrem 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.”

“Yannah 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?”

“What do you want me to do, think the words onto the page?”

Shaetha smiled faintly and kept sketching. “Hasn't Yannah drawn you yet?”

“Why would she do that? She thinks I’m a cad.”

“She 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.”

He rolled his eyes and clapped the book shut. “You don't have any facial hair, either. Do I ask you about that?”

Shaetha frowned, then looked down at her sketch and lowered her voice. “I'm sorry. I was just curious.”

He 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?”

“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.”

Shaetha hid her smile as best she could, then looked forlornly at her partial sketch. “I'll never get this done.”

“Get 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 detail.”

Sohrem 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 situation.

Sooner 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.

He 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?

Sohrem 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.

He 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.

“Set 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 home unknown.”

He 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.

Sohrem's 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 feet away and noted the sweat spots on his tunic. “Having trouble?”

“Where have you been?” Sheth muttered, dropping the hammer.

“I've been journaling. Which is a lot more tedious than setting up tents, believe me.”

“I'd swap with you in an instant.”

“No, you wouldn't,” Sohrem muttered.

Sheth gave up on the tent peg and turned around, wiping his brow as he stood. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.” 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.”

Sheth 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 do.”

Sohrem glared. “I'm doing it now.”

“Really? Last I checked, you were looking for an argument.”

“I 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.

“Sohrem, wait.”

He 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.

Footsteps followed him and stopped a few paces behind. “Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap.”

“Well, for someone who doesn't mean to do something, you did it pretty well.”

“I know. And I'm sorry. It's just...” Sheth hesitated, and Sohrem heard his boots shuffling. “It's been a long couple of months.”

“You don't know the half of it,” Sohrem mumbled.

“You 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.”

“No, really, I hadn’t noticed.”

Sheth 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.”

“And 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–”

“That's enough,” Sheth cut in. He caught himself and glanced away. “You just had to bring up Lans, didn’t you?”

Sohrem 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.”

“I wasn’t accusing you — I just... Look, all things considered, the people in this group have been incredibly forgiving towards you since everything happened.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Sohrem said tersely. “Nothing that I would have done if I hadn’t been under outside influence.”

“Fine,” 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.”

“You don’t understand, and you wouldn’t even if I explained. So don’t bother trying.”

“Look, S—”

But 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.”

“Not everyone is like your brother,” Sheth called after him.

Sohrem 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.”

He 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 led 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.

Not everyone is like your brother...”

“Well, 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 blankly after it, then glanced dead-eyed towards the camp. “You’re right. And maybe that's why I can't trust anyone.”

–––––––

“Sohrem?” Shaetha stood from the boulder and started to follow the fleeing Shamindo, but Jorthen caught her arm.

“No, 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 him.”

She bit her lip. “Is he really that angry that I drew him without his permission?”

“I doubt it. Something else probably set him off. Don't worry.”

Shaetha stared after Sohrem for a few moments longer, then sighed and reclaimed her sketchbook from Jorthen. “He's been so quiet lately.”

“Quiet? Sohrem?” Jorthen chuckled and looked upwards. “The sky isn't falling. He must be doing all his talking when he's alone.”

“That's not fair,” Shaetha snapped.

Jorthen blinked wordlessly at her outburst.

Shaetha 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.”

“It's all right. I suppose I was out of line.”

Shaetha 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?”

Jorthen 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.”

Shaetha looked away. “How long have you known him, exactly?”

“Three years. I met him around the time he enlisted.”

She frowned. “But he's a Shamindo. How could he enlist in the Reshan Guard?”

“I guess he had connections.” Jorthen shrugged again and pulled a canteen from his belt, then lifted the cap and took a long drink.

Shaetha swallowed hard. “What's in that?”

Jorthen 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.”

Shaetha released the breath she'd been holding and blushed. “I'm sorry. It's just, after everything–”

“I understand,” Jorthen assured her. He placed the canteen on his belt again. “If I were you, I would ask, too.”

“I didn't really think you would... I mean, I wanted to be sure. But go on.”

Jorthen 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.”

“He didn't have papers or anything?”

Jorthen 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.”

“So how did you know he was telling the truth about any of it? His age, his name, even his race?”

“Well, 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 over him.”

Shaetha bit her lip. “So you think he's a runaway?”

Jorthen 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?”

Shaetha 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.

Jorthen took the hint and stood. “All right. There's no harm in being curious, I suppose.”

“He's 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 all, really.”

He 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.

Shaetha 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.

Yahveh, 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.

She 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 landed...

A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”

Shaetha 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.

But 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?

Footsteps shuffled to her right, and Shaetha slammed the Scriptures shut, eyes wide.

The 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.”

Lehn. Shaetha shook her head and forced a smile for her brother. “It's not your fault – I wasn't paying attention.”

“You must have been fairly engrossed — I called your name three times.”

“Did 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 drawn.”

Lehn 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.”

“I 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?”

“It's better than anything I could do. Yannah must be a good teacher.”

Shaetha quirked a brow.

Lehn 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?”

“Like what?”

“I 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 really disturbed.”

“That's what Jorthen thought, too,” Shaetha said quietly.

Lehn 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.”

“Have 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 realized.”

“I didn't think you had,” Lehn said dryly. His expression contorted, the way it did when he tasted something unpleasant.

“Is 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?”

“We have,” he admitted, then his mouth pulled strangely again. “But it doesn't have anything to do with that. Or not much, anyways.”

Shaetha waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't. “Then what is it?”

Lehn 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...”

She stiffened. “Lehn!”

He spread his hands. “Well, you’ll be sixteen soon. That's eligible.”

“I'm 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.”

“Yes, 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.”

Shaetha 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 me?”

“As... more than a friend. Yes.” He hesitated and searched her face with his brow puckered. “Have you been interested in anyone?”

She 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, his greying 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 for staring. 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.

Lehn fidgeted beside her. “That, um... that wasn't an invitation to look for someone.”

“I just wanted to see if I would feel anything different.”

He scrutinized her. “And do you?”

She 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.”

“And nothing else?”

“I see how sad he is,” she said quietly. “And I feel sorry for him. But nothing... different.”

“And when you look at Jorthen – how about then?”

She reached over to squeeze Lehn’s hand with one of her own. “He’s another traveling companion, nothing more.”

Lehn deflated with relief. “Good.”

Shaetha managed a smile. “You were afraid I was in love with Jorthen?”

He 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.”

“Well, 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.”

“I doubt that. But if he tries to do anything he shouldn't, slap him and scream. I'll be there.”

What 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.”

Lehn 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.”

Shaetha 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.

A soft answer turns away wrath...”

At last, 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.

–––––––

“That must have been a rebellious tent.”

Sheth grunted at Yannah's assertion and continued to rub salve over his hammer-struck fingers. “It was in cahoots with my other tools. Hopefully, I can get through my chores without dying.”

Yannah smirked and held out a metal cup. “Here. Drink this.”

He 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?”

“I 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 about you.”

Sheth 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 me?”

Yannah's 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?”

“No, 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.”

“I'm glad.”

Sheth took another drink, then noticed Yannah’s pinched expression and distant look. “What, did you put poison in my cup?”

She smiled faintly and shook her head. “No. It's just... I'm worried about you, too.”

He sighed and set the hot drink next to the tent. “Yannah, I'm fine, really. I'm just tired.”

“Jorthen says you've volunteered for a night watch.”

“I'm 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.”

“That's what I mean,” Yannah said. “You're not yourself. You've been short with everyone, even Sern and... with me.”

Sheth winced. “I don't mean to be.”

“I know that, but not everyone does.”

He 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?”

A 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.”

Sheth 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 most.

But then a thought crept into his mind that spoiled it all.

He 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?”

Her light brown hair became even more tousled as she nodded against his tunic. “Anything.”

“Does 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.”

Yannah's 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.”

“I 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 it.”

Yannah 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 me?”

“No, I... I don't mean that. I'm surprised, that's all. Most relationships don’t move this quickly.”

Yannah crossed her arms. “Well, ours did. Is that such a bad thing?”

“No! 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.”

She 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?”

“I 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.”

Yannah bit her cheek, then sighed. “We can discuss it on the way home.”

Sheth winced again. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make things... you know...”

“Difficult,” she said quietly. “I know.”

“We'll discuss it before we get to Delnam. I promise.”

Yannah nodded and peered further into the camp. “I'd better check on Shaetha. She's probably given up on me by now.”

Sheth nodded. “All right.”

Silence 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 grey by some lighting and different colors of clothing. Except for the length of her hair, nothing about her had physically changed.

But yet so much else had changed.

Sheth forced himself to turn back to the tent, and prayed for Yahveh to guide his thoughts as he got back to work.

–––––––

There 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.

As long as they had those supplies, their origins did not matter.

Footsteps 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.

Two 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.

The 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.

Zarea 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.

Voices 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 last, she perceived that they came from the tent beside her.

“Having 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 passed her.

Another man sighed. “I think I'd do a better job with it if I could read a book on the subject, at least.”

Zarea 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 view.

She ducked further 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 it.

The Kheleth did not seem to see her, and instead looked down at his hand and grimaced. “Great. I thought that was dirt there.”

“That 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.

Bad idea. If she distracted herself, even for calming purposes, then she would be slow to escape, should they see her. She watched the Kheleth again.

“Sern's not a physician. He's a soldier and a scholar. I should know.”

“Well, 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.”

The salves. 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 stomach.

But she had no choice.

A 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.

But if they saw her and captured her... what then?

She would have to come back later.

No. I need the salve now. I need to take it back and...

But 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 enough?

No. It wouldn't. She would have to come back after nightfall, when they were complacent and preparing for sleep, and take the salve then.

The 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.”

There was no more room for cowardice or foolish hope that an easier option would present itself. She would get the medicine tonight, no matter what.





<>











Chapter Two



It 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.

At 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.

Not everyone is like your brother.”

Images from the past crept to the edge of his consciousness. He shut his eyes, willed them to leave, but they came all the same.

A 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.”

A nuisance... You shouldn't be here... A nuisance...”

He 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.

It was a decision, and it was his own. He still had to get used to the idea.

A 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.

He 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?

The silence stretched, and he questioned his own sanity at seeking to end it. “I know you're back there.”

For 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 interrupt.”

“It’s 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.”

“I...” 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.”

“And?”

She frowned. “And what?”

“So 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?”

“I 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?”

“Does it matter?”

“It matters to me.”

“Well, 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 sorry” 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?

Something moved to his right, and he blinked when Shaetha sat down beside him, not at the edge, but near it.

For some reason, the proximity bothered him, and he pulled back. “What?”

“I'm sorry I sketched you without your permission.” She bit her lip yet again. “Will you forgive me?”

Forgive? 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.”

The 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 story.

But instead, she stayed seated, gaze fixed on him.

He tried not to squirm. “What, are you analyzing me for another portrait?”

“I'm just trying to figure it out,” she said softly. “Why are you afraid of me?”

He locked eyes with her, and his jaw tightened automatically. “I am not afraid.”

Another 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 away.

“I don't believe you.”

He 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.

He looked down and clamped his jaw until he was sure it would break. A familiar blankness fell over him, and he let it fall. It was a comfortable thing, a safe thing.

Safety. That was all that mattered, really. So what was his problem?

I'm in my own way, he thought, 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.

He 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.

What played through his mind's eye was different. At first, 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 bigger...

His 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.

A whisper echoed through his mind. “You have been chosen...”

They 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...

He 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.

And she was here for him.

Tears 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...”

No. 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?


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-33 show above.)