By Sarah D. Silvey
* * *
Copyright © 2016, Sarah Silvey
Annali strode into the throne room, her footsteps muffled by the thick gold carpeting. She knew better than to show fear.
Golden braziers lined the hall, their inexhaustible flames rendered smokeless by Other’s magic, cutting the chill in the cavernous stone room. A tall flight of stairs led to a landing on which was perched the Empress’s ornate red throne. At her back was the wall, to prevent anyone from creeping up on her from behind. It was mostly a formality; no human would be able to approach her undetected, and few Others would dare. The stairs gave the empress’s position a dizzyingly lofty feel, but it did not have the intended effect on Annali. Instead of awe, it only filled her with envy.
This was a secret meeting. The Empress had sent her guardsmen to fetch her in the dead of night. Annali could only guess at her reasons; the one thing she knew for sure was that she would have to keep a close guard on her tongue. There were few Others as powerful as herself, but if she showed the slightest disrespect, the old crone would crumple her up and cast her aside like a paper toy. There were plenty of other thralls for the empress to choose from. This was either a magnificent opportunity or the end of her existence.
She wore a silken wrap of fine make, the bright yellow contrasting beautifully with the dark hue of her skin, but the Empress’s wrap shamed her own. It was bejeweled beyond imagining, glittering magnificently in the candlelight when she shifted in her seat. Gorgeous though the trappings were, they were only trappings.
What did impress her was the woman’s power. Annali had the ability to sense its strength, and the intensity of it was distracting.
She halted before the steps, sank to her knees, and bowed deeply, her forehead close to the floor.
“Arise,” the Empress commanded.
She stood and looked up to meet the Other’s eye, though she had to crane her neck to do it. The old crone hadn’t bothered with a glamor; the creature’s true face looked down on her thrall. Wrinkles lined her forehead and sagged her jowls. No matter how clever that mind might be, there was no denying the age of her human body. Her power would need a new vessel soon. Annali silently promised herself that she would be around when that time came.
“I have a task for you,” the Other said. Her yellow eyes glowered down at younger woman, sizing her up, even as she sent out invisible waves that scoured her thrall’s mind. Annali allowed the invasion, but held parts of herself back, trying to control what the Empress saw.
“You are strong,” she mused as she pressed against the mental barriers Annali had thrown up. “But do not think you can fool me.”
A great wave of energy pressed against Annali’s mind. This was a test. She steeled herself against the assault, but it increased more, and more, until a sharp pain throbbed in the center of her head. Instinctively she knew that if she did not relent, she would die.
She’d never had to relent to anyone before. Part of her would rather die than let her in; but that was her human pride pulling at her. Shoving it aside, she let the Empress break through. It was painful in more ways than one. She winced as the Empress tore through her mind and rifled carelessly through the memories. She saw all the Others she had killed to get as strong as she was, her penchant for torture, her disgust at the Empress’s age, her envy for the Empress’s position.
It seemed to go on for a lifetime, but at last the assault ended, and Annali was alone in her own mind once more. A trickle of blood threatened to drip out of her nose. Closing her eyes, she pushed the blood back into the veins and healed the broken blood vessels with only a little concentration. Head injuries were harder to heal than most, especially on oneself, but she was more than capable. She would not allow the Empress to see her bleed.
“You are clever,” the Empress said. “But are you clever enough?”
“There is a town across the desert, far to the West where humans run wild. Its name is Cumbry. I want everyone there destroyed.”
Annali bowed again to acknowledge the command. “You will not be disappointed in me, Empress.”
“Stay down,” the Empress barked. “You could use some humbling.”
It rankled within her to do it, but she bowed deeper than before, even going so low as to touch her forehead to the rough carpeting.
She cackled rustily. “Maybe you are clever after all.”
The crone paused in her conversation, taking time to shift unhappily in her seat. When she got comfortable, she said, “Hear me well. Do not let one soul survive.”
She leaned forward to give her words greater weight, and even at this distance Annali could smell a trace of her breath wafting from the dais down to the floor where she still bowed. It reeked of decay.
“Prove your worth to me by doing this, and you will be given a position of high power. You may rise.”
Annali schooled her face to be as blank as she could, but she couldn’t keep some of the disgust out of her eyes as she obeyed.
“You are dismissed,” the Empress said.
She bowed once more, then turned and walked back through the braziered hall, past the row of towering guardsmen with their red and white painted masks. When the thick stone doors shut the Empress’s prying out, she finally allowed herself to think about what she had just learned. Cross the desert to destroy a town? This was more than a test. If she’d wanted to test Annali she could have put her through her paces right there, in whatever way she saw fit.
Did she want her dead? Sending someone through the desert was nearly a death sentence as it was. But if the Empress had wanted such a thing, all she would have had to do was think it and Annali would be rendered a smear on the wall for the servants to clean up.
There was no question about it: she was being used. But to what end?
She retrieved her blue cloak from the servant at the door, scanning it carefully for any changes: a burr, a spider, a poisoned dart. She had eliminated Others stronger than herself with hidden poison before, and an Other of her caliber had to be on the lookout for assassination attempts at all hours, in all places. Today she detected nothing; today her cloak was safe. Wrapping it around her shoulders, she stepped out of the door into the city.
There was something more going on here than what she had been told. For now, she daren’t disobey the Empress. All she could do was play her part. Killing an entire town would be fun, at least; rarely were they given leave to such high-profile acts of destruction.
Even more interesting was what she had learned about the Empress herself. The creature was slipping. She should have hidden her true form from Annali. Now Annali knew that her aged, fragile body was a liability. Annali intended to exploit that liability. For a while longer would she play the obedient little thrall; by the time the Empress realized her mistake, Annali would steal her strength and seat herself on the red throne.
BOOK I: The Finding
Sienna lay on her back on her ferry and waited for the sunrise. There was silence here at least. She breathed deeply and watched the blue on the horizon lighten through the trees. She loved to get up early, while the air was still crisp, and feel the gentle rocking motions of the raft. The sound of the water slapping underneath her and the creaking of the rope only served to accent the quiet. Her ferry was nothing more than a raft, large enough to hold four men, or one man and a horse. A rope ran through the ferry and connected to a block and tackle pulley mounted on posts on either shore, which kept her from being swept away by the current, as well as being the means by which she would pull the raft across the water.
She kept the pulleys smooth and oiled so that her strength could to carry any travelers across. Wagons with oxen did not pass through this way; there was a bridge several miles down for them, on the main road. People who were important enough to own wagons did not have business with the little town of Cumbry.
In half an hour, the townsfolk would wake up. People would call to one another, talk about this and that, curse at their geese and goats. The dogs would bark at the children, the children would step on the geese, the geese would honk and flee. Morning would lose its sacred silence. The men or women of Cumbry would come her way with the chatter they always carried amongst themselves, and she would pull them across for a copper or two, and they would pay her no more mind.
She knew what they thought of her. No decent young woman, in their minds, would live alone on the edge of the Red River and ferry people across for coppers. It was dangerous, living alone so near the woods, so far from the safety of the ruins. They wanted her to find a woman’s job waiting tables at the inn or making the beds. She was supposed to become part of the noise. She should get married to a young man in the village and have lots of children so she could spend her time chasing them around with a dishrag in her hand, scolding the dog for barking at the children, scolding the children for stepping on the geese, scolding the geese for getting in her way.
But she couldn’t. They were happier without her, though they didn’t know it. She was safe, and so were they.
Ah… that was the Other. It was the reason she craved solitude. It often broke into her thoughts like this, especially when she was pleasantly losing herself to the moment. No matter how alone she was, the Other was always inside her head. Sometimes it would respond unbidden as it just had, and sometimes she would call on it and it would remain silent. But always it was there, in the back of her mind.
The Other was the reason why she abstained from socializing. She might be having a perfectly genial chat with someone as she rowed him across, until Other whispered what he was thinking into her ear. The things it told her usually made her want to stop talking. When she did manage to keep up a conversation, it was difficult to remember what she was supposed to know and what she wasn’t. Her acquaintance might be telling her one story, but the Other would be telling a different version even as they spoke. People often lied, but the Other didn’t. She knew more secrets than anybody.
She sat up to see just as the customer rang the bell. The bell was only for form’s sake; the Other always told her when someone was near before they even had a chance to ring it. Grabbing the ropes, she pulled the ferry over to meet the stranger.
It was a woman, she could tell that much from her shape. But everything else about her was concealed by a soft blue cloak of a strange cut, the hood pulled low to obscure her face.
She stepped onto the ferry without a word, and Sienna was glad there was no need for her to force a conversation. Instead she heaved on the ropes in the opposite direction, drawing the raft across the river. As she pulled, she found herself stealing glances back at this newcomer who stood sphinxlike behind her. There was something odd about this woman, but the Other kept still, despite her curiosity. Sienna realized she was actively asking the Other and made herself stop. She didn’t need to know. She didn’t want to know.
The woman raised her head, catching one of Sienna’s stolen glances in the act, and it was all Sienna could do to keep from gasping in astonishment. Her skin shone a deep brownish-black where it touched the sun. She’d never seen anyone that color before. The deep tones in her skin only accented her eyes, which were as yellow as lemons, nearly glowing from under her hood. She was the most beautiful woman Sienna had ever seen.
At that moment, the Other did something Sienna didn’t expect. It allowed her to feel the woman’s soul. It was smooth as glass, almost slippery, and so dark she could hardly sense it. Turning hastily away with only a minimal hitch in the rhythm of her pulling, Sienna focused her eyes on the ropes and considered her options.
Never in her life had she seen a soul as inhuman as the one behind her right now. She had to do something, but what could she do? Sienna imagined trying to pull the knife from her boot and stab at her, but just thinking about it made her heart skip a beat. It wouldn’t work. She couldn’t explain what it was exactly, but she held an aura of power that made Sienna’s clumsily wielded knife feel a flimsy weapon.
The ferry had never felt so small before.
Before she could make any decisions, they hit the opposite bank. The woman dropped a half-copper on the warped boards of the ferry and stepped onto the land, a trace of a smile on her face as she brushed past. It was an insult twice over. First that she hadn’t had the decency to hand her the coin, and second that it was only half the fee she normally charged. But Sienna hardly had the courage to speak, much less confront the woman. All she could do was watch the monster slither over the bank and toward town. She wanted to chase her down and challenge her, or rush ahead and warn the folk. But there was nothing for it. The people thought her crazy enough as it was; what would they say if she ran down there spouting nonsense about evil women with strange skin? There was nothing she could tell them; all she had to warn them was her word, and her word was already in shaky standing with the people of Cumbry as it was. Her lessons had been hard learned to keep her mouth shut about what the Other told her. Odds were that the woman was only passing through, and wouldn’t hurt anyone anyway. Somebody that exotic couldn’t possibly have business with this town.
The coin glinted at her.
Don’t touch it, the Other said. She agreed. Angrily she pushed the copper off of the raft with the tip of her boot. She might not be able to stop the woman, but she didn’t have to take her money either. What a coward she was.
The sun climbed the sky and a few more people passed through: ordinary townsfolk, farmers come in from around the area, men and women she saw every day who kept the pleasantries with her to a bare minimum. They might have had wooden eyes for all they saw. They hadn’t the faintest awareness that there was a murderess in their midst.
It was nearly noon when she felt something sinister brush by her consciousness, like a bad odor on a breeze. She studied her surroundings alertly, but there was nothing to see, and it was gone before she could even try to pinpoint the source. Was trouble brewing? As clodheaded as the people here were, they were her clodheaded people; they hardly deserved that woman brought down upon their heads.
She tried to let it go, but it niggled at her. The town was noisy and ignorant as always; everything was business as usual. The river kept running, and the geese kept honking, and the people kept up their usual mundane conversations. She had just decided that she was getting paranoid when the bell on the opposite shore rang, making her start.
The Other hadn’t said a word.
A man stood, still and patient, on the opposite bank, awaiting passage into Cumbry. This day was only getting weirder; she didn’t often see strangers, and here were two in one day. One thing was for sure; she would not make the same mistake twice. She would not let every criminal with a copper buy his way into her town.
Standing to take the ropes, she asked the Other about him, and it tried to respond… but all it could manage was a strained silence. That had never happened before. Planting her boots on the raft, she pulled the ferry toward the opposite side, studying him, trying to make a judgment call without the Other’s help. He was slender in the way of a steel blade or a flexible switch of willow. There was a sword strapped to his back and a dagger at his side. He was no taller than most men, but he stood well enough that he gave an illusion of extra height.
She took her time reaching the opposite shore, but it arrived despite her best efforts, her Other giving her no information at all. The man stepped aboard, his soft-soled boots hardly making a sound on the hollow wooden planks. His face was angular, smooth, and stern, with prominent cheekbones made even more pronounced by a harsh lack of fat. His eyes were so pale as to be almost white, the irises limned in deep blue. He couldn’t be much older than she was, but his expression was a thousand years beyond her.
Again she felt the strange sensation of her Other trying and failing to get any information. Somehow, this man defied her Other. How was that possible?
“What’s the fare?” His voice was quiet and even, but it sent a chill down her back.
She bolstered her courage. He might look like death incarnate, but she was not letting any more horrible people into Cumbry without putting up some kind of a fight.
“Two silvers,” she said. “If it’s too much, you can take the bridge downriver.” She didn’t mention that it was six miles away. If he took the bridge, there was a good chance he might avoid Cumbry altogether.
The man pulled two silvers from a black leather purse at his belt and gave them to her without batting an eye.
Now that he had paid the fare, she had no choice but to start pulling the ropes. She crossed to the back of the ferry so that she could keep her eye on him as she pulled, though it made the raft tilt. The man didn’t face ahead like most people would; instead he faced toward her, his back to the approaching shore, his unblinking eyes watching her every move. She might return his money and refuse to let him cross, but she knew that it would do no good. If he was truly determined, all he had to do was slit her throat and take the ferry across himself. Why wouldn’t the Other answer her? Seeming to hear her question, it made another failed attempt to communicate, but this time she was able to pinpoint the source of the suppression. He had a necklace hidden under his shirt. An amulet of some kind.
The silent intensity of his stare made her self-conscious, and an awkward blush heated her cheeks. She had to say something, with them facing each other like this.
“Why do you carry a sword into town?” Her tone came off more accusing than offhand. She didn’t mean to sound so rude; she was going to get herself killed.
“Why do you keep a knife in your boot?” He responded coolly. Of course he could tell she had a knife. He was a fighter, trained to notice such things. Ask a stupid question, she thought.
Unable to think of anything else to say, she resorted to staring back at him. Most of his clothes were black, well-kept and of modest make, with a touch of simple silver embroidery on the sleeves. It looked like a uniform of some kind; perhaps he was a guard in Tio. His cloak was thicker than the season called for, and had once been a rich shade of purple but was fading yellow along the shoulders from long hours under the sun. It had been carefully mended several times. He had a knife in his boot in addition to the blades she had noticed earlier. She’d never seen anyone so well armed.
She had pulled as slow as she was able, but they still reached the bank, and she knew no more than she had before. Anxiety welled inside her; she was letting another murderer into Cumbry. She was doing the cowardly thing again.
The man released her from his stare and regarded the town. Facing away from her, his sword on his back and his spine straight, she saw him in a different light. He looked fearless, braced for battle. But he also looked alone; terribly alone. His chest expanded and fell in a silent sigh as he prepared to debark. Something about that sigh made her sad for him.
He leaped lightly ashore and started to walk toward Cumbry.
Sienna felt low; without the aid of her Other, she had misjudged him. He had taken her slights with impunity, he had paid her exorbitant fee without complaint, he had responded fairly to her accusing question. He had tolerated her unjust treatment with patience. Just because he was intimidating did not mean he was evil.
“Wait!” she called, hopping ashore after him. He turned, a question in his eyes, and rejoined her with cautious steps.
Sienna reached into her purse and made change for the unfair fee she’d charged him, then held it out, her arm outstretched, not getting any closer than she had to.
“I only charge a copper, normally. You frightened me, but I shouldn’t have acted the way I did.”
He studied her face for so long that she regretted her compassionate impulse. He should have apologized back; she wasn’t the only one who had been rude.
“Here,” she said shortly, gesturing toward him with the change.
The change in his face was subtle. Though it was still as stone, she could see laughter behind his icy eyes. “No offense taken,” he said, and turned away, leaving her standing there like a fool with her arm out and money still in her hand. He broke into a smooth, easy lope toward town, and did not look back.
Sienna bit down her anger. What was that? She had an urge to throw this, too, into the water, before she had to stop and laugh at herself. It was a wonder she made enough to eat as it was; she didn’t need to start throwing money into the river every time she felt she’d been insulted. Putting the change in her pouch, she decided to count herself lucky he hadn’t stabbed her for overcharging him in the first place.
* * *
Brennan continued along Annali’s trail. The girl at the ferry was a mystery, but he had bigger problems right now.
Annali was only a few hours ahead of him.
At first it appeared that she was heading straight into the heart of Cumbry, and he dreaded to find another horribly tattered corpse in her wake. Instead he was relieved to see that her trail diverged from the main road and circled the outskirts of the village. She knew he was following her, but she made no efforts to hide from him. Her lack of regard might have been intended as an insult, but if it was then she didn’t know the Darcean knights very well.
Why would she not go through the center of town? She’d had no qualms about going through settlements much larger than this. Could this tiny little village be her destination? What could she possibly hope to gain from this place?
He took extra caution when he plunged into the woods after her; a trail this obvious might not be disdain at all; it might be a trap. Even if her footsteps had not left such clear imprints in the soft mud and wet leaves, he could sense the spell she was working through his amulet. The sun shone through the trees where the townsfolk had made a clearing for their homes; the smell of water permeated the air. Cumbry was nestled in a crook of the river, and the water came around again on the opposite side of town. It was this section of the river she was heading for; the section upstream from Cumbry. It provided a clear view of the entire town. He spied her blue robe through the trees and slowed to a soundless pace. One small crackle of leaves, one twig snap, one startled deer dashing her way, and he would be dead. She came into better view as he crept around behind her. She stood straight, the deep blue of her robe contrasting against the brown-gray bark of the trees, her hood thrown back to expose her dark face. Her arms were straight, lifted to either side palms upward, and her eyes were closed. His amulet was warm from the strength of her spell. She was up to a large kind of mischief if she was in a trance like this. He only hoped he was in time to stop it. Pulling his dagger from his boot, he stalked sideways, searching for a place where no trees would come between his dagger and Annali, funneling will into his amulet to keep himself invisible her power. No ordinary man would have seen or heard him, but it took extra care to sneak up on an Other, especially one in a trance. Speed and stealth were his best allies now.
There; the trees parted, giving him a clear view of the back of her head, her tight braid revealing where the base of her skull met her spine. Pulling back his hand, he made ready to throw the dagger. It was an easy shot for him, even at this distance, but he couldn’t afford to miss, so he exhaled quietly to steady his body, finding his center.
Ready, he whipped his wrist and tried to release his fingers. But his body did not respond; it remained immobilized, frozen in place. An invisible barrier had solidified around him. She knew he was there. Despite his amulet, she had found him. He focused his will to break the spell, but nothing happened. The spell wasn’t aimed at him; it was aimed at the air around him, so there was nothing he could do to fight it.
The Other lowered her hands and turned to face him, yellow eyes flashing open. She smiled a half-smile when she saw her pursuer. There was no artifice to her appearance as there had been when she’d gone through previous towns; she had cast her disguise away. Now her pupils could be plainly seen; they were slitted as a cat’s, betraying her inhumanity.
She saw his confusion and her smile widened. “Surprised? You’ve been fighting raw Others, untrained and hopeless creatures. Any properly trained Other can work around your Order’s amulets.” She paced around him, examining him from all sides. He could turn his head, but he didn’t; that would look like fear. By the time she passed into his field of vision again, her expression had changed to annoyance. “They sent a boy to do the work of a hundred men,” she said, ripping his dagger out of his hand and throwing it aside. “You shouldn’t be out this late, child.” She took a step back and folded her arms. “Kneel before your better.”
He felt himself forced to his knees, but he kept his calm. She would have no satisfaction out of him.
She leaned in close to his face. He could smell the Other in her; it was faint, but it fell off her skin warm and sickly sweet. “I want you to know before you die, that because you failed, this whole town is going to be destroyed. How many people live here? Sixty? Eighty? Does that bother you?”
He couldn’t let her get him angry; anger would cloud thoughts. He wasn’t afraid of death. But he and his Order was all that stood between humanity and the tyranny of Others. He pressed with all he had against the barriers that held him back, testing its limits, looking for a hole.
“Ooh, aren’t you mad?” she said. “I like a boy with a little bite to him. I could have a lot of fun with you, but I just don’t have any more time to play.”
The air constricted around his throat. Brennan tried again to break the hold, but he couldn’t budge a hair. Annali watched intently as his eyes widened. Her cheeks flushed with excitement.
Black spots danced before him. As much as she was obviously enjoying this, she had to watch him to make sure he was dead. He had one chance, maybe. The creature might be able to control the air around him, but she still couldn’t see into his mind or body. He mimicked death throes against his bonds, then collapsed. Still the pressure around his throat remained, the blood pounding in his head. His lungs burned. Everything in him wanted to fight for air, but he concentrated on relaxing through and controlling the spasms. The Order had taught him perfect willpower to defend his mind against intrusion. Now he had to turn that willpower against his own body. But it wasn’t enough; she didn’t let him go. She could see his pulse. He had to go deeper.
Brennan fell into another state of mind. His heart slowed, then stopped, and he held it there in suspension. His hands itched to claw at his neck. His vision went from speckles of twinkling light to muddy brown, and he slumped, his eyes glassy and unseeing. He could only keep this up for a few seconds before he would really die, but there was no other way to fool her.
She wasn’t letting go early. She was going to make sure. He felt himself being thrown through the air, his limbs as cold as wet rags, and he tried to will his heart back into action even as he lost consciousness.
* * *
As the sun finally set and Sienna carried the last of the farmers back into town from their land over the river, she felt another brush of foreboding, stronger this time.
She had decided that when the day ended, she would check on her town, ask some questions, make sure everyone was all right. Though they had their doubts about her, she knew them inside and out, and she felt a degree of responsibility for them, especially as she was the one who’d let the strangers through.
She fastened a padlock to the pulley on the ferry to secure it from being used in her absence, then she walked into the town toward Tom’s. If there was any place in town to get news, Tom’s was it. He made a good brown beer and had an easy manner that went well with everyone. She didn’t like to linger for long there, because emotions ran so high in the drunks their thoughts were often louder than her own. Still, she tried to go once a week to drink a glass of Tom’s beer. It was good for her to be around people, even if they didn’t want her there. Sitting with them helped remind her that she was as human as they were.
She pushed in the oak door and felt relief at the normalcy of it. The smell of stale beer and thunk of wooden mugs on wooden tables was the same as ever. The usual men were having their drunken arm-wrestling contest in the corner. Two large, rough-hewn tables with benches filled the small room, and a low, heavy bar lined one wall. Tom’s family slept in the back. A merry fire gave the place a warm glow while Tom himself stood behind the bar, filling a mug from a keg on the wall.
—like to touch those thighs. I wonder what color her—, the Other whispered. She looked and saw dirty old Mick ogling her like he always did. Self-conscious under his unflinching drunken stare, she sat down at the bar, let down her auburn hair, and re-tied it.
“Sienna!” a small voice cried out, and Sienna softened at the tone. Ellen was Tom’s four-year-old daughter. She was supposed to stay in the back or play outside, and her mother would periodically appear and take her away, but she always ended up back in the bar. For some reason Sienna could never fathom, Ellen liked her; maybe it was because so few women found their way into the tavern. Today Ellen showed her enthusiasm by climbing up the chair and onto her lap.
“Hey,” Sienna said, a smile finding its way to her face despite her concerns. Ellen turned to face Sienna, kneeling on her. Her small knees dug sharply into the meat of her thigh; Sienna shifted her a bit to get the pressure onto softer places. The girl was all elbows and knees; skinny as a twig, and her dresses never seemed to fit her right. No other child could be quite so knobbly and uncomfortable on her lap as this one.
The day that this graceless little girl learned the correct behavior toward her, Sienna might no longer feel the need to come to the tavern. But for now, Sienna only heard one voice when Ellen spoke; the girl was pure honesty.
“I made this,” Ellen said. She took it off her neck and held it out to Sienna. It was an old snail shell on a string. She could see the snail’s body silhouetted in the candlelight, dead and withered, through the shell.
“It’s nice,” Sienna lied.
“You can have it,” Ellen said, and put it around Sienna’s neck, poking her in the eye with her small warm fingers as she pulled the string down over her face.
Sienna rubbed her eye. Specks of something fell off of the necklace and rolled down between her breasts. She told herself it was dirt and not desiccated snail bits.
Tom came up, eying the two of them.
“Get off her lap, Ellen. I’ve told you before not to bother patrons.” He pointed at her, attempting fierceness, until she climbed down, then faced Sienna. “What’ll you have? Mindy’s roasted some potatoes, and there’s a little chicken left.”
Sienna considered this. Tom’s wife made good food. She should have been ravenous, not having eaten since breakfast. But instead she was all nerves.
“Just a beer, Tom.”
As he filled her mug from the keg behind him, she ventured, “I was wondering if there was any news in town.”
Tom thought about this as he topped off her beer and set it on the bar in front of her. He always spoke deliberately around her.
—Here we go again, another crazy conversation with Sienna.—
After his moment of careful consideration, he said, “Funny you should ask today. Old Sanderson came in just this morning.”
Sienna’s gut dropped. Something horrible had happened, she was sure of it. Tom leaned forward onto his forearms and looked her in the face; rarely did he show this much intensity.
“He said he hatched a chick with three legs.”
That wasn’t quite the kind of news she was looking for. An awkward guffaw escaped her, and Tom leaned back, looking at her under his bushy eyebrows.
—never know what she’ll do or how she’ll react—
She forced her face straight and said, “Is that all?”
He cocked one of his eyebrow at her and said, “Is that all? Three legs? That’s news enough for me. You know something I don’t?”
She wasn’t sure what to tell him. Would a warning make any difference? It was always safer not to tell these things; if the strangers hadn’t hurt anybody, maybe… but even as she tried to convince herself, the dark feeling resurfaced: a sense of dread, the approach of death. And just as quickly, it passed. If only she knew what to do. “I ferried some strange people across the river today,” she tried.
Tom began wiping out the wooden mugs with a dishtowel, attempting to look casual. “Strange like what?”
“Strange like… well, I saw a woman come through whose skin was darker than this bar.” She rapped her knuckles on it for emphasis.
Ellen chimed in from Sienna’s side, “Are there really people with black skin?”
Tom looked vexed. “Shouldn’t you be in bed, little one?”
“No,” she said, and walked quickly off toward the back room.
“Go to bed, Ellen,” he called after her, but without any real energy behind it. He turned back to Sienna. “Ain’t heard of any black women in town.”
“No strangers at all?”
“Nobody black, blue, or green. Maybe she just passed by.”
Sienna thought for a minute, then sighed. “That’s good. I didn’t like the look of that woman. I guess I was just afraid she’d cause trouble.”
Tom shrugged and said, “I’ll keep an eye out for her.” But he didn’t look at her.
He thinks you mad, the Other said. He wants you to leave his daughter alone.
Sienna suddenly felt tired. She got up, leaving him two coppers for the beer and a half-copper for the news. “Thanks, Tom.”
When walking back to her cottage through the cooling air of twilight, she felt the dark foreboding grip her heart again.
Danger, the Other said. She glanced wildly around, but once again, everything appeared normal. Just as abruptly, the feeling slid away. It had been stronger this time; it was a little stronger each time it happened. What did it mean?
She got to her cottage safely and locked the door behind her. It was only one room, with a fireplace her father had built himself, a table that she had helped sand smooth, and a bed stuffed with straw. She built up a fire and stared at it, nibbling thoughtfully on some bread she’d had set aside.
It had been an extraordinary day. She picked the soft center of her bread out of the crust as she mulled it over. That man had an amulet that could block her Other. If it could do that, it might have been made with that purpose in mind. And if it was made with that purpose in mind, that meant there were more people like her. Maybe he was like her; maybe he had his own Other. Maybe that was why he had looked at her so strangely.
She had been ferrying all her life, and she had met a lot of people, but this was the first time she could remember encountering something that even suggested there might be more people like her. And she hadn’t realized it for what it was, and let it pass. The opportunity was wasted. All day she had consistently made the wrong choices. She had let a murderess into her town, made the most influential man in town, the barkeep, think her crazier than ever, and offended the only person she’d ever met who might know more about people like herself.
Others like herself. She didn’t dare to hope. It would be almost as if she had gained a family again. People who would know what it is like to live with the thoughts of strangers in their heads, keeping their secrets. Maybe they knew a better way to keep one’s sanity. Maybe they knew how to turn it off at will.
Almost on cue, the dark foreboding rested on her heart again. This was bad. Whatever was coming, was bad. It was building, but nothing had happened yet. Maybe she could stop it. Maybe… but she didn’t even know where to begin, what direction to walk. Usually the safest thing to do was to not interfere. Every time she tried to do anything she only managed to muck things up, and people were always better off without her meddling, especially where the Other was concerned. So maybe she had better keep her hands out of this. She tried to doze in front of her fire, but she couldn’t shut her eyes long enough for the flames to fade from her vision.
* * *
Brennan awoke on the ground. It was night already; he cursed himself for his weakness and staggered to a stand. He shouldn’t have remained unconscious for so long. He had a lump on his head where he must have landed when she tossed him away. Once on his feet, he felt his body try to stagger, but he forced his spine straight. His throat was raw, inside and out. He coughed and spat; the spittle was pink with blood. It could be worse. He could be dead.
Annali was no longer in the area. His amulet was warm with the residuals of the spell she had worked. This Other was too powerful for him to defeat alone; he had never encountered an Other he could not best before. He had to go back to the Order and tell them what happened. He would need help in taking her down.
She had said that she was going to destroy the town. Any minute now, whatever was building would come crashing down on these people; but it hadn’t happened yet. The town was still there. A dog was barking, and he could see a candle burning in one of the houses. How long did he have? How long did everyone have?
He couldn’t fight what she had done if he didn’t know what it was. Cumbry was so small, it didn’t even have an alarum to ring or a stronghold in which to hide. How could he alert the people? He could stand in the streets and shout that mutants were coming. He could set a house on fire. But those things wouldn’t make them flee the town; it would only make them band together. He searched his amulet and felt the enormity of what was coming. It was being held at bay, whatever it was. Annali had worked on it all day, and was probably trying to get clear of the area before she unleashed it. He knew in his heart that knowledge of this thing, or banding together against it, would not ensure survival. Running was the only option.
Perhaps he could break in, kidnap some people, and carry them bodily away. If he got a mob after him, he might get them out of town. But the river would hamper everyone.
His amulet thrummed with the echoed power of what was building, still building around him. He had no time to awaken the town. He had no time for anything. This Other had just bested him twice over.
* * *
Sienna woke to a knocking at her door. What time was it? It was still dark outside; she couldn’t have been asleep for long.
Again came the insistent knocking.
“Who is it?” She asked, feigning sleepiness.
“I need to cross the river,” a man called through the door.
She asked her Other who it was, but it did not respond, and by that she knew him. He sounded hoarse. Was he injured?
“I don’t run people across after dark,” she said to the door. Opening the door for a stranger in the middle of the night was the first thing a woman did not do when she lived alone, especially when she couldn’t count on her Other to read his intentions. Maybe he really did want to cross the river, but she couldn’t risk it. Was it really so urgent that he couldn’t wait until daylight?
He didn’t answer at first; she could sense indecision in his silence.
“Then I’ll break the lock and ferry myself across,” he said. Though his footsteps were inaudible, the sound of his voice moved away from her as he spoke. He was walking off.
The scoundrel! Not on her watch. She’d ordered that lock from a merchant who passed through Tio; it was iron, and expensive. Though it was strong, she had no doubt that this man could break it. He seemed capable of anything he might put his mind to. With a tinge of nervousness, she opened the door and stepped outside. Instantly, dark forebodings assailed her. She could feel it on the night air now, thrumming with danger and making her very jumpy. She looked around and saw the man a few steps away, watching her. Was he the danger? He was certainly dangerous, but not in the way that she was feeling. The warning echoed all the way to her bones; this was no person that she was sensing, however dangerous he might be. It was something larger than that.
“What happened to you?” Sienna said. She tried to sound as angry as she’d felt when she opened the door, but some of her concern made its way into her voice despite herself.
He looked like he’d taken a spill; there was dirt on one side of his face, his neck was red, and there was a leaf in his hair. He must not have been seriously injured, as he still moved fluidly, and with purpose.
“I don’t have time to explain,” he said, and started walking again. She trotted after him, full of questions, trying to pick one. The Other. She had to ask him about the Other. There was no time and this was the most important question of all.
But she stopped short when she saw that the lock to her ferry had already been broken away. The ferry was drifting forlornly in the middle of the river. Someone had used it while she had slept. Swallowing her umbrage, she gripped the rope and pulled her raft to. As she worked, her foot hit something buried in the grass. She stopped to pick it up.
It was what was left of her lock. It hadn’t been broken as she’d feared. It had been melted as if it were an icicle. The steel had cooled back into shiny drips and puddles of metal; blackened grass and dirt were permanently embedded in it.
How was this possible? Only a forge had enough heat to melt steel, but there was no sign anywhere else of heat damage, much less a fire. She turned to the stranger, open mouthed, but he didn’t appear to be bothered in the slightest; he had taken over her job of pulling the raft to shore.
“My lock,” she managed.
She couldn’t see his face as he pulled. “It doesn’t matter right now,” he said.
He was in a serious hurry. Then again, he was probably right. The dark foreboding was filling her with a sense of urgency as well. She set the melted lock aside to examine later.
The ferry touched shore and they climbed onto it; she started pulling them across while he kept his razor focus on their surroundings.
“What is it?” she asked quietly.
He looked straight through her with his icy white-blue eyes.
“You know what,” he said.
Her stomach lurched unhappily. He was probably the least friendly person she had ever tried to talk to, without even a veneer of politeness.
“Something bad’s coming. I can feel it. Do you feel it, too?” She tried, watching him.
“No,” he almost spat, then reined himself in. “But I know it anyway.”
She tried a new tack. “What’s your name?”
He seemed to soften a little, but his stare did not falter. “Brennan,” he said carefully.
“I’m Sienna,” she said. “Brennan… where did you get that amulet?”
He did not answer and looked anxiously up the river instead. She began pulling harder. She felt it too; it was as if something had snapped somewhere upstream. The thing that she’d felt all day; it would be here any second. It was rushing toward them. They were not safe.
Brennan grabbed the ropes and pulled with her, more than doubling their speed; the rope’s friction burned her fingers. They hit the shore hard; she had to take a staggering step to keep her balance, but Brennan used the impact to leap lightly ashore.
Her chance to ask him about the Other was gone, but it didn’t matter now. Instead she was overcome by a barrage to her mind; the Other was telling her to get off the water, watch out for the water, it’s coming down the water, we’ll die. Brennan looked back at her, a lingering look, she saw again that sadness that so pierced her. Then he faced the hill before them, but he did not move. He had been in such a hurry to cross the river, but now that he had crossed it, he was hesitating.
She had to get back to the safety of her cabin, but something in his distress gave her pause. At that moment, they both shared the same nameless anxiety. In their fear, they were united.
“Brennan,” she called impulsively. He looked back at her again; he seemed to be struggling with a decision. “Be careful,” she said.
To her surprise, he came back and held out one slender hand toward her. “Come with me,” he said. All his cold anger was gone; instead there was an earnest intensity.
“What?” Sienna stared at him. She couldn’t think straight with the Other shouting silently inside her, with the weight of this evil thing eclipsing her mind. Could she trust this strange man? Did she even have time to recross the river and make it back to her house if she didn’t?
“Come with me. You know something bad is going to happen.”
“What about my things…” she wavered, holding her hand half out. She felt the danger pressing on her so hard it made her heart skip beats. It was difficult to breathe.
“There’s no time,” he said. His cool fingers grabbed her hand, unceremoniously tearing her out of the raft with wiry strength, and then they were running away from her ferry, away from Cumbry, up the high hill on the other side of the river. She couldn’t keep up with his pace, and was yanked along with each stride, barely keeping to her feet.
She felt it more than heard it; a heavy rush that shook the earth under her, and a cool wet breeze. It wasn’t something coming down the river. It was the river itself. An enormous twelve-foot swell of black water was rolling down the channel, expanding where the land widened, filling the little valley in which Cumbry was nestled. The heavy mass raged along, blasting through the town at a speed which no man could outrun. It rushed like a great waterfall, a sound so loud it shook her very being and she stumbled more than once with the panicked imagination that the water was chasing her. Angry spray spattered the back of her neck and ankles.
The pull on her hand stopped; they had reached the top of the hill, and Brennan had stopped running. She turned, panting, not wanting to look but not able to stop herself. The river had already smashed her father’s little cottage and was washing the village away even as she watched. The strength of the emotions reached her across the river, flaring up in terror before winking out of existence. She had known the names and the hearts of every soul lost. Sienna screamed and covered her ears, but it was not her ears that heard the cries, and she could not block them out.
As quickly as had happened, it quieted. There were no more emotions to sense out there. Her mind felt empty without the background chatter of distant townsfolk’s thoughts, which she hadn’t even noticed until it was gone. The rushing sound fell away from them; the swell of water escaped the little valley and flooded the fields downriver.
The water subsided, carrying with it shattered rooftops and bits of wood that glistened wetly in the moonlight and collected against the remains of the ancient wall. The ruin had lost significant sections to the water, but it was the only thing still standing; it poked jaggedly through the black currents as the water fell away. The rapids in the water churned and slowed; something small and dark surfaced. Sienna shut her eyes before she could identify whose body it might have been.
All at once she remembered to breathe again, and was able to manage a shuddery intake before becoming vaguely aware that she was sitting, knees bent, in the weeds at the top of the hill. The plants were cold with spray. Her clothes were damp.
She looked for the tavern, but only water now eddied and swirled gently through what, ten minutes ago, was warm, dry, and full of life. She would give her life to have these bullheaded, ignorant people back where they belonged.
“Come on,” Brennan said. His tone was as cold and controlled as she’d ever heard it, but he grabbed under her arm and helped her to her feet gently. “We can’t stay here.”
Sienna followed him, feeling blank. She watched him choose a clearing, strike a tinder, build a fire, and lay his cloak across her shoulders before he sat down without her really being aware of any of it. She couldn’t believe the night was still dark; was it really that morning she had been laying on her ferry, listening to birds?
“Get some sleep,” he said to her. “We start walking to Tio tomorrow.”
“Heaven, Brennan,” Sienna said. “I felt them go. Children, animals, everyone. Just like that.”
Brennan said nothing. He calmly pushed a log into the middle of the fire with the toe of his boot.
His quiet air in the face of the tragedy incensed her. “You knew about it. You could have warned someone,” she said, glaring in his direction. “Why didn’t you?”
“I warned you,” Brennan said, his tone maddeningly reasonable. He wasn’t looking at her; he studied the fire instead.
“Not me,” Sienna said. “Someone else! Couldn’t you see I wasn’t the right choice? I didn’t do anything to help them. I shouldn’t have been the one who made it out of there alive. There were children in that town. People who loved each other.” Aware of her irrational conversation, she sighed and tried to get ahold of herself. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s not even you I’m mad at.”
“I know,” Brennan replied. Abruptly he rose and disappeared into the inky blackness outside the fire, leaving her alone.
Sienna wrapped the cloak tightly around herself and watched the fire miserably. She couldn’t decide which was worse; being alone with the cold night, or being alone with her emotionless new friend.
* * *
Brennan stalked the perimeter of the camp, deep in thought. He stepped over a branch that would have snapped loudly under his foot, then paused to listen as a bird took flight from the dark branches above before resuming his walk, careful to stay just outside the reach of the golden-orange firelight. Here the trees were only black silhouettes.
This had been a bad idea.
He should have left this girl to die with the rest of the town. It was only a matter of time before she turned on him. What would General Garmund say if he could see him now?
He would tell Brennan to kill her, and he would be right. She was dangerous, not only to himself but to everyone who was unlucky enough to come near her. Constantly her Other pried at his amulet, trying to find a way through to work some kind of spell on him. He shouldn’t have brought her. He had been foolishly impulsive.
When she tried to pay him back the silver, he was surprised, to say the least; it showed that she had a conscience. She was still ruled by her human side, a miraculous thing for an Other her age. Still, he had been fully prepared to leave her to the mercy of the water. It was the only logical thing for him to do. But when the moment actually came, and she’d looked at him with her big brown eyes full of real worry and told him to be careful, he had acted on impulse and taken her hand. She had looked so childlike; so human.
But it was a mistake. He had known it then and he knew it now. The longer he waited, the harder it would be to kill her. It didn’t even have to be cruel; he could be swift and silent. She wouldn’t even know she was dead. It would be a kinder end than what she might deal out in the future.
He came around the fire until he was at her back. She hadn’t lain down yet; instead she huddled in the cloak, looking small and full of grief. He had never killed an innocent before, but he couldn’t lose his nerve now.
Drawing his dagger, Brennan stepped softly up behind her, into the firelight, and aimed the point at the back of her head. He could drive it up into her brain quick as a blink. But he hesitated.
And he hesitated.
That was his own cloak which he had wrapped around her shoulders not a half hour ago. Her blood would be spilled on his cloak. He might remove the stain, but he would not be able to remove the memory.
Everything in his training told him that this was the right thing to do. But everything in his core screamed for him to stop.
Brennan faded back into the shadows and sheathed his dagger with relief. Part of him was glad he hadn’t been able to kill her; it was nice to know that his blood wasn’t as cold as that, even if killing her would have been an easy way to solve his problem.
He leaned his back against a tree and watched her watch the fire. He couldn’t kill her, and he couldn’t leave her alone to turn and start wreaking havoc. What would he do with her?
* * *
The dawn broke cold and dewy. Neither of them had slept very well. Sienna helped her new companion stamp out and scatter the embers of the fire, and they started down the narrow trail toward Tio. Scattered bits of pale rock suggested it had once been paved, but nature had taken it over so thoroughly that it was now nothing more than an overgrown, leaf-strewn trail, only wide enough for a single person to walk comfortably. The trees surrounded them on either side, their trunks gray and brown and white; they reached across the path occasionally and the two would have to duck under them as they walked.
The birds chirped loudly in the boughs above. It gave her a strange feeling; they sounded like mornings on the ferry. They sounded like her father cooking breakfast before the cottage window caught the first rays of the rising sun. They sounded like ducks and geese and bickering children; a place that no longer existed. Her footsteps crunched through the woods as she followed Brennan down the trail. Sienna tread carefully, but even with a conscious effort, she still could not walk as quietly as her traveling companion did. How did he step so softly here, where every inch of ground was littered with dry, dead leaves?
She had seen a leopard once when she was out hiking in the woods with her father. It had been so graceful, with a lethal potential that kept her stomach knotted. When she looked at Brennan, she felt she was seeing it again.
She had to break the silence. Watching him walk was unnerving, but when he spoke, he seemed more human.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Tio,” came the answer. Some of the hoarseness still lingered in his voice. She thought about asking him if someone had strangled him, but that didn’t seem appropriate.
“Where after that?” she persisted.
“I thought you’d want to find a place there,” he said, glancing back at her in surprise.
Tio was a large trading hub on the outskirts of the wilderness. Though it was only four days’ journey from Cumbry, she had never been there. Even her own little village had more people than she could handle. She could hardly imagine trying to keep her sanity in a place much larger than that.
“I don’t think so. I don’t like to be around that many people,” she said finally.
“Then what do you mean to do when we arrive?” he asked.
“I guess that was the question,” she ventured.
“I can’t make your decisions for you,” he said.
“Of course not,” she said, her temper flaring. “I’m just thinking aloud. I have a lot of questions.”
There was a pause in which Brennan did not offer to answer her questions. She walked along the narrow trail behind him, watching the straight line of his back. She didn’t need to be able to read his mind to know that he did not want to have a conversation. That wouldn’t stop her from trying.
“Where did you get that amulet?”
“I’m not answering that question,” came the stiff reply.
“Was it made for… people like us?”
“People like you,” he said pointedly.
So that was his problem; she had an Other, and he did not. Whether it was fear or jealousy, she could not say. But the ramifications of what he said still brought a smile to her face. “Then that means there are more people like me,” she said.
“There are,” Brennan said. He didn’t sound very happy about it.
“Are there any in Tio?” she asked. “Could you help me find them before you go on your way?”
He paused his walking to turn and regard her. “Are you so determined to find your own kind?” he asked. She felt herself wilting under his icy gaze; it had been easier to pester the back of his head than to meet those eyes. Still, she buoyed her courage and replied.
“Yes. I’ll look with or without your help.”
He paused; his expression gave no hint of what he was thinking. “I’ll have to think about it,” he finally said, then turned to walk again.
She decided on a new tack. “What were you doing in Cumbry?”
“Do you ever stop asking questions?” he returned.
She laughed a little at that. “I wouldn’t have to ask so many if you didn’t have that amulet on,” she said lightly.
“I’ll take the questions, then,” he said without humor.
She felt the Other struggling to answer her questions for her, but it could not get by that amulet. He threw her a dirty look and she felt like she’d been caught spying.
She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s hard to help,” she said. She was already growing tired of backpedaling in what she said or did to this man. It didn’t make him any more well-disposed toward her anyway. After a moment she tried again. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Brennan sighed. “I was following someone.”
“Was her skin dusky, with yellow eyes?”
“Yes,” he said. “Did you see her?”
“I let her over on the ferry,” she said. “I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have the courage to stand up to her.”
“She was powerful and determined. I doubt you could have done much to prevent her from doing what she wanted.” A trace of amusement crept into his voice. “Aside from overcharging her.”
Sienna felt herself redden and was grateful for the narrow road. Not wanting to let that memory linger in his mind, she said, “Why were you following her?”
“I was going to kill her.” He glanced back at her to see what reaction this got. But Sienna only looked thoughtful.
“Did you?” she said.
“No,” Brennan said ruefully. “She was too strong for me. I barely got away with my life.”
“She was evil,” Sienna said, lost in her memories. Just remembering the dark, glassy feel of that woman’s soul made her queasy, but one could not win a battle on evil alone. Brennan had come back looking much the worse for wear. Had she strangled him? She found that difficult to picture. “But I never took her for a fighter.”
“Annali’s no fighter,” Brennan replied. “She’s an Other.”
Sienna forgot to keep walking. Brennan took several steps before he realized she had stopped and turned to see what the matter was.
“She is an Other?” Sienna finally managed.
“What is it?” he said.
Sienna caught up to him and tried to explain. “That’s what I call it. The Other. But I thought that was just my own name for it. To hear someone else say it…” she paused, finding it difficult to explain herself. Perhaps she had heard him wrong. “You said she is an Other, not that she has an Other, right?”
“Yes,” he said.
“How did you know Annali was evil? Why were you going to kill her?”
“She has done evil things.”
There was a short pause. He was seeing something in his mind’s eye, but he came back quickly. “I’d rather not say the worst things I’ve seen her do. Let’s just leave it at what you saw yesterday.”
“That’s not possible. It was a flash flood. People can’t make flash floods just… happen.” But it was more a question than a statement. There had been nothing natural about that flood.
“That was no flash flood and you know it. It was a spell which Annali had created. She also melted the lock on your ferry. People like you can do all kinds of things.”
“There’s no way I could do that,” Sienna said.
“I didn’t say ‘you,’ I said, ‘people like you.’”
“No, Brennan,” Sienna said. “Not like me at all.”
They walked on in silence for a long while. Sienna had had enough horrible truths for the time being.
* * *
At midday Brennan stopped, and Sienna nearly ran into his back. “We need food,” he said. “Do you know any of the edible plants in this area?”
“Some,” Sienna replied, “but not a lot.” She’d gone hiking with her father in these woods many times, but she didn’t know them like he had known them. It felt safe wandering the woods when he was around, but she hadn’t gone foraying much after his death.
“I’m going to hunt for some meat; you can look for vegetables while I’m gone.”
“Split up?” Sienna said. “But… what if there are mutants?”
Brennan’s eyes crinkled almost imperceptibly at the corners. Was that how he laughed? “You should be fine for an hour or two,” he said. With that he headed away, silent as a ghost, into the trees.
Sienna held very still. Why would he leave her alone in these woods? There were mutants out here. They lived in the woods, coming out at night to feed on whatever living thing they could catch. They were mindless, savage things, and strong. Strong enough to tear a man in half before eating him raw.
She had seen one once, when she was very young. The thing had been blundering in the woods on the other side of the river. It was yellow and naked and twisted; the most repulsive living creature she’d ever seen. Sienna had called her father and hurried over with his bow and arrow the minute she’d said the word “mutant.” But when he saw it was on the other side of the river, he lowered his bow.
“We shouldn’t kill,” he had said, “unless we have a good reason.”
“But it’s a mutant!” she said, confused.
“It’s not hurting anyone,” John replied. “Mutants are dangerous, and I will tell the men I ferry over tomorrow that we saw one in that area, but I will not kill it unless it threatens me. It has as much of a right to live as I do.”
And that had ended it. No one had been mauled by it that day, or the next, and soon people forgot about it. Any time after that, if she saw one, she would ensure that the people were warned, but she never hunted them down, and they never came to bother her.
The trees whispered in the wind, and she felt her heart rate increase despite all of her logic. Still, she had little choice. Here she was, and she might as well make the best of it. She wasn’t particularly hungry; just thinking of Cumbry was enough to curb her appetite. But she hadn’t eaten since yesterday, and her stomach was starting to cramp.
She took a deep breath to steady herself. Nothing was out to get her. It was broad daylight and she was acting like a coward. Buckling down her courage, Sienna tramped off toward a large, fallen tree to her right which looked promising. She discovered, to her delight, a large patch of purplish mushrooms poking out of it. She was pleased at her luck; orchid mushrooms were a rare treat. As she kneeled to pick them, there was a shuffle in the dead leaves about twenty feet away from her. She froze and lifted her head. There was nothing there.
Smell green, said the Other. Eat good.
It was a only a rabbit! What a fool she was.
Her fear gone, she thought more clearly. She was supposed to be foraging for food.
Rabbits were food.
It had found a plant it liked and was munching on it with satisfaction. Pulling her knife out of her boot, she prepared to… what? Stab it to death? It was the only weapon she had.
Sienna looked at the rabbit again. It was so fluffy. She couldn’t. If Brennan wanted meat so badly, he could find his own.
Something rushed through the air in her direction, and Sienna turned her head just in time to see a dagger pin the rabbit violently to the earth, right on top of the plant it had been eating. She let out an involuntary scream of surprise. It kicked feebly two, three times, and stilled.
Then Brennan was there; she hadn’t even seen him approach. He regarded the rabbit a moment before pulling the dagger free. He had another rabbit in his hand, and the gaping wound in its neck told her it had been overkilled the same as this one had.
“You scared the life out of me!” Sienna accused, unconsciously gesturing at him with the knife she held. When he turned his cool gaze upon her, she realized she was still holding it and put it away self-consciously. She had to learn not to overreact when he sneaked up on her like that, but it would take some time; no one had ever been able to do that before.
“Did you find anything?” He asked as he bent to skin the carcass.
“There are mushrooms here,” she said. “I’ll go pick some.” But she hesitated, distracted by the strangeness of the scene before her. He was attempting to gut the small animal with his dagger. His face was serious, and his work delicate, but the blade he was using was oversized; it was hard for her not to laugh. “Would you like to borrow my knife?” She offered, unable to restrain a grin. Her own blade was better suited to the task.
“It would be easier,” he said, and a small smile of thanks escaped him when she handed it to him. His smile was unexpectedly kind, though it faded quickly.
They ate mushrooms as they walked the rest of the day, and when evening came, they cooked the rabbit on sticks and propped the leftovers up to dry over the coals. They didn’t talk much, but when Sienna curled up around the fire, Brennan handed his cloak over to her, his face as blank as ever.
“It’s your turn; I wore it last night,” Sienna said.
“You need it,” he replied cryptically, and disappeared into the trees once again.
Left alone, Sienna drew her knees up to her chest and listened to the insects around her. A leggy centipede crept up her calf and she flicked it away with a shudder, rubbing the sensation away long after the insect was gone.
She missed home. There were times when she could still catch the scent of her father in that old house; he smelled like the river, and dry leaves, and smoke from the hearth. She might catch it when she moved an old piece of furniture or swept the corners of the house; sometimes it would drift by for no reason at all.
But it was more than just the house. It was Cumbry. It was the people she missed. She had known every one of them better than they knew themselves. They had been her friends, though they did not know it. That little town and its small daily dramas were what had kept her going when her father had died. She hadn’t needed their love; she’d shared in their lives.
Sienna made a promise to herself: she would treat people more gently. She had to be open with them, because they could die tomorrow without ever knowing what they meant to her.
With one exception: Annali.
She mouthed the name to herself as she lay facing the stars.
The woman’s soul was a nightmare; it was empty. She didn’t even deserve to be called human. What had Brennan called her… an Other. This Other had washed her small town away with one spell; she had killed seventy-four people in a minute. All the world would think it was an act of the gods.
Sienna, as the only surviving inhabitant, knew better. She was the only person left who cared. She had never told them in life what they’d meant to her; the least she could do was her had a duty to them, as well as her duty to those whom Annali might harm in the future. One day Annali would meet death at her hand.
Having made that promise to herself, she found it easier to watch the stars. People lived and died, but the stars, at least, never changed.
* * *
Sienna awoke with a bad feeling; it was quiet. The coals glowed in the night, throwing a subtle red light on the nearby trees. Brennan lay on his back on the hard earth, opposite to her side of the fire, hands folded over his stomach. He was still as death and pale as marble against the inky dark; only his scarce breathing proved he still lived.
There was something in the woods.
She could sense several minds lingering just on the border of the light; barely suppressed rage bubbled from them. Was she still dreaming? Turning her head to stare into the woods, she tried to control the sound of her breathing, but it only seemed to grow louder and more ragged to her ears.
Something reflectively green flickered in the shadows. Eyes. They were watching her now. Her skin flushed hot with fear; she dared not move lest she make a slight noise. Mutants were supposed to have keen senses, and she didn’t want to give away the fact that she was awake. Slowly, gently, she started to reach for a stone to throw at Brennan. Propping herself up slightly on one arm, the cloak slid off of her shoulder with a rustle. She froze.
A deep and feral snarl sounded from the trees at her, and her heart skipped a beat. By the time she tore her eyes away from the growling darkness, Brennan was already on his feet, sword in hand, looking as if he’d been waiting for them all this time instead of sleeping half a second ago. She hadn’t even seen him move. His face was a mask.
The growling intensified to a roar, and the world exploded into action. Heavy footsteps sounded and three mutants burst into the light. She had never seen them this close before. They were larger than most men by at least a head; their skin was a sickly yellowish hue, and their necks were twisted at odd angles, like corpses of men who had been hung. One of them had a stunted third arm protruding from its armpit that bobbed uselessly with each step it took. Their skin was loose and wrinkled, gathering in ugly folds at their joints; they wore no clothes; they reeked of smegma and rot. The pupils of their eyes were slitted like a cat’s.
And they were fast.
They split up, two heading for Brennan while one darted in Sienna’s direction.
Brennan met the first mutant in a spray of blood. Turning, Sienna ran the only way that was open to her, away from the safety of the fire and into the woods.
Heavy, uneven footsteps sounded close behind her in fast pursuit.
The Other whispered its thoughts to her, which did not help her state of mind: warm blood, hot flesh. Run, catch, taste.
It was gaining on her; she had to do something. She might circle around and lead it back toward Brennan, if he was still alive; but the ragged, snarling breath at her back told her it was too close; it was nearly upon her already. She had to act now. Spying a loose branch on the ground ahead of her, she made a decision. Better to die a fighter than a victim.
Diving toward the branch, she grabbed it and rolled onto her back, swinging it with all of her might at its head.
It grabbed the branch.
Moving faster than she would have believed a thing so deformed to be capable, it grabbed her forearms in its misshapen hands, squeezing them until she was forced to drop her crude weapon. Its strength was massive; no amount of desperate thrashing could free her wrists from its grasp. Placing a scabby foot on her chest, it pulled her arms toward itself. The tendons in her shoulders and elbows stretched painfully.
He was going to tear her arms off, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
Even as she struggled uselessly against its granite grip, a detached part of her watched it from a distance with the calm knowledge that this was unavoidable.
It only lasted a fraction of a second. She was forced back into her body when a thick popping noise sounded deep within her left shoulder; something had given way. Blinding pain shot along her nerves, blacking her vision for an instant. She screamed in agony.
When her vision returned, the mutant’s head was gone.
Its body collapsed onto her with sickening soft weight, spraying her face and mouth with foul-smelling blood. Sienna stopped screaming long enough to turn her head and vomit from pain and revulsion. Brennan’s cool, quiet voice cut through the fog of her panic.
“You’re safe now,” he was saying. “It’s dead.”
The weight of the mutant was dragged off of her. When she found the courage to open her eyes again, Brennan was kneeling at her side. She tried to sit up through a wave of nausea and dizziness, but there was a nasty scraping feeling inside her shoulder when it moved, and she instinctively clutched her arm tightly against her shoulder to keep it from dangling. It took two tries to sit up, but at last she managed it, her breath coming in shallow gasps, and her gut churning with sickening pain.
“It’s out of the socket,” Brennan said, examining her arm. His face was as still as ever, but his voice murmured to her almost kindly, and the sound of it reminded her to breathe. “I’m going to have to pop it back into place. Are you ready?”
She nodded, unable to speak, and forced herself to release her arm to him. He took it firmly.
“I’m going to count to three. Take a deep breath on each count, and on the third count, I’ll put it back. Ready? One.”
She took as deep a breath as she could, and felt him quickly, roughly twist and press her arm. There was a sense of bone grinding on bone and a tremendous jolt; only a strangled sort of squeak escaped her in her shock. Another wave of nausea and dizziness passed over her, but she fought her way back to her body, forced her eyes open, and made herself breath at a regular rate. It did feel a little better. Maybe she could even walk. She sat a moment, steeling herself, then grabbed Brennan’s wrist and pulled herself up. Her head swam and she promptly sat down again.
Brennan knelt to pick her up. “No,” she managed. Another couple of breaths and she stood up more slowly. This time she stayed up, leaning with her good arm on Brennan’s shoulder. When they got back to their camp, he eased her down by the remnants of the fire, where she sat limply.
Brennan did not sit; he took the headless body of the first mutant he had killed by the wrists and dragged it away. She could hear it being pulled a good distance from camp, while she stared, exhausted, at the one that remained. It had been stabbed through in half a dozen places before it had fallen. The mutants hadn’t stood a chance against her new friend. She wondered idly if that should scare her, but it didn’t. She didn’t know him very well, but he had saved her life twice now. If that wasn’t a reason to trust somebody, what was?
* * *
Brennan dragged the last body off and left it with the other ones some distance from the clearing. The carcasses might attract more mutants, but Sienna and he would be safe enough; they wouldn’t bother anyone while there was easier meat to be had from their slaughtered kin. He could still smell them on his hands. Pouring a spare amount of water from his canteen into his palm, he rubbed his hands together and shook them dry. It wasn’t enough. Their blood was drying on his clothes; he could smell it. They were foul creatures by any standard. He would have to clean his sword with especial care tonight; mutant blood rusted metal twice as fast as ordinary blood.
Dead sticks and branches scattered the way back; he picked some up for the fire as he walked. When he got back to camp, he found Sienna curled on the earth, looking small and cold despite the cloak wrapped around her shoulders. He wished he’d come with his traveling gear intact. His pack had been burnt away by an Other he’d encountered in Tio. He’d dropped the pack before the insatiable flames could touch his skin or clothes, but the pack was lost; by the time the Other was dead, it had burned away to nothing more than a black smudge on the flagstones. Brennan had left town in hurry, not bothering to buy new supplies. He hadn’t figured on needing to keep a companion comfortable.
Sienna was so still, he thought she’d fallen asleep. But when he dropped the wood on the fire and sat down, she opened her eyes with effort.
“Brennan?” she asked him groggily.
“Yes,” Brennan replied, unbuckling his sword and wiping it down.
“Will you teach me to fight?”
She wouldn’t be in any shape to learn until she healed, and he would be free of her before then. “If we have time,” he said carefully.
There was browning blood crusted around the cross-guard and filling in the silver ivy etched on the grip. It wouldn’t be the first time he cursed the decorations that marked his Order; it would be easier to keep it clean without those vanities. This would require water, and he would not waste his canteen on it. The river ran no more than a mile away, but now he understood that he could not leave his new charge alone; she was not as strong as he’d assumed. Left alone, these woods would eat her alive.
He sighed. “Yes, Sienna.”
“There won’t be any more mutants, will there?”
“Not tonight,” he said. “Go to sleep.”
Much of the rabbit and mushrooms that had been drying over the fire was ruined; mutant blood had befouled it. He should have been more careful about where he flung blood when he’d killed the mutants, but he’d been distracted when Sienna had panicked and run with one of the monsters directly behind her. When he thought he might not get to her in time, he chose speed over control and made an unholy mess.
Brennan picked through the ruined food, tossing the blood-spattered pieces into the fire. Some of it could still be salvaged.
“Brennan?” she mumbled.
He paused in his work. “Yes.”
She didn’t answer; she was asleep.
Brennan raised his eyes and examined her curiously. A few strands of her auburn hair reflected the firelight; there was only peace in her face now. He might have doubted her before, but he knew now that this was no act. She had nearly had her arms torn off. An Other who knew her powers would have defeated a mutant with ease, maybe even joined them in their carnage. But he was certain that if he hadn’t caught up to her in time, she would be dead.
The rest of the food having passed his inspection, he lay down by the fire. He didn’t have many options. It made no sense for him to track Annali anymore; he could not defeat her without help. Even if he’d wanted to try to catch her again, he couldn’t abandon Sienna on the road. She would die on the road without him, or she would find Others and join the ranks of his enemies.
He had been thinking that he would leave her in Tio to find her own way, and if she turned, well, the Order would find her quickly. But the more he thought about it, the more he felt that he could not shirk his responsibility. If he left her alone, she would be sure to turn. When she turned, any damage she caused would be, in an indirect way, his fault for not doing what he had been trained to do.
He hadn’t much of a choice. He would take her with him to the Order in Pretin. That way he could get more knights to accompany him on his hunt for Annali, while the Order would do what they could to help Sienna. Until then, he had to keep an eye on her and make sure she remained human and didn’t hurt any innocent people.
He allowed himself to drift into a half-sleep, listening alertly and keeping vigil even as he rested. It was true what he’d said about no more mutants coming after them tonight, but it was always best to be prepared; something else might show up.
* * *
Annali grabbed the little man and pulled him up by his collar.
“Slime,” she said, and threw him down again. Her body was no stronger than that of an ordinary woman, but she could weaken or lighten the bodies of her opponents, giving her the appearance of uncommon strength when it suited her.
The man coughed and spat out a tooth.
“I yield,” he sputtered though his own blood.
“That didn’t take long,” Annali said, smirking. “Get up.”
He rose weakly. What an ugly little man. She’d found him in a cave among a pack of wild mutants, compelling them to serve him. She’d sent the miserable creatures running with a simple command, but she wondered whether even that much trouble had been worth the prize. Her new thrall was more imp than man; he smelled abominable. If she hadn’t stumbled across him on her way back East, he might have wasted his whole life with that simpering pack. Only the weakest Others would lord it over these mutants. Humans were more of a challenge, and far more rewarding. All these Azarian mutants could offer a master were pickings from the garbage and bloody fights. The king of mutants would be no more illustrious than the king of dogs.
Annali placed a fingernail under his chin and tilted his head up to meet her warning stare.
“I had a thrall once who thought he could steal my Other.”
He said nothing, so she went on.
“I flayed him alive,” she said. “He was prettier than you by far, but all men look the same without their skin.”
That struck a nerve; at last he lowered his eyes. He had distinctly rat-like features. Even when relaxed, his upper lip did not meet the lower one, revealing his front teeth. The tooth that she had knocked out had been on the side of his mouth, and it only made his incisors appear more pronounced. When accompanied by a weak chin, round yellow eyes, and greasy black hair, the effect was fascinating.
“What would you have of me, mistress?” he asked. Though his tone was humble enough, he stole a glance at his staff; it lay beside the rancid straw mattress on which he’d been sleeping when she had come across him. He hadn’t even had a chance to pick it up before she’d crushed his resistance. It was jet black, made of stone or ebony, with decorations etched onto it; a nicer weapon than she’d have expected an Other of his caliber to be able to acquire, but he’d allowed it to become caked with blood and scum other accumulations of mutants life.
Annali backhanded him across the face, and he curled his lip to snarl, but wisely bit it back. Already a large bruise was developing where she’d struck him earlier. She had intentionally hit the same spot this time, and the impact broke the skin on his cheekbone. Blood welled on his face and she felt a rush at the sight.
“A worthy Other has no need for human weapons,” she told him. “And he would never consider using such a weapon against his mistress, now, would he?”
“No, mistress,” he said, dropping to his knees and bowing. All his fight was gone now; he was defeated. She allowed herself a smile.
“Stay the night with me. If you put me in a good mood, maybe I’ll let you go.”
She could feel the envy and lust rolling off of him. He wasn’t so stupid as to run; he valued his miserable existence too much, and there was an element of protection that came of having a powerful mistress. What he didn’t know was that Annali was too rough on her thralls to keep them long; if they survived, they fled. Her protection was not worth her treatment.
“Let us find a place that doesn’t reek of mutants.”
They left the cave. As he walked, he stole another glance back at his staff, but she let it slide. She’d remind him of that mistake later. He was certainly an ugly man, but she’d meant it when she said that all men looked the same without their skin. By the time she was ready to have her way with him, he would be unrecognizable. If he screamed well enough, she might even heal him before she let him go, but he would not soon forget whose thrall he was.
* * *
Sienna abruptly woke from a bad dream, sitting up in surprise and instantly regretting it. It hurt to breathe and every muscle in her shoulders and arms were sore. She pulled the cloak off of herself with slow movements, acutely aware of the tenderness in her shoulders, repulsed by the dried blood and vomit on her dress. Her eyes felt sticky. When she reached up to flatten her hair, her fingers caught on something crusted in it and pulled painfully. She gave up.
Brennan was already awake. He was absentmindedly chewing on a piece of dried rabbit. When she looked at him, he handed her his canteen. It was nearly empty.
“Is this the last of it?” she asked.
“We’ll stop by the river.”
“I was going to ask you about that. I’ve never needed a bath so much in my life.” She smiled her thanks and drank the rest of the water.
After breakfast, they walked to the river. It was a slow mile; she couldn’t walk very fast without each step jarring her injuries. But when they finally came across the river, it was worth it. The water was quiet and deep here, dark green, with a strong current drawing lines on the surface.
Sienna did not wait for Brennan; she kicked off her boots, waded in, and sank in over her head. At last she came up for a breath, enjoying the way the water rushed around her shoulders, pulling through her hair and clothes, rinsing all of the filth and worry from her. The cold felt good on her bruises; the current was cleansing. She was a good swimmer, and utterly at home in the water.
They were upstream of Cumbry, and here were no indications of flash flooding or water damage. It unnerved her; it was almost as if everything that had taken place was just a bad dream. Cumbry could be just as it was. All those people might still be going about their silly lives, worrying about their silly problems. But then she glanced over at Brennan, standing impassively on the shore, and the feeling evaporated. Nothing about him was like home.
A tree had fallen into the water; Brennan stepped easily out onto it, ducking under tall branches and stepping over smaller ones until the tree bowed dangerously under his weight and the water almost touched his boots. There he bent his knees and filled his canteen from the fresh water that ran farther from the bank. He wasn’t even thinking about it. If she tried that, she would have to step gingerly to get half that far, and she would probably fall in on the way back.
She resisted the temptation to swim over and shake the tree. If anyone could use a good dunking, it was him; he looked altogether too clean and calm and in control. But her arm hurt too much for mischief, and he would have no sense of humor about it anyway.
* * *
They arrived at Tio the next afternoon without any further incident. She’d heard that it was only a small city, but when they walked through the wooden palisades, Sienna was awed. She had never seen so many people in one place before. The familiar chatter had started up in her head again when they had neared the it, louder than she’d ever experienced, but she still hadn’t been prepared for the sheer volume of the place. The city was square in character, the streets ancient relics paved in cracked reddish cobbles, poorly repaired with gravel in places where the cobbles had failed. Most of the houses here were built upon ruins, two floors deep, finished off with wood, thatch, and mud in much the same way that the people of Cumbry had done. Many people had risked another floor of wood on top of the already precarious constructions.
There was a sense of urgency here, as if there wasn’t enough of anything to go around: not enough space, not enough food, not enough money, not enough time. Even the air felt thick and scarce; it was ripe with horse manure, and somehow felt more humid than it had felt outside the palisades. It was difficult to breath.
The marketplace staggered her. Rows and rows of shops lined the streets, the storefronts more specialized than she could have imagined. One man sold only smoked meat. Another sold fruit. This woman sold sweets, that man sold swords. Five shops were squashed into a space the size of which, in Cumbry, would only house one family.
And the people! Buying, haggling, hurrying, dawdling, stealing, eating, worrying, wanting…. The Other was overlaying itself five, ten, twenty times at once, whispering to her the thoughts of each man, woman, or child nearby. It overwhelmed her; she couldn’t push it away. She tried to focus on Brennan’s faded purple cloak and nothing else as he threaded through the people. The deeper they got into the city, the louder the voices got. Once they stepped into the inn and the door shut behind them, it was better. The wood helped weaken most of the thoughts outside. She rubbed her temples while Brennan haggled with the innkeeper for a room. She’d been in town for only a few minutes and already her head ached badly.
“Let’s get something to eat,” he said to her.
“What? Oh. Can I eat it in my room?”
He watched her rub her temples. “What is it?”
“Too many people,” she said with a weak, apologetic smile.
Apparently he had no sympathy for that. “We should stick together and eat in the common room. It’s better to stay out and keep an eye on things.”
“Are we in danger?” Sienna asked quietly when the innkeeper turned away.
“You never know,” he replied cryptically, and headed upstairs. Sienna had no choice but to follow. They found her room, and he handed her a key. His room was right next to hers, which made her feel a little safer after his ominous talk. She unlocked her door and stepped inside, looking around. It was small, but comfortable enough. A bed was against one wall, and a washbasin stood on a table in the corner. The roof was mud above her, but it kept the wind out and was as hard as stone from the passage of time. She looked in the closet and found a wooden washtub. A hot bath would be heaven on her sore arm. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the nightstand and laughed. Her hair was in tangles, her face smudged with dirt and soot, her dress wrinkled.
Brennan turned to leave.
“Wait,” she called.
He paused and regarded her silently.
“Are you going into town?” Sienna asked.
“I thought you’d want to clean up.”
“I would,” she said with a shrug, “But I have no clothes to change into. Maybe you could take me into town before it gets dark so I can buy some things?”
Though the city made her dizzy, she’d left Cumbry with no more than the clothes on her back and the purse on her belt, and she needed to do some shopping.
Brennan continued to stare at her until she found herself explaining. “I’ve never been anyplace as big as this,” she said. “I’ve never even left Cumbry. To tell you the truth, all these strangers make me nervous. I would really appreciate it if you could come along.”
His face darkened, but he nodded curtly and they went back to the common room, where they found a table and were served tomato-and-egg pie for lunch. Egg pie had never tasted so good. She didn’t bother trying to make more stilted conversation, as he was looking moodier than usual. Instead she listened to the people around her. The man eating at the table nearest them was going to go buy a new horse, and was excited as a child at the prospect of bringing it home and surprising his wife. Another man was mentally undressing the woman across from him. No one was mentally undressing her, she thought with a little snort. She looked like a traveling beggar; she smelled like fishy river water and sweat. Brennan looked almost as clean and tidy as he had when she’d first seen him. He didn’t even smell. How did he manage to do that? She never was a very tidy person anyway, but most people should be covered in filth after a trek like they’d had. Everything about him was baffling.
A sharp thought knifed through the room in Brennan’s direction. Envy, the Other whispered. She glanced casually over and saw a man in the corner, his eyes focused on Brennan’s sword, polished to a new sheen, the pommel laced with silver decorations.
—ovely sword. It doesn’t look very well used; always a good sign. They both have fat purses. If I could take him by surprise I shouldn’t have any problems. He’s young, and too skinny to put up a good fight. The girl is country and won’t be any trouble. Maybe when they leave I’ll get them in a close alley—
She had no doubts that Brennan could dispatch this man, but why let it get to that point? She might be able to nip this in the bud. Pulling her knife from her boot, she cleaned her fingernails casually with it before raising her eyes to him in a long, unfriendly gaze. Her current lack of beauty might actually work to her advantage here.
He saw her staring.
—ooks like a real cunt. I could take one, but not the two of—
Brennan turned his head to see who Sienna was being so hostile toward, and the man blanched, immediately lowering his gaze to his wine.
—seven hells. Like a snake. I only hope they don’t come over he—
Brennan had turned back and was watching her curiously. Sienna dropped her aggressive stare and sheathed her knife again, self-conscious. “He was thinking about robbing us,” she explained quietly as she put her knife away.
“Was he?” Brennan said, his cool white eyes not blinking. Like a snake indeed.
She felt a blush creeping over her face. “You should have seen the way he was looking at your sword. He really looked like he wanted it.”
“You threatened the man because he looked at my sword?”
“Are you done with your pie? I’m done with mine. We’d better go before the day gets too hot.” She rose and headed for the door, then waited for him. Brennan got up and followed her without giving her any more grief, but he had an expression which she couldn’t quite interpret.
Sienna straightened, took a deep breath, and opened the door. A swell of voices washed over her and she stepped out into the thick of it, then turned to Brennan.
“Which way do we go?” she said, a little too loud. She had to remember not to yell. It wasn’t as loud for him as it was for her.
“The market is this way,” he said, and took the lead once more. She caught up to him and put her hand in the crook of his arm, pretending not to notice the way his jaw tightened at her touch. She needed something to hold on to so she could keep her head. Part of her might have been insulted by the way he disdained her touch, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to worry about it now. Focus, she thought. Focus on one thing. A stout man walked by, his face placid, but his thoughts
— because Suzy won’t have done anything. Maybe I’ll go to the tavern tonight. I don’t want to go home while she’s still awake. Where are my honey drops? She’ll say, and she’ll be sitting on that little chair, her fat feet stuffed those awful pink shoes—
and then he passed. There was a conservatively dressed, middle-aged woman in front of her who walked alongside them a moment before
—eggs, bread, milk, and then there’s the cloth for the drapes and the washbasin to replace the one Simon broke. I don’t know if I brought enough money. Let’s see, ten eggs would be—
crossing to the other side of the street and younger, more fashionable woman brushed against her arm
—if Janice is lying I’ll cut her tongue out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she wasn’t? I can just see—
and they passed by a shopkeeper surrounded by a small cluster of customers
—nerve, trying to give me two coppers for—
—can’t see where the sign—
—so dark in that house I—
—worry about him, he’s been—
Sienna stopped short and listened to her quickened breathing a moment. Brennan was pulled to a halt. But it wasn’t enough. She’d made her way in earlier by focusing on… on Brennan. The one person whose thoughts she couldn’t hear. Focusing the Other on him, her mind quieted. The voices tuned into the background and she was able to see the world around her again.
She started to breathe again when she felt Brennan looking down at her. She glanced up and her stomach dropped.
Her death was reflected in his eyes.
“Don’t.” The quiet tone in his voice was unquestionably a warning. The arm she gripped had become iron. Would he really kill her right here in the street?
She took her focus off of him and all the minds she could hear came flooding back to the forefront. She felt scattered, incomplete.
“I need to focus on you,” she tried to explain, blinking at him. Her eyes weren’t really working; she was seeing snatches of what the people around her were seeing. A pair of well-worn boots stepping around horse dung. A hand pawing through a basket of fresh meat wrapped in waxed cloth. “There are too many people.” Brennan’s face, all hard angles. Was he always that tall?
“What are you trying?” he said.
“I won’t get through your amulet. Please. Please,” she said, trying not to raise her voice, panic setting in. “I’ll lose my mind if I don’t.”
For a long time he watched her, cold and impassive as a snowdrift. All she could do was stare back.
—and the way he looked at me, I could have sworn—
—don’t trust that—
-eeze is just lovely, so much fresher th—
—miles to Aunt Mag’s if it’s only—
She was sure the shopkeep was trying to cheat her; those jars of milk smelled a day old. Gernie had given her two coppers to spend and she wasn’t going to disappoint him by bringing back—
Her cheek stung as if she’d been slapped. A terrifying man held her chin in his hand and was looking closely at her.
“Sienna,” he said intensely, his face close to hers.
Sienna. What did that mean? It sounded important.
“You can focus on me,” he said. “But try one thing. One thing. And I promise you’ll be dead before you know what happened.”
She stared at him. Sienna. That was her name. She focused on his face, his aggressive, arresting intensity, and found a sliver of peace in the chaos. She had a splitting headache, but she knew herself once more. There were tears on her face. When had she wept? For what reason? She wiped her cheeks hastily. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes since she’d walked out the door, but she had just lived ten separate lifetimes, each one vastly different from her own. This was too much for one day. She wanted to go home.
But she had no home.
She could go back to the inn, but that would mean dragging Brennan right back after forcing him to go out with her. He was already angry enough.
“Thank you,” she, watching her feet as they resumed walking. “I don’t know… I hope I didn’t make a scene.” She stole a glance at Brennan.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said, not looking at her. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
Sienna couldn’t be sure without reading his thoughts, but something in the way he was acting made her wonder if he was afraid. What was he afraid of? Not her, surely. Not a man with his capabilities. Why would he have saved her life if he were afraid of her? It didn’t make sense.
“You said you needed clothes,” he said, and she realized they had stopped in front of a tailor’s. “I’ll wait here for you.”
“Thank you,” she said as she stepped in. The woman inside was large and overbearing; she kept tsking at Sienna’s disheveled appearance when she thought Sienna wasn’t paying attention. But her clothes were well-made. Sienna found some practical travel wear: loose pants and a long-sleeved shirt that was the same shade of brown as her eyes, and a simple gray dress.
Before she opened the door, she asked the Other where Brennan was and was able to find him by seeing through the eyes of the people who were glancing at him. He was holding very still, leaning casually against a wall; most people didn’t even notice him, but every person who did see him had a similar reaction: first surprise that they hadn’t seen him there before, then, if they kept watching him, they grew apprehensive and hurried away. At least she wasn’t the only one who found him unsettling. She focused and exited the shop. It was much easier to stay above it, now that she had something to hold on to. Brennan must have sensed her Other because he was looking her way when she walked out.
“What else did you need to get?” he asked. The cold intensity, or fear, or whatever it was, had left him. Now he only looked tolerant. She felt bad for him. He shouldn’t have to babysit her.
“Will you help me pick out a good weapon?”
They headed back into the crowded streets, toward the armories. These shops, like many of the shops in Tio, were shallow lean-tos consisting of two walls and a roof, with the front of a house or, in this part of town, a forge, acting as the third wall in the back. The shops and houses were mostly wood near the edges of town, but as they got deeper into the heart of the city, the ruins grew more intact; the forges were almost entirely rough red stone of ancient workmanship, with strange pointed doors and narrow horizontal windows. Mounted on the walls, piled into woven baskets and bins, and stacked on wooden planks that served as tables, were axes, swords, dirks, and every other weapon she knew, alongside many she never even seen before.
Sienna didn’t know where to start. They walked briskly along, passing several storefronts; it was hard in some places to tell where one ended and the other began, so many items spilled over the tables and into the street.
She was about to ask Brennan his opinion on a store they were coming up on when her Other whispered,
The store to her right was a resale shop filled with all manner and make of weapons, but the corner that caught her eye had a large woven basket filled with staffs. Some were bladed, some had knots of wood, some had stones set in them, but she knew the one her Other wanted immediately. It appeared to be polished black plain stone, and it was slightly shorter and thinner than most of the others, almost as if it had been made for a woman. There was a simple beauty in it that attracted her. Over the body of the staff was etched a fanciful animal she had never seen before in a foreign style; its face was square, its eyes bulging spheres, its body winding down the shaft to end in another head with bulging eyes. She pulled it out of the bin, wincing at the pang her arm gave her, and presented it to Brennan.
“What do you think of this?” she asked.
“It looks a little thin for fighting,” he said, examining it. He hefted it, then he took it in both hands and tried to bend it over his knee. It didn’t give. “But it’s strong.” He gazed at it thoughtfully a moment, running his thumbnail over the carvings. “I can’t tell what kind of stone this is. It might not even be stone at all.” He took it over to the shopkeeper, a heavyset man with a scar down his chin. “Did you make this staff?” he asked.
“That? A man came in and traded it to me just two days ago. Said he found it on the road. It looks damn near useless to me. If I were you I’d get a good solid battle ax,” he began.
“It’s for the lady,” Brennan said. Hearing something in his voice, she gave him a closer look; though he stood straight as ever, he couldn’t hide a little redness around his eyes, a lack of color in his cheeks. For him, that was positively exhausted. He’d been strangled, had a river fall down on him, mutants try to kill him, and kept watch most of every night, but that was nothing compared to Sienna forcing him to go shopping with her. She smiled, but she promised herself she would hurry out of there. No man should be subjected to shopping with a woman he didn’t even like.
“Ohh,” the shopkeep said, and Sienna felt a flash of temper at his patronizing tone. Little girl is going to pretend she’s a fighter, the Other whispered his thought to her. She yanked her concentration back on Brennan again, and, in her fury, she must have surprised him, because his hand involuntarily twitched toward his amulet before he resumed the conversation.
She bought the staff, but not before haggling the shopkeep down to a ruthlessly low price.
* * *
Back at the inn, Sienna ordered a hot bath, and was finally able to undress and examine her injuries before the mirror. Her shoulder was blue, and there was a foot-shaped bruise on her chest and ribs. Part of her breast was tender where the mutant’s foot had crushed it. Still, it was nothing that wouldn’t heal. She climbed into the hot bath and soaked. Opening her eyes, she reached out and grabbed her staff, examining it. It had little slits on the ends, probably where a blade could be inserted. Running her hands over the decorations, she felt something shift. Was a piece of it loose? Maye the shopkeep was right. It was falling apart already. She sighed and looked for the loose piece again. The little sphere that made up one of the creature’s eyes was kind of wobbly, but it didn’t seem like it was falling off… it almost seemed like a button. She pressed the sphere and heard a little click, then pressed the other one and out sprang a blade from the end toward her face. She jumped and splashed bathwater on the floor.
The steel shone at the end of the staff; no longer did the weapon look undersized. She ran her thumb along the edge of the blade she’d discovered. It was devilishly sharp, and came to a squarish point on the end. Turning it over, she found its twin on the opposite end hidden within the staff. With both blades extended, she leaned back in her bath and admired it.
It had such graceful lines, and it felt balanced and light, even with one blade out and one blade in. This weapon was special. She pushed the buttons and the blade zipped back inside the staff, resuming its harmless appearance.
After some dedicated scrubbing, the water was murky and Sienna could see her freckles again. She got out of the bath and pulled on the dress she’d bought, tossing her old one in the tub to soak.
Her new dress fit well; it was solid gray, with a folded collar and the buttoned sleeves that the women wore in Tio.
She was working the knots out of her hair when there came a knocking at the door. The Other hadn’t warned her. Thinking it Brennan, Sienna rose from her chair with the aid of her staff and opened the door without a second thought.
In her door stood a grungy little man with a sneer and ratlike eyes, his face crisscrossed with fresh red scars.
Give me the staff, he thought, and she wavered, confused. It was obvious that she should give the staff to him. He needed it.
He took a step in her direction, and she took a step away from him. The movement broke the emptiness of her mind; she didn’t want to give him the staff. It was her staff. Why had she even considered that?
He wants to rape you, the Other said. Several grotesque images from his mind flashed by her which catalyzed her into action. She’d give him the staff, alright. Sienna slammed one end into his crotch; when he doubled over, she dodged past him, down the stairs, and into the common room, where the innkeeper was helping himself to an ale. She hadn’t been paying attention when she met him before, but the Other whispered
before she opened her mouth to talk.
“Mr. Kindle!” she said breathlessly. “A man just tried to break into my room.”
The innkeeper stood up, spilling some of his ale. His eyes went so wide she felt sorry for him. Grabbing his hat, he mashed it onto his head and said, “In my inn? I’ll have his hide! Where is he?”
But the Other whispered, I’m going to have to tell the militia, oh, this is going to be bad for business. And what will Mother say?
“He might still be up there,” she said. “Please, hurry!” and she headed back toward the stairs without looking back. She could hear Mr. Kindle’s worries as he followed behind her. They arrived at her open door, but no one was there. She entered the room tentatively and looked around.
Everything was just as she’d left it.
“Is anything missing?” Mr. Kindle asked.
I see she’s too cheap to pay our maid to wash her clothes. And if anyone needs a maid it’s her. Look at the state of her room! Water all over the floors; she’ll warp the wood…
The floor wasn’t as bad as all that. She’d only just taken a bath; if that horrible man hadn’t shown up, she would have dried the floors as soon as she’d finished washing her dress.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “He must have run off.”
Maybe I won’t have to tell Mother after all. I have better things to do than worry about hysterical women, and cheap ones at that.
Sienna tried not to glare at him. He was only an innkeeper, not a soldier. Still, his small mindedness irked her.
“How about a drink on the house to calm your nerves?”
Maybe if I can calm her down, she’ll think more clearly and remember what really happened. Robbers in my inn. Preposterous.
Ignoring him, Sienna tried Brennan’s door and knocked, but there was no answer.
“All right,” she said, locking her door behind her, “I’ll take you up on that drink.”
* * *
Sienna sat in the common room the rest of the evening, her staff leaning against the wall beside her, a glass of wine in one hand. Brennan had been right about it being safer there.
When he walked in the door, he saw her and motioned for her to join him upstairs. He unlocked his room and they went in together.
In Brennan’s room the bed was still made. His new pack and other purchases had been squirreled away in the wardrobe. Compared to her room, with the bed already rumpled, her new things scattered everywhere, and a tub of cold gray bathwater with a soggy dress soaking in it, his room felt empty.
“What is it?” she asked when he shut the door.
“I’ve found us passage on a caravan that leaves tomorrow. It will take us all the way to Pretin, and should offer us some protection.”
“I didn’t think you wanted me come along with you,” she said curiously. She’d thought their traveling together was over after the way she’d angered him this afternoon, but here he was, inviting her to come along with him again, despite his immense dislike of her. Whatever he might think of her, he was certainly honorable.
“You said you didn’t want to stay in Tio,” Brennan said. “Isn’t that true?”
She sat on his bed heavily, rumpling his sheets a bit more than necessary just because it needed doing. She watched him notice the minor wreckage she was causing, so she kicked her shoes off and drew her feet underneath herself and bounced a little bit under the pretext of getting comfortable, wrinkling the covers even further. He deserved worse.
But she most definitely did not want to stay in Tio. Without Brennan to focus on, she would drown in someone else’s mind in less than a day. Even if she found a way to keep control, what kind of work could she get here? All she had ever known was her quiet little ferry; but here, the river was crowded with barge rafts and low-keeled ships for trading. They’d dug out some of the land and created a dam to form a small, man-made body of water. The activity never ended. The water was like a different creature; there was almost no current, and the men swarmed over it like mosquitoes. You couldn’t even hear the birds for all creaking wood and clacking poles, loading and unloading of goods, haggling and shouting.
“What’s in Pretin?” she asked.
“No offense, but that’s my business,” Brennan replied, sitting down beside her on the bed and folding his hands in his lap.
“Do you think there are Others in Pretin?”
“It’s unlikely,” Brennan said.
“Where could I find them?”
He shook his head. “I won’t help you find Others,” he said. “But I do know some people in Pretin who have more knowledge about them than I do.”
Now it sounded like he was urging her to come with him, but he wasn’t telling her the whole story. She leaned toward him and said. “You don’t owe me anything, you know. You’ve already done more than enough for me.”
He looked down at his hands, folded in his lap, and waited for her answer. She sighed. When he was aware of himself he was diamond-hard, but very rarely a moment escaped him, like this, when he looked so lost it tore at her heart. Her annoyance faded.
“Just answer me one question,” she said. “Do you want me to come along or don’t you?”
His pause was a fraction of a second too long. “I would prefer it if you came,” he finally said.
Carefully chosen words, she thought. But it was a start.
“Alright,” she said. “But just remember that you invited me.”
A trace of a smile found his face. Sienna was about to pick up her staff and go, but as she reached for it, she remembered the rat-faced man.
“Something happened to me while you were gone!” she said. “I was in my room and I heard a knock on the door. I thought it was you, so I opened it without thinking, but it was a different man. He wanted to rob me, and…” she trailed off, uncomfortable with mentioning rape to Brennan. “And so I hit him with my staff and ran downstairs. I got the innkeeper, but by the time we got back, he was gone.”
“He wanted to rob you and…?” Brennan said, picking up on her pause. When she didn’t answer, he let it go and said, “Was it the man from the common room?”
“No, this was someone I’d never seen before. But it was like he’d been waiting until he knew I was alone so he could… take advantage.” That was the closest she’d get to saying it. Just remembering the thoughts that were in his head made her shudder. She was used to hearing the occasional man’s fantasy, but this was different. He was cruel and unfeeling; his intentions disgustingly real.
“What might you have that he would have wanted?” he said. Sienna almost hit him over the head with her staff before she realized what he was actually asking.
“He wanted my staff,” she said. “I don’t know why, th— oh.”
“Look at what I found,” she said, and popped a blade out of one end of her staff, then handed it to Brennan. He took it in his hand and examined it seriously.
Rising from his seat, he swung the staff experimentally, first one way, then the other, pulling the arc to keep from hitting the narrow walls of the room. Then he twirled it in his fingers; the casual expertise with which he handled it was mesmerizing. Turning it over, he popped the other blade out, tested it again, then put them both back before handing it back to her. “The blades are quality, and it’s well made. But there’s something odd there.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, taking it from him and admiring it.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t trust it. I wonder if it doesn’t have a spell in it.”
Sienna looked at him sharply. “Spells aren’t real,” she said, then realized what she’d said. Who was she to talk about what was or was not possible?
“Some kinds are,” he said. “I’m far from sure, though. I just pick it up and it feels different to me. The material it’s made of… I wonder if the blades aren’t there to distract people from something else in it. Something deeper.”
“It doesn’t feel wrong to me,” Sienna said. In truth, his talk was making her apprehensive about holding it. But when her fingers clasped around it, it was comfortable and light in her hands. It had already saved her once.
“I can see that you’re pleased with it. Just don’t trust it too much.”
She smiled. “I’ll remember that,” she said. “But I can still love it and not trust it.”
She got up and headed for the door, satisfied with the mess she had made of his covers.
“Six o’clock tomorrow,” he said, “Be ready to go.”
“Alright,” she said as she walked out the door, then turned on impulse. “Brennan?”
He held the door and waited for her to say what she meant to say; the change had been sudden, but he had iced over again. She lowered her gaze, unable to meet his cold scrutiny. “I just want to say… thank you, for saving my life.” She laughed self-consciously. “So many times.”
Without looking up, she walked to her room, unlocked the door and entered. She didn’t hear his door close until after she had shut hers.
* * *
The morning found Sienna bouncing on a hard wooden bench in a square wagon with high wooden walls on either side and a canvas roof. It was one of several wagons that snaked their way east in the caravan toward Pretin. She had picked the one with the least people in it: there was a middle aged-man with salt-and-pepper hair, whose head kept lolling as he drifted off; and a sour-faced blonde woman with mother-of-pearl buttons, who focused on the trees outside with such hate Sienna was surprised they weren’t withering under her gaze. She tried asking the Other what she was so mad about, but, as usual, the Other didn’t respond to her direct inquiry. So she relaxed and took advantage of the older man’s sleepiness to study him. His hair was gray and he had smile lines even in his sleep, which gave him a friendly appearance. He was well-built for a man of his age, and he wore thick, elaborately woven robes decorated with cheerful animal patterns. The jolting wagon affected his dream, slips of which drifted by her when she stopped paying attention. In the dream, he was riding a horse on the way to meet his wife, but he kept almost falling off and wasn’t getting very far.
Brennan was flanking the caravan on a chestnut horse which the caravan had loaned to him. He had been able to dodge the costs for both of them by signing up as a guard. He didn’t pay her much attention; there was another person who could wither the trees with a stare, she thought with a little smile. He and the rich blonde should get together.
After about an hour of listening to the wooden wheels creak, they hit a larger bump than usual. The middle-aged man woke up and immediately began talking.
“Where you headed?” he asked the woman, but she pretended not to hear him, so he turned to Sienna as if he’d been talking to her all along.
“Pretin,” Sienna said with a polite smile, and tried to look like she was engrossed in the passing trees. The man did not take the hint.
“Pretin? All the way to the end of the line? That’s a long journey. I’m going to Dellville, myself.” And the Other, now that she’d forgotten about using it, broke in and let her sense his soul. It was rigid yet light, knotted and whorled like an old piece of driftwood worn smooth by time. He was all good intentions, this one, with a genuine enthusiasm for people. She warmed to him.
“Is your home in Dellville?” she asked.
“You bet. Textile capital of the world. Have you ever seen any of Dellville’s weaves?”
She hardly had time to shake her head before he continued.
“Sure you have! They’re famous. You’ve probably seen one, you just didn’t know it was from Dellville. I wish I still had one to show you, but the merchants in Tio snapped them up. They know a good thing when they see it. Here.” He pulled back his sleeve to reveal a wide woven bracelet, a little faded, but intricately done. The small thread size of the weave and the tiny landscape it portrayed did not fail to impress. Pride radiated from him. “My wife made that.”
Sienna made a little noise of appreciation.
Arnold, the Other whispered. She got an image in a house with a flagstone floor. His elder daughter, Mina, clacks away at the loom; the younger, Callie, lays on her stomach in front of the fire, poking at it with the tongs. Arnold is on the floor beside her, his back against the hearth, telling her a story. Irma sits at the dinner table on the opposite end of the room, restoring a worn rug. When she hears his story hitch, she glances up from her work to find him watching her, and gives him one of her quiet smiles.
“Irma, that’s my wife, she’s always telling me to throw this old bracelet away and she’ll make me a new one, but I don’t have the heart. She made this one when we were courting. Thirty years ago, that was. Almost thirty. Every time I go on a trip, when I get home, she makes me a roast chicken. Now, you might be thinking that a roast chicken is a roast chicken. I don’t know what that woman does to it, but it is the best roast chicken in the world. Roast chicken, that’s all I can think about when I’m going home. Sometimes I leave just so I can come home to her cooking again.”
She had to laugh. After days of either forced conversation or terse silence with Brennan, it was nice to hear someone laugh and talk openly. His happy simplicity balmed her soul.
“Do you cook?” Arnold asked.
“Not really,” Sienna said. “Only the basics: stew, roast vegetables, biscuits… I never learned to get fancy with it.”
“Well, that’s all you need,” Arnold said. “I’m not one to judge; I never learned to cook either. I figured I’d marry a woman who could cook and I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I would have married her either way in the end. But her cooking made me fall in love faster.
“Where are you from?” he asked, abruptly changing tacks.
Sienna’s smile faded quickly. “A little village not far from here. Cumbry.”
His face fell. “Is it true?” he said. “They say the whole town washed away when the Red River flooded.”
She nodded. “It’s true.” Though it would be more proper to say that the whole town washed away when Annali flooded the Red River.
“Terrible thing,” he said. “Terrible.” There was gravity to go with his words, but the emotion passed quickly. “So now you’re going to Pretin,” he started again after a brief pause. “Do you have relatives there?”
She nodded. It was as good of a story as any. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she had no one. “Tell me about your children,” she said, forgetting that he hadn’t mentioned any out loud. But he took the bait easily, and didn’t notice her slip of the tongue.
“I have two daughters, Mina and Callie,” he said. “Sweet little girls. Mina’s nearly grown now, I don’t guess I should call her a little girl. She’s a lovely weaver, just like her mother. Callie’s only eight, but I like to think she’ll have her own inn someday. I’ve never seen an eight-year-old who can cook like she can. She can sing, too. One time, when she was six, I took her to the market with me, and she sang to draw a crowd, and boy did she.”
Sienna listened to him go on, prodding him when he slowed. She had never met anyone could talk that much. It was amazing that he wasn’t hoarse by the end of the day. His cheery conversation and bombastic nature was irking the woman who was stuck in the wagon with them. Sienna could feel her rising ire every time Arnold repeated himself, and he repeated himself frequently. Sienna tried to block the woman’s nasty mood out and focus instead on in all of the minutia that Arnold shared, the stories about his kids, his travels, the books he’d read. It had been a long time since someone had treated her so well. More than that, Arnold actually seemed to enjoy her company. It was probably a long time since he had met anyone patient enough to let him go on without interruptions.
It getting dark, and Arnold was finally starting to run out of steam when the team leader’s whistle blew. The wagons groaned to a halt and the blond woman was the first one out. Sienna tried not to laugh at her back, but Arnold saw her biting her lip to suppress a smile and winked at her.
“We talk too much for her,” he said, lending a hand to help her out of the wagon.
“I hardly said a word,” Sienna teased, then winced as she bent the wrong muscle getting out of the wagon. She turned around and stiffly, with as little bending as possible, pulled her staff out from under the bench. She hadn’t let it out of her sight since that man had wanted to steal it. “This has been fun. Thank you,” she said, giving him a little hug.
“We’ve got days yet,” Arnold said, “I’m sure we’ll turn up in the same wagon again soon.”
They parted and she looked for Brennan. The wagons had pulled over to a clearing lined with dense cedars. It was a warm, windless night; the firebugs were already dotting the darkness of the trees, though the sky still glowed deep blue with the fading light. It was wonderful to be away from the city. She could still sense the people around her, but there weren’t many more than had been in Cumbry. It was nothing she couldn’t handle.
Brennan was helping to build a campfire with some of the other caravan guards. She watched from outside the light, amazed at his behavior. Someone made a joke and he actually smiled, a real, full smile. He looked relaxed… like another person entirely. It was true that the guards gave him a little more room than they did each other; that killer grace and alertness clung to him even when he was at his ease, and they sensed it. He was still distant and cool, but it was less pronounced, and translated to an air of authority when he was with the men.
That was it, then. He wasn’t perpetually harsh and humorless; he was perpetually harsh and humorless around her. The people he just met this morning had won him over more completely than she could in three days of one-on-one conversation. The minute she walked into the light, he would get that twitch in his jaw and lose all the laughter in his eyes. She turned, feeling heavy, to find another campfire.
She walked around aimlessly. There were six campfires, and each one had a dozen people around it. Would that she could have a campfire all to herself. As she walked through the darkness, she passed by a short man. Although she directed her steps to avoid him, he still walked too close and knocked into her, jarring her badly. Nearly losing her grip on her staff, she managed to snatch it back; had he been reaching for it? She saw his rat-like face and felt outrage swell inside her. The little filth had followed her?
“Excuse me,” he said, and tried to step out of her way, not meeting her eyes.
Can’t let her notice me, the Other whispered. Does she recognize me?
“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she demanded.
He stopped and looked right at her. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A couple of people had heard the tone in her voice and stopped to watch the exchange.
“Don’t lie to me,” she said. “You were in Tio yesterday, and now you’re in this caravan?” But she felt her certainty waver. Where were his scars? His skin was as smooth as if he’d never had an injury, but when she saw him only yesterday, he’d had deep fresh scars all over his face.
“Oh, did we meet in Tio? I don’t remember.” He looked at her, all wide-eyed innocence, as a guard approached them. If it weren’t for the Other, she might have been convinced by his act and apologized, telling herself that he only looked like the man who had tried to break into her room. But she could feel the smugness rolling off of him in waves. He was lying, and lying very well.
One of the caravan guards, a handsome man with broad shoulders, passed them on his way toward one of the campfires. When he saw the gawkers, he stopped.
“What seems to be the problem?” the guard said, addressing the man.
“This young lady is confused,” the man said. “She says she saw me in Tio and now claims I’m following her!” He managed the perfect indignant tone. His eyes got very wide; with that expression, he looked less like a rat and more like a harmless if ugly guinea pig. “But I never met her before. She must have me mixed up with someone else.”
“He tried to break into my room at the inn,” she said, addressing the guard, “and now he’s here! It’s not a coincidence.”
The guard was regarding her thoughtfully.
“What do you mean, he tried?”
—ust like Nancy. She found a friend who had the same pattern drapes as her and she thought the world was going to come to an end. Tried to trick me into marrying her. The pretty ones are always the craziest. She probably saw him pass by her door and decided he wante—
The rat-faced man was getting louder, making a scene. “This is a scandal. This… child comes up to me in the dark, while I’m minding my own business, and calls me a criminal? I have nothing to hide. My name is Pell. I’m an honest merchant making my way to Dellville to trade. Ask anyone. Check the records. I don’t know who she thinks I am but she is wrong.” His voice was getting shrill and anxious. A third rubbernecker stopped to watch the growing drama, and Sienna could feel the eyes on her.
—frightened the poor man to d—
—eally followed her around or is sh—
The guard put a hand on Pell’s shoulder. “Go back to your fire,” he said consolingly. “I’ll talk to her. And maybe, for everyone’s peace of mind, you had better try and keep out of each other’s way.”
“My pleasure,” Pell said huffily, and sulked his way to the nearest fire.
“You’re letting him go?” Sienna said. She heard the tone in her own voice and winced. It was plaintive and childish, and didn’t sound at all like someone who knew what she was talking about. The gawkers drew more conclusions.
—ust be superstitious. These y—
—n’t believe Lori is missing this, she—
“Lady,” the guard said, turning to her, “Unless you have anything more convincing to tell me besides the fact that you’d seen him in Tio and now he’s on the same caravan as you…”
It was true; she had no proof. Even if she told him the whole story, and through some miracle he believed her, what could he do? They were all stuck on this caravan together. But he didn’t even give her the benefit of the doubt. She had no doubt that all of Pell’s paperwork was in order, and who was she in his eyes but a stupid girl? She didn’t even have paperwork.
Making one last attempt, she said, “Maybe you could kind of… keep an eye on him? To make sure he doesn’t start any trouble?”
The guard paused a moment. How can I phrase this… “Whenever we can spare some men or time for it,” he said, “we will.” And then he turned away.
With the show over, the people who had been watching dispersed, and Sienna was left alone.
She climbed into a wagon where it was dark.
Nobody would believe that this man was dangerous. He really was capable of doing horrible things, but she had no proof, and no way to protect herself from him. Brennan might believe her, but he wasn’t exactly on her side, was he? She’d only be adding to his burdens.
If she could have spoken with more authority, that guard would have listened to her. Instead she had folded under the pressure and made a spectacle out of herself. She hated being stared at. She had looked like a freak to them. It was Cumbry all over again.
Enough. She rubbed her face hard enough to drive the welling tears back, then straightened. She was too old to act like this; she couldn’t allow herself to wallow in self-pity. She could not rely on other people for protection. This was life. She would have to be responsible for protecting herself.
She climbed out of the wagon. What she needed was to get some dinner before it all got eaten.
Spine straight, she headed toward the nearest fire, and was pleased to discover that it was the same fire Arnold had chosen. He was engaged in a conversation with several other people, and didn’t notice her. He listened just as well as he talked, to her surprise, asking after their hometowns, their work, their reasons for travel. Sitting on the edge of the light, she pulled a wing off of the duck that was roasting there. Someone like Arnold belonged anywhere. It was so easy for him to make people comfortable.
Now that the embarrassment of her debacle had faded, she began to wonder about Pell’s presence here. Why was her staff so important to him? If he had been kind, and just asked her instead of breaking into her room, she might have even given it to him. But he had attacked her, and now she was determined to hold on to it at all costs. He deserved not to get it. She wasn’t going to let that staff out of her sight for as long as he was around.
She chewed dutifully on the wing, but she wasn’t hungry. Pell was the nastiest person she had ever met, aside from one.
Where was Annali now, she wondered. Had she murdered anyone else lately? The sooner the world could be rid of that horrid woman, the better off it would be. She tossed the bone into the fire and watched it hiss and blacken in the heat.
* * *
Sienna flattened her bedroll beneath one of the wagons and snuggled down into it, then stowed her staff safely in the blankets beside her. But her concerns about Pell kept her awake a long time before she finally drifted off into a troubled sleep.
She awoke with the disorienting sensation that she had been dreaming another’s dream. Reaching blindly about with her senses, she tried to determine whose dream she had been having, but the fragile connection had broken when she entered the waking world, and she couldn’t even remember what the dream had been about, much less who had been in it.
She had lived alone for so long, she’d almost forgotten how it felt to dream another’s dream. When her father was alive, she used to love to hear him tell her over breakfast what he had dreamed the night before. There was something fascinating about the way the rich, vivid dream could be simmered down to a simple story, and he always told it with his own little twist. He had grown to take her empathy in all things for granted; until the day he died, John thought that she did not dream. Until the day he died, she didn’t know it was possible to have her own.
Sienna had liked it best when her father dreamed memories, even though the memories might not always be good ones; it made her feel like she knew her mother. It was because of her father’s dreams that she knew her mother’s face. Lena had been a small woman with dark hair, green eyes, and rare smile. It was also because of John’s dreams that she knew exactly how her mother had died.
Though he’d told her about it, it was a painful memory for him, and he had kept the story spare: Lena had died in childbirth. It was incredible to her that something with so much pain connected to it could be summed up in that one simple phrase.
During the few months that he’d had with her, Lena had been unpredictable of mood and fearful as a half-tamed animal. John loved her unconditionally. She had loved him back in her own way, but she was always on the verge of flight. He could never convince her to marry him. When he spoke of it, she would fall silent and go for a walk in the woods, sometimes for days, leaving John to wonder if she would return. Time with her felt like stolen time.
It wasn’t long before she became pregnant, he was glad to think she would have no choice but to stay. But as she rounded out, she announced that she would return to her family to have the baby, alone. She promised to come back, but he knew better. Once she left it would be forever, and she would be taking his child with her. But she went into labor two months too early. For three days she labored and bled and weakened, but she never once cried out in pain.
The memory was as alive in Sienna’s mind as it had been in her father’s. She could see her mother, lying weak on the bed which stank in the summer heat no matter how often he changed the blood-soaked straw. The first day, in her pain, she was brutal to him. She screamed him out of the house and screamed him back in, made impossible demands for items he could never have fetched in Cumbry. The second day was worse: she took the pain and went inward, shutting him out entirely. By the third day, she was pale and limp, and the power she held over him disappeared. He knew that he must bring the healer over despite her wishes.
The healer examined her and explained that Lena’s womb was malformed, and she was too small to deliver the child, premature though it was. Both mother and child were weak, if left to be born naturally, John would lose them both. There was only one option: they could cut her open and remove the child from her belly. Lena would almost certainly die, but it improved the child’s odds.
“I will live long enough,” Lena had said, her voice flinty. “Do it.”
So it was done. The healer wouldn’t give her anything to dull the pain for fear of it going to the child’s brain, but Lena had remained tenaciously aware long enough to see her child drawn from her belly. With one last, enormous effort, she grasped for the baby, but died before the healer could place her in her arms.
Sienna shut her eyes and lay back down again. Her father had never wanted her to grow up like him; he didn’t want her to repeat his mistakes, to allow herself to be treated the same way he had allowed himself to be treated. She had grown up fighting her father’s battles for him; when it was time to buy bread, she would go into town to protect him the disapproving glances. When he began to fall ill, she took up the ferry to keep him fed. She had been strong out of love for him; she wanted to be what he had wanted her to be.
But she had to be strong for herself now.
When she found Annali, the only question was whether she would be able to defeat her or not. Until then, she had to learn how to survive in the world she’d found herself in.
Tomorrow she would ask Brennan how to use her staff. Her injuries had healed enough. He should want to teach her, if only to spare himself the annoyance of having to drag her out of every danger that passed.
Besides, it would be easier to sleep if she knew she could protect herself from Pell.
* * *
The morning woke her gently with cool air and dewy grass. Sienna stretched, careful not to aggravate her bruises, and crawled out of the bag. She was an early riser even by the caravan’s standards. Only the two guards on watch were awake; they slowly, almost lazily, walked the perimeter of the field in which the wagons were camped, keeping a casual eye on the woods and occasionally chatting with each other. Bits and pieces of dreams flitted to her from the people sleeping nearest her; she willed her own mind to the forefront and gazed at the trees. It had been nearly dark when they had camped. Now, with the horizon beginning to lighten, she could see more clearly. The merchants had pulled the wagons off the road a short way into a weed-strewn field that looked like it had been driven into many times before. The road ran alongside it, paved with old flagstones of varied colors, and wide enough to accommodate two wagons side by side. The rocks were shifting with the slow turning of time; tall grass and seedlings were sprouting through the cracks. Even in its decay, it was extraordinary in its size and craftsmanship, a testament to the glory of the old Azarian empire.
Hearing one of the guards give a shout, she turned to see. Across the field on the edge of the woods, something yellow lay in the grass, twitching feebly. The guard was approaching it cautiously, a second arrow knocked in his bow, but it died before he was able to reach it. There was no mistaking that sickly hue: a mutant had found them. Three more guards came running over. They gathered around the dead monster and muttered amongst themselves, glancing up at the woods surrounding them. It wasn’t long before another man strode up to join them, his cool demeanor and graceful stride easily identifiable from any distance. Brennan hardly glanced at the corpse; instead he said something to the men, upon which they all broke up and circled the camp with renewed vigilance. Brennan did not join them; instead he went into the team leader’s tent. One of the guards dragged the mutant corpse into the woods, out of view of the travelers. A few minutes later, Brennan left the team leader’s tent and, though the sun was only just struggling over the horizon, the whistle blew. People woke up and staggered out of their bedrolls, their confused and scattered thoughts reaching her.
—sun’s hardly up yet, it’s too earl—
—omething wrong? Why are we—
As of right now, nobody yet knew that a mutant had been killed near their camp. It wouldn’t be long before they heard; news like that had a way of spreading quickly.
The guards and caravan team passed out a cold breakfast of dry biscuits, and the second whistle blew before anyone had time to even make a fire. Sienna could feel the concern pooling in the crowd like morning fog. They stood in small nervous clusters, talking quietly to one another as they put their things away.
Sienna found an empty wagon and climbed in; she had plenty of time to bundle her things and stow them under the benches before people joined her. Arnold found her again; he greeted her with a wink, and in his wake came some of his new acquaintances. There was an overweight, hairy man with a scraggly beard; a middle-aged woman whose hair was still inky-black but for a feathering of gray at the temples; a delicate-looking girl of about fifteen with large, liquid blue eyes and loose blonde curls.
Two more men climbed in after them, merchants by their look and mindset, but they sat at the far end of the bench and spoke only to one another. Occasionally they glanced at Arnold with disdain when he laughed too loud.
Sienna watched Arnold chat away at the older woman. The woman nodded, the crow’s feet around her eyes crinkling at his story.
She liked the woman, but something about the relationship between the fat man and the young girl bothered her. The blonde was nervous; she didn’t speak unless spoken to. At first she thought it was because of the mutant, but that wasn’t right. It went deeper than that. The man had introduced himself as Orlf. Sienna watched him when he talked and probed the Other for answers when he was silent. The Other wouldn’t tell her much. Sometimes people who kept a lot of secrets had naturally closed minds, and she didn’t try to pry beyond their barriers. Instead she turned to the little blonde and tried to engage her in conversation.
“Where are you headed?” she said.
The girl wouldn’t meet her eye. “We’re going to Pretin,” she said with a sidewards glance at Orlf.
“Do you travel a lot?”
“Yes. Father is a merchant.”
She turned to Orlf. “Oh, she’s your daughter then? What do you sell?” she asked.
Orlf nodded, studying her suspiciously. “She is my daughter,” he finally said. Then he leaned his head back against the wall of the wagon as if he wanted to sleep.
She tried the girl again. “I’m Sienna. What’s your name?”
The girl’s gaze flickered up to her before going back to the floorboards. “Signy,” she said.
The Other spoke Signy’s thoughts. Why can’t she keep quiet? She’s going to cost me if she keeps this up.
Sienna didn’t want to cause Signy any problems, so she left off with the questions. But Signy’s body language alone told Sienna that the girl spent her days anxiously watching Orlf’s reactions. Did her father beat her?
He is not her father, the Other whispered, then sent her an image. A darkened room, curtains drawn. Orlf handing a thin hooded man some gold. A pale little girl with blonde hair in the corner. Signy. She had been bought and paid for. Sienna could guess what for.
She didn’t know this kind of thing went on in the world. Signy couldn’t have been more than eight at the time. It made her queasy. She couldn’t look at Orlf anymore, or he would see her revulsion. Instead she watched the trees pass by and tried to force her emotions back into something that could be taken for normal under the circumstances. Vaguely she became aware that Arnold had mentioned her name. She looked around, surprised.
“Sienna,” he said again. “This is Raven. She’s a healer. Sienna and I were on the same wagon yesterday. She’s going to go see some relatives in Pretin.”
“Nice to meet you,” Sienna said, shaking her hand. She was grateful he hadn’t mentioned Cumbry. To avoid any further questions about herself, she said, “Are you going there, too?”
Raven smiled at her. The woman looked very stern if she was focusing, but when she smiled, the lines in her face lifted. Her handshake was firm and lightly callused. She was half a head shorter than average, but she still had a good figure for a woman her age, just tending toward plumpness. Under her seat lay a bow and matching quiver full of goose-fletched arrows, alongside an upright leather bag that rattled whenever they hit a particularly large bump. Though her crimson dress was feminine enough, with flower-carved wooden buttons and hint of yellow embroidery, she wore a plain black cloak over her shoulders that had been cut and fashioned for men.
“I travel back and forth with the caravan,” she said. “They can always use a healer on board.”
“Really?” Sienna replied, remembering the mutant from the morning. “Do people often get hurt on caravans?”
“Last trip, I made tea for a cold that went around,” Raven said with a laugh. “Occasionally a horse will break a leg. And, very rarely, a guard will get hurt fighting bandits or mutants.”
“I heard,” Arnold said to Sienna, leaning forward conspiratorially, “that there was a mutant in camp just this morning.”
Sienna suppressed a laugh. The man was a regular gossip!
“They killed it,” he reassured her. “But that’s why we left extra early.”
“There won’t be any more, though?” Signy asked softly, caught into the conversation despite herself. Orlf shifted at her voice, and Signy looked quickly over, but he was asleep, and dreaming. Sienna found herself wishing she could affect his dreams; she would make him trade perspectives with the woman in his dream right now.
“There are always more mutants,” Raven said. Noticing Signy’s wide eyes, she added, “But they won’t attack our caravan. We are too many and too well-guarded. I expect that one just got closer than it should have.”
Signy asked no more questions, but her troubled expression did not change.
Sienna heard more in what the healer was saying. “The mutants aren’t following us, are they?”
“They always follow caravans, at a distance,” Raven replied. “So many people together leave a lot of food and scraps behind. They pick up what we leave.”
“Are they intelligent?” she asked.
Raven shook her head. “Horses are smarter.”
“A man once told me,” Arnold said, “that he heard a mutant speak. It broke into his house while he was out farming. He came through the door and there it was, trying to get the soup off the fire, but it was using its bare hands to scoop it up. It kept saying, ‘hot, hot, hot.’”
“What did he do?” Sienna asked, horrified.
“He killed it, of course. It saw him and attacked, but he still had his scythe in his hand, so he used it.”
This disturbed her. “Can all mutants can talk?”
“I don’t think so,” Arnold said. “That’s why it was so odd that that one did.”
Raven nodded her head in agreement. “I wouldn’t be feeling too sorry for the mutants,” she said. “Any human they see they try to kill. They’re foul, hungry things whose biggest thoughts are whether or not they’d be able to eat you.”
Sienna nodded, remembering her own encounter with the mutants. Still, she couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for them. Did they talk amongst themselves? Did they hate humans? She hoped not. Just imagining them halting along the road in the trail of caravans, picking through abandoned campsites, eating scraps out of the mud… anything with that kind of a life shouldn’t have to be self-aware.
“Let’s change the subject,” Arnold said. “We’re disturbing the kids.”
Raven laughed and they moved on to lighter topics.
* * *
When the team leader’s whistle blew, calling a stop to the day’s travels, Sienna asked Arnold to come along with her under the pretext of introducing him to Brennan. In reality, she needed him there for the moral support. She hadn’t spoken to Brennan in two days, and already he felt like a stranger.
As she approached the guards’ fire, she was grateful to have Arnold’s light chatter at her side. There were over ten men there, most of them rough types. As soon as the guards noticed her, the Other showed her several different fantasies of her naked self. Yet another aspect of mind reading that she could have done without. It was more annoying than upsetting, but it made her glad that she was there with Arnold, who saw her as not much more than a child, and even Brennan, who, whatever his faults might be, was always honorable.
Brennan’s face darkened at her approach, but not as much as she’d expected. She and Arnold sat down next to him, and the men shuffled over to make room.
As they scooted closer in toward the fire, Arnold, of course, was the first to speak. “Which one of you is Brennan?” he said.
“That would be me,” Brennan said.
“Arnold!” he declared cheerily, taking his hand and looking as pleased as could be. Sienna smiled at his exuberance in the face of Brennan’s stoicism; Brennan couldn’t help but react to that level of warmth. He even relaxed a little. “Sienna here told me you saved her life,” Arnold continued.
“I told him about the mutants,” she said when Brennan glanced at her questioningly.
“Why didn’t you tell us about the mutants?” A large man on the other side of Brennan whined, feigning offense. He had a scar down the side of his face and the tips of two fingers on his right hand were missing.
Brennan just leaned forward and shrugged, suddenly taking an intense interest in his food.
Sienna suppressed a smile; she would force him to interact. “There were at least ten of them.” Brennan glanced up at her sharply, but she pretended not to notice. “The largest must have been…” She looked up, pretending to judge the distance in her mind. “…nine feet tall. It was the middle of the night, and we were sleeping. I woke up but he just lay there, snoring away. I thought we were finished for sure.”
The guards noticed Brennan’s expression and started laughing. He was looking at her as if she’d just turned into another person.
“If you don’t tell the story,” she said, unable to hold a wicked grin back any longer, “I will.”
“She’s lying. There were only three,” Brennan said earnestly. But a smile was starting to warm its way through him.
“One caught me and started to pull my arms off,” Sienna offered. “Then Brennan came out of nowhere and sliced off its head.”
The men looked at Brennan again for verification. He shrugged. “That part is true,” he said. “She’s lucky I found her in time. All day I kept having to check my pace or she’d fall behind. But when she saw those mutants, she was off like an arrow. Suddenly I was the one trying to catch up to her.”
Sienna blushed at the renewed laughter.
As the conversation turned to other things, she leaned toward Brennan and said, “I was wondering if you had time to teach me how to use my staff tonight?”
The man with the missing fingers overheard. “You want to learn to fight, little lady?”
“Yes,” she said cautiously.
“I could show you a thing or two,” he said, and the men around them started to catcall and whistle. He waved them off with a smile she didn’t like.
He wants you. We could use him, the Other whispered.
She ignored him and looked back at Brennan.
“I can’t,” he said. “I have watch tonight. Why don’t you let Ivan teach you?” He met her gaze dead on, his face carefully blank. The man was swift in his revenge.
She tried to think of a polite way to decline Ivan, but by the time she thought of an excuse, he was already up and holding a gnarled hand out to her. She rose with the aid of her staff, pretending not to see the proffered hand. She was in for it now. Ivan’s eyes had a familiar sparkle in them, one she had seen more than once in Dirty Mick’s eyes at Cumbry. How could she mitigate this disaster? She hunkered down on heels next to Arnold. “Wouldn’t you like to join us?” she asked him, her eyes pleading. Arnold, thank the gods, took the hint. He rose and took his leave of the guardsmen, several of whom he had already befriended.
“Alright if I come?” he asked Ivan.
“Sure, the more the merrier,” Ivan said, but
—meddling old fool, what does he care about watching someone train—
is what he thought.
They found an open space under a large hardwood tree where they could practice. Arnold sat down a few feet away, a distant look in his eyes.
— less than a week away, the Other whispered. I can’t wait to hold my girls again. Sienna’s a sweet kid; maybe I’ll invite her and her young man to stay at our place instead of the inn. Irma won’t mind. The things I’d like to do to that woman when I get her—
“Oy, girl!” Ivan barked. “Pay attention.”
Sienna returned to herself, startled at his crisp tone.
“When you’re fighting, you can’t afford to daydream,” he said, jumping up and grasping a dead branch on the tree above them. It gave with a sharp crack and he landed with a dense thud. “You sure that stick of yours can hold up?”
“It’s stronger than it looks,” she said, hoping she sounded confident enough.
Ivan broke the extra twigs off of the branch to make his own staff, and was swinging it to test its weight. The powerful muscles in his arms and neck bunched with the movement; Sienna felt a twinge of nervousness.
“Then block me,” he said, and came at her, fast. Surprised, she held her staff out blindly, and managed through sheer luck to block his blow. Even so, the shock of the impact blasted into her injured arms and ribs, ricocheting around her sore muscles. Sienna blanched and bent to breathe, losing herself in the pain
—omen are so damn delicate, I keep forget—
—did he just do to her? Is she hu—
Sienna straightened and took a breath, focusing again on her own thoughts as the pain faded.
“Did I hurt you?” Ivan said, lowering his branch.
“I dislocated my shoulder a couple of days ago,” Sienna explained, straightening and facing him again. “It wasn’t your fault. I just wasn’t expecting it.”
“You need to pay attention,” Ivan said weakly. His harsh military mien had vanished; now he was at a loss. “Maybe we should do something easier.”
“We can just try it a little slower,” Sienna offered. “I wasn’t prepared for it.”
“In battle,” Ivan said, regaining some of his confidence as he spoke, “You have to expect the unexpected. You also have to be able to face pain and overcome it. One day you might be wounded, and it won’t matter how bad it hurts to raise your arm. You’ll have to do it anyway.”
“Right,” Sienna said, and faced him again, heart pounding. She already wanted to quit. Her arm ached where it’d braced against the blow. But she would not back out now. There were mutants following the caravan. There was Pell in the caravan. And there was Annali, somewhere out there, getting away with what she’d done. By the gods, she was going to learn at least one thing tonight.
Ivan swung at her again, an overhead blow with a deliberately clumsy delivery. She angled her staff to block him. Coming from someone who thought her delicate, the blow was still brutally strong. They connected forcefully, but she was braced for it this time and gritted her teeth against the pain that glanced through her.
“Freeze,” Ivan said. He lowered his weapon and walked around her, eyes panning over her body. She held her ground but watched him out of the corner of her eye, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. “Ground yourself,” he said. “Widen your legs.” Standing too close behind her, he put his hands on her waist and used his leg to push her foot farther out. When he touched her, a split-second image came to his mind of forcing her to the ground underneath him. With effort, he repressed the thought, but Sienna had already straightened and stepped away from him.
“Again?” she said, eying him coolly.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he came at her, even faster than he had yet. But she was prepared this time, and pivoted out of the way, driving the bottom of her staff into the earth in front of his feet. He wasn’t expecting her to defend herself so effectively; catching his foot on it, he lost his balance and landed hard on his hands with a grunt.
For several seconds, he stayed face-down on the ground, his expression hidden to her, his mind shocked. In that instant, she was afraid he’d really been hurt. But a strong emotion slowly expanded in the air around him, and she took an involuntary step back, holding her staff in front of her protectively. When he pushed himself up on one arm and raised his head, terrible rage glowed in his eyes.
She’d made a mistake; one did not try to put a man like him in his place. He could crush her skull like it was a melon.
—ike a woman to fight dirty, I’ll rip her insolent head off her sh—
Arnold sized up the situation in a moment. He rose with a chuckle and stepped quickly over, hand extended, to help Ivan the rest of the way to his feet. “You kids going to play nice now?” he said as Ivan straightened himself. He turned his glare onto the merchant, and Sienna was afraid for him. Arnold looked small, frail, and elderly next to the brute of a man, his friendly hand dwarfed in Ivan’s massive grip. But to her amazement, Ivan’s rage faded and his good humor returned in full. He released Arnold’s hand and let loose a belly-laugh. Sienna let herself breath again.
“That’s what I get for underestimating the little lady,” he said. “You’re a hellcat, aren’t you?”
“A hellcat!” Sienna said, frustrated. “I’m no hellcat. I thought we were supposed to fight.”
“Alright, a pupil.” Ivan said. The lecherous sparkle was muted, and he looked at her a little more levelly now. “But listen to me. You have to be serious about this. I won’t teach no woman because she has a passing fancy for it.”
“I’m serious about it,” she said. “One day my life may depend on it.”
“It might,” Ivan said with a crooked grin. Then he swung his branch straight at her head. Sienna hid behind her staff, deflecting his blow only clumsily. If she hadn’t had good reflexes, he could have cracked her skull. As it was, the pain in her shoulder nearly overtook her, and her head swam.
—f she wants me to trea—
—angerous game they’re pl—
“Pay attention!” Ivan barked, and swung at her side. Forcing her eyes back to him, Sienna took a few steps backward out of his way, trying to regain her equilibrium through the pain. Ivan pressed his advantage and, bringing himself close, brought his branch under her feet. She stumbled and landed on her rump with an “oof,” her bruises screaming in protest. She lost herself again in her pain.
—has strong arms, even with her injur—
—poor thing is getting beat to—
Sienna blinked. Ivan was pointing his branch at her throat. “You’re dead,” he said. “You just daydreamed yourself into your grave.”
Cursing silently, Sienna pulled herself to her feet with the aid of her staff. Her body was slow to obey her. Even her mind was getting weary, trying to hold the thoughts at bay while the rest of her took a painful beating. Inhaling deeply, she straightened, focused on Ivan, and waited for his next move. The cicadas were beginning their nightly chorus around them, and the firebugs twinkled in the darkness. Not until he called it off, she told herself. She’s only just earned his respect, and she wasn’t going to lose her chance at real instruction with weak behavior. They’d only just begun.
They sparred for another half hour, until it was too dark to see. Sienna was trembling with pain and fatigue, but she had not quit. When she left the clearing, she was leaning heavily on her staff, Arnold chatting quietly by her side. They reached her wagon and Sienna climbed in and sat down to face him, leaning her head on the rough-hewn wooden planks that made up the chair. She didn’t quite have the energy to make her bedroll yet. Maybe in a few minutes.
“Thank you,” she said, “For coming with me.”
“Always glad to help a damsel in distress,” Arnold replied with another one of his winks.
“I’m tired of being the damsel in distress,” Sienna said with a sigh. “That’s why I’m doing this.”
“When we reach Dellville,” Arnold said, “You, and Brennan if you want, should come have dinner with me and Irma. I’d like you to meet her.”
Sienna smiled. “That would be nice,” she said. “How could I pass up the roast chicken that you’ve been talking about for days? The woman must be a miracle worker.”
“Oh, she is,” Arnold said faithfully. “Not to mention the greenest eyes in any town I ever-” he stopped himself with a laugh. “Never mind. Go to bed, girl.”
Sienna slept deeply that night, all the way through to the team leader’s morning whistle. She didn’t even remember what dreams she’d shared.
After breakfast, Sienna spotted Raven sitting alone in a wagon and she climbed in to join her, trying not to let it show how much she hurt. The cool morning air wasn’t a tonic like it usually was; instead it made her joints ache. Raven watched her pained movements with a hawk’s eye.
“What happened to you? You’re acting like you’ve been beaten with a stick.”
Sienna had to laugh. “That’s exactly what did happen,” she said. “One of the guards was teaching me to fight with my staff.”
“Heaven,” Raven said, pulling her down to sit at her side and rolling her eyes. “Let me see the damage.” When Sienna hesitated, Raven said, “I’m a healer, remember?”
Sienna glanced around to see if anyone was coming their way, but nobody was yet. Apprehensively she rolled one of her sleeves back. Even she hadn’t looked at the bruises yet; she didn’t really want to. More than that, though, she didn’t like to show her arms. They were not the soft feminine limbs she’d envied on other women; though slim enough, they were lined with muscles and firm as wood from her years of pulling the ferry across the Red River. She watched Raven for her reaction.
The things these children do to themselves, the Other whispered Raven’s thoughts as she gently took her arm and turned it, examining both sides. What a bruise! She’s hiding more of them, I know. By the way she winced when she climbed in, I’ll warrant her ribs are hurting her too.
Grateful that Raven had eyes only for the injuries, she looked down to study her own arm as well. She had a light bruise on her forearm where Ivan’s staff had connected, but up near her injured shoulder another began, and it got darker until it disappeared under her sleeve. Though it hurt less than it had when she’s seen herself back at the inn, the bruises appeared darker.
Raven was quite serious. “Which of the guards is walloping you like this?”
Not wanting to lose her chance for training, Sienna tried to pacify her as she rolled down her sleeve. “Most of this isn’t really from him. A few days ago Brennan and I ran into some mutants, and one of them dislocated my arm. I guess I trained a little harder than I should have and it renewed the injuries.”
Raven sighed. “I’ll mix you up a poultice for that arm,” she said as Arnold climbed into the wagon, chatting merrily with two wide-eyed boys about her own age, who found seats at his side. Before the trip was over, Sienna thought, she’d meet every person in the caravan, willingly or not.
Raven didn’t mention her injuries again; she made conversation with the people Arnold had brought in, and, between the five of them, the talking was lively enough that Sienna’s lack of involvement was not noticed.
Ivan frightened her, but he was a good teacher. That little flash of indecision she had seen in him, the sudden urge to slam her down… Pell had wanted to do it as punishment, out of pure nastiness, but she had no doubts she could fight him off. What Ivan had was an impulse control problem. And once he got into motion, no one could outfight him.
The thing that stuck with her, though, was the way he’d made an effort; the twinge of guilt that had forced the urge away. That told her something about his character. She could probably trust him as long as she kept clear boundaries. Besides, it would be hard for him to hurt her as long as she stayed near the people here.
When dusk fell and the caravan stopped, Sienna climbed down from the wagon and tried to disappear into the darkness, but Raven hadn’t forgotten the poultice she’d promised. She hopped down behind Sienna and caught up her wrist before she could make good her escape. Her leather bag was in her other hand, and she was ready for business. Sienna stood as far away as she could, trying to send silent signals that she didn’t want any healing.
“Come, let me see what I can do for that arm,” Raven said. Her tone was kind and concerned, but Sienna felt as if she were going into some kind of trap. Raven’s grip did not crush, but it did not loosen either.
“I haven’t money for a healer,” she tried.
“Nonsense, girl. The caravan pays me.”
Sienna’s attempts at protest died on her lips as Raven put a hand on her back and guided her toward where some of the guards were setting up the team leader’s tent.
“Gentlemen,” she said, as if it were her own tent, “If it would please you, I need to use this tent. Healer’s business. We won’t be more than fifteen minutes.”
There was some grumbling amongst them, but Raven only crossed her arms and waited until they all dispersed. As the last man left with the lantern, she stopped him.
“Mark, might I borrow your lantern? I need good light to be able to make my salves,” Raven said.
The guard gave it to her with the resigned air of one who knew from experience not to argue.
“In you go,” Raven said. In Sienna went, and stood awkwardly, waiting to see what Raven would do to her. The thin cloth walls around her hardly gave her a sense of privacy. There was no floor to the tent, only rough grass and scrubby plants. “Take off your shirt,” Raven said, turning to set her pack on the ground.
Sienna hesitated. She’d never taken off her shirt in front of anybody. But Raven paid no more attention to her; she was digging in her pack, pulling out bottles of dried herbs, odd tools, and even a little brass teapot.
Sienna checked the tent flap, making sure it was tied, before finally pulling her shirt over her head. She felt her face heat and crossed her arms in front of her, trying to act casual but failing miserably.
Raven turned and looked at her. Her eyes hardened. “To think you were sparring with Ivan in your state,” she scolded. “I don’t know why it is people don’t listen to their own bodies. Sit down, child.”
Sienna sat on the grass and looked down at herself. The joint of her shoulder was blue in places, and the footprint on her chest had faded to a greenish color. She was grotesque.
Raven kneeled beside her and took her arm, gently turning it this way and that, noting when Sienna flinched. Finally she stood up, took her cloak off, and handed it to Sienna.
“The swelling’s not too bad, but I’ll mix up something to help with the pain,” she announced. Sitting down on the grass so her things laid scattered before her, she selected herbs and dried items from the little jars, tapping them from the jars into a mortar and pestle. The scent of the poultice climbed into the air as she ground it, sweet floral and stinging sour and fresh herbed green, blending together into one heady aroma. Sienna drew the cloak around her and watched her mash a lump of fragrant fat into it, binding the ingredients together.
“It smells so good,” she said. “Our town healer always said that the harder a medicine was to take, the more effective it was.”
Raven laughed. “I don’t hold much stock in that. The body knows what’s good and what’s bad for it, and it tries to let you know with pleasure or pain. A medicine that the body tries to reject can’t be especially good for it. Besides, I find that people conveniently forget to use remedies with a foul taste or smell.”
Raven took her pestle of salve and came back to Sienna’s side, making her take the cloak off again. She dipped her knuckles in it and kneaded it into Sienna’s bruises. Her heavy touch made Sienna wince, but in places where she finished the application, a marvelously warm feeling spread, and the aroma eased tension she didn’t know she was carrying. When she was satisfied with the work she had done, Raven gave her a bandage, showing her how to bind it around her shoulder and ribs in a way that it would stay. The pressure felt good. Sienna was amazed at the difference. She worked her arm back and forth experimentally.
“Now I would tell you,” Raven said, sounding for all the world like somebody’s mother as she put her bottles and things back into her bag, “not to do any more fighting until your shoulder heals up, but I know you won’t listen.” She handed Sienna a little jar with the rest of the poultice in it. “Put this on every night, or whenever it hurts, and keep your shoulder wrapped all the time. It’s the best we can do for it right now.”
Sienna put her shirt back on and tucked the jar in a pocket. She smiled at Raven gratefully. “This is wonderful,” she said, picking up her staff. The healer in Cumbry had never been so effective, or so kind. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
Sweet girl, the Other whispered in Raven’s voice. It’s a pity, what she has to deal with.
Sienna looked sharply at her, wondering what she meant. Raven met her gaze thoughtfully.
“I knew a girl once,” Raven said, “A sweet girl, like you, but eight years old. She grew up in my hometown; a little place. You wouldn’t have heard of it. One day she came to me complaining of headaches. I gave her some scented oils to relieve tension and she went home, and I thought that was the end of it. But the a few days later she came back. She told me the oils didn’t help, so I gave her some whiteleaf to chew. That didn’t help either.
“We kept trying different things, and always they failed. I decided the headaches were from stress, because I couldn’t find a thing wrong with her physically. I thought maybe she had trouble at home. Finally I told her that I couldn’t help her headaches until she told me what was really wrong. She threw a fit and left. But that evening she knocked on my door, and she was ready to show me. It was the most curious thing. I’m telling you the truth, child. She looked at one of my bottles on the table, and it slid toward her by itself. Her headaches would come after she’d used this… power.”
Raven paused and sighed.
Sienna could think of nothing to say. She watched Raven, wide-eyed, afraid to move.
“Not long after that, the carnival came to town. The crowds seemed to do something to her. She was watching the juggler, and she proclaimed that she could do better. She stood on a box and threw the pins in the air, and the pins defied gravity, always coming back to her no matter what direction she threw them. People were amazed at first, but then they grew frightened. She said she could do more, and she did. She summoned knives from the other tents, adding them to the air above her. Then, the pins, of their own accord, burst into flame. Still she juggled. The spectators started to scream and tried to flee, but their feet were stuck. They had no choice but to stay and watch her performance. Her eyes reflected the fire as she added more and more items to the air above her. At one point she stopped even using her hands, and she laughed hysterically. I am the queen of—”
— the carnival, the Other said, and Sienna saw the memory.
A little girl, eight years old, long brown hair, pale and thin and drawn, eyes as yellow as the fire she juggled. Her laugh sent shivers down Raven’s spine; it was childlike in voice, but not in tone. Knives and flaming pins spun above her, mesmerizing in their impossibility.
The smile faded. The knives and pins paused in midair and everyone held their breath.
Then they hurled themselves at the spectators, who tried to dive but could do no better than fall over, their feet stuck fast to the mud. A chorus of screams arose from the crowd in the dark. They could not go to one another’s aid.
“Then the girl’s mother appeared. She walked up to her child slowly, as if she was underwater, fighting the paralysis that had affected the other people. She called her name over and over as she approached until the child finally looked at her, and she recognized her mother, the brightness fading from her eyes. The items fell to the earth and the people were able to move again, and move they did. Some of them fled, but most of them… they swarmed upon the child, and beat her and her mother to death.”
The smell of the dark smoke rising from a small battered corpse on the bonfire. Four bodies laid out on my kitchen table, awaiting preparation for burial. Cedric’s son lost his leg. And so much more.
Sienna felt ill.
“So you left your town,” Sienna said quietly, “and joined the caravan.”
“So I did,” Raven said, and took one of Sienna’s hands in both her own. “But no matter what I do, I can’t seem to escape her. And here I meet you, you who remind me so much of that little girl.”
Something in her eyes, a look rare in someone so young. She gets pale and shaky at odd times, the same mental exhaustion. But this girl is a little different; she seems to react to… And then, quite loud and clear, Can you hear my thoughts, child?
It was too much. Overcome, Sienna broke away from her and blundered out of the tent, breaking the little string that had tied the flaps shut, past several fires surrounded by people. Many of them turned to stare after her as she rushed by.
—t’s wrong with her—
—that girl is acting—
She slowed a little bit but not much, hurrying onward until she was out of sight of all the people, in the woods, in the dark, alone. The people were still chattering in her head, but the distance made them quieter and more manageable. The cicadas buzzed around her, and the occasional firebug flickered in the darkness, illuminating a heap of pink stone that might have been a ruin once but was now unrecognizable. Here she stopped, leaned on her staff, and took a shuddering breath. Then she took another, hunkered down on her heels and tried to relax, resting her forehead against the cool stone. The people still droned in the back of her mind, but at least she could hear herself think.
Raven knew. She knew.
Why did she tell her that story? A girl, a mere child, loses control and starts killing people. It appeared there was no room for error where the Other was concerned. What really frightened her about it was that she so often felt on the verge of losing herself to the Other. She’d instinctively fought letting the Other overwhelm her, but she hadn’t really believed losing herself to it would be as bad as that. Would her Other kill people? She knew in her heart that it was capable of it. The thing had no conscience.
Sienna shuddered and pushed the thought away.
Raven’s story confirmed what she had long suspected. If her secret were made public, the people wouldn’t understand. Their hate and fear would overcome them, and they would rush upon her and tear her to pieces. In Azaria, emotion won over judgment every time.
What was Raven trying to say? Was it a warning? Was it a threat? Somehow she couldn’t believe that Raven was threatening her. Deep within the woman’s heart was a genuine desire to help people. But even if Raven did want to help, what could she do? She was a healer, but what Sienna had was no wound she could put a salve on.
Sienna stilled her heart, took a few breaths, and listened to the world around her. It was peaceful out here, alone. The muted thoughts of the caravan mumbled in her head, distant. People were so noisy. It would be easy to just run away. She wouldn’t be a burden on Brennan, or tempt Ivan, or be an awful reminder of Raven’s past. Arnold would quickly make another friend, or ten.
But what would she do if she were alone? She peered into the woods, and felt them peering back at her. There were little creatures in the trees, watching her with small, feral eyes. A cold drop of fear trickled up her spine. She was alone in the woods. Mutants could be out here, looking for an easy meal, a lonely straggler. Where there was one mutant, there were usually more.
No. Running away was not an option for her. There was no way she could survive alone in these woods. Besides that, she had to face her fears. She was a danger to them, but she also needed them. Going back toward the fires meant plunging back into the noise and the overwhelming activity, back to more dizzying dives into other people’s minds, pretending all the while she was normal. It also meant seeing Raven again. Raven, who knew her secret. Who had seen a girl just like her bring horrifying tragedy to her friends and family.
If Raven told anyone, she would run. She would be the first one to know if the people started thinking about hurting her for what she was. As for whether or not she would actually find out in time to flee, that was another question. But there was no sense thinking about that. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she ran away. She would have to face Raven again. In truth, a part of her desperately wanted to talk about it with someone. A shared secret had half the weight.
She stood up again and looked toward the fires. People were finishing their meals; it was time to spar with Ivan. One missed practice and he would lose his newly gained respect for her; he might not even condescend to train her anymore. She sighed, braced her mind, and headed back to the people.
* * *
The next morning broke with Sienna already awake and her shoulder freshly bound. She was on the edge of the campground again, practicing some of the things Ivan had taught her last night. He had used the flat of his sword this time instead of a branch; she considered that progress. Once again she had had trouble concentrating while sparring, but this time it had been her own thoughts and worries that had distracted her. The pain in her chest and shoulders, though still deep, had subsided greatly; the poultice and the wrap had already made a world of difference. She imagined a mutant in front of her and swung at it there, and there, trying not to let herself feel stupid. She was alone so that she could look as stupid as she needed to. It was better to feel stupid than to worry about Raven, and the days she would have to spend traveling with her, and the worry that she might tell someone, and the
— a fat orange eel with vicious little black eyes and teeth like an alligator. “What do you call a fish like that?” I say. “It’s a lion tamer,” he said. “You caught that all by yourself?”
Sienna yanked herself out of someone’s dream, leaned her head back and gazed at the sky, frustration building in her. The harder she tried not to worry, the more she failed. This made her upset, and she would lose even more control. It was a cycle from which she could not break herself.
Sienna jammed her staff upright in the ground before her and rubbed her eyes hard. Was there even such a creature as a lion tamer? She allowed herself a tired chuckle, grabbed her staff, and flipped it over to see if she’d jammed dirt in it. Turning around, she jumped to find Brennan standing a few feet away, his arms crossed over his chest thoughtfully. Self-conscious, she tried to recall everything she had done while he was standing there.
“Practicing?” he said.
“Trying,” Sienna said with tired smile. “I can’t seem to keep my concentration.”
“Are you tired?”
Sienna considered telling him the truth about Raven, but decided he wouldn’t care. “Just can’t stop thinking,” she said, then laughed. “And I can’t stop thinking about stopping thinking.”
Brennan smiled sympathetically, and Sienna felt that little jolt of surprise that came with the transformation in his face. How could he look so stern one minute and so young the next? She should be used to it by now, she thought wryly. She’s seen him smile at least two times before.
“Stop worrying about worrying. Accept the worry without judgment, then let it go. Don’t force your mind.”
She nodded at him, hoping he would leave.
“Go ahead,” he said.
She braced herself to look stupid and began going through her paces. Imagining Ivan in front of her, she parried and ducked his imaginary blows. She told herself not to worry about Brennan standing there judging her performance, then corrected herself. No, it was okay to worry about him judging her performance. Breathe, relax, and just swing… so. She had thought it felt stupid when she was alone, but now, with Brennan as her audience, she felt like a world-class fool, ducking and parrying invisible opponents. She didn’t even know if she was doing it remotely the way she was supposed to. Bludgeoning her invisible opponent over the head with a weak, awkward final swing at the ground, she turned back to Brennan.
He was gone. Where did he go? Had something happened? Alarmed, she studied the woods for his retreating figure, but he wasn’t there. How did he move so quietly? Maybe he’d noticed trouble and dashed off to help. She sought the minds of the people in the camp to see if something was wrong, but everything was fine. He had just said his piece and then wandered away. Curse him, but that was a rude thing to do. Why hadn’t he said something to her before he left? Now she felt stupid for feeling stupid when he wasn’t even there to look stupid in front of. She huffed a frustrated sigh. She really was thinking too much. She could practice just as well in front of him as not, if only she could let all these pointless thoughts and anxieties go. She fought her imaginary opponent again, faster this time and with more confidence; it was easier without him watching.
“Much better,” Brennan’s voice came from the woods at her side.
Sienna looked at him, irritation flaring inside her. He had no right to trick her like that. But when she opened her mouth to scold him, she started laughing instead.
“You are a master of head games,” she said, shaking her head at him.
Brennan smiled again. The second time in one day. If he wasn’t careful it could become a habit. But it faded quickly, and he nodded sharply at her staff. “Try it again,” he said.
She’d learned her lesson. All of these blocks were in her head. He’d seen her at her worst, and he’d seen her at her best. She couldn’t make any bigger of a fool out of herself than she already had. This time she got through it as confidently as she could, imagining that he’d disappeared into the woods again. She didn’t feel especially capable, but it was still better than the first time.
“Space your feet a little more,” he said. “You have to maintain good balance.”
She spaced her feet a little bit, still not sure if she was doing it right.
“Try again,” he said.
She swiped several times at the air, keeping her feet a little wider this time. She could do this. She glanced at Brennan to see his expression, but it was stone.
“Watch your opponent, not me,” he said. “Again.”
She tried again, her gaze on an imaginary opponent, her breath beginning to wear out.
“Remember what I told you!” he said sharply. Sienna lowered her staff and looked at him in surprise. He drew his sword and approached her. She knew he was just teaching her, but the sight of him facing her with a weapon in his hand still gave her a twinge of apprehension.
He stood still, his bearing easy, his sword lowered. “Hit me.”
Sienna took another breath and swung at him. He easily blocked her attempt with the flat of his blade, but he didn’t stop there. Unexpectedly, he pushed forward against her staff. Sienna nearly fell over, skittering backwards a few steps before regaining her balance.
“Feet apart,” he said, backing up to watch her with his cold white-blue eyes again.
This time she remembered to keep her stance wide, imagining the jostle she would receive from her opponent with every block. She finished and looked at him.
“Let me see your staff,” he said. “And watch carefully.”
Handing it over with curiosity, she took a step back and watched. Brennan took it and tested the weight in his hands, then began going through a series of swipes, blocks, dodges, and blows. He moved slowly so she could absorb what he was doing. There was a pattern to it. Block to the right, block to the left, overhand blow to the right, overhand blow to the left…. She started out trying to pay attention, but instead was drawn in to the spectacle, hypnotized by his lightness and fluid grace. When he stopped, she was embarrassed to realize that she hadn’t absorbed any of the sequence he had gone through.
“Can you go through it again? I can’t remember all of that,” she said, blushing.
He went through it again, twice, and this time she did a little better job focusing. Sweep the right, sweep to the left, parry right, parry left… but even as she noted the different parts of the sequence, she couldn’t help but wonder what he was capable of.
“Would you go through it as fast as you can?” she said, unable to resist.
He paused, even twitched as if about to, but he stopped himself, much to her disappointment. “No, it’s your turn,” he said, handing the staff back to her.
She held the staff in her hands and looked back at him. “I thought you fought with a sword. How come you know these stances with a staff?”
“I know the fundamentals of combat with many weapons,” Brennan said stiffly. He wasn’t comfortable talking about his skills. She knew he was understating himself; even in her ignorance, she could tell that he was as lethal with a staff as he was with a blade. How did someone get this good?
What was he?
“Can you fight with a battle ax? A flail?”
“Go through what I showed you before you forget,” he said.
That was all she was going to get out of him. Disappointed, she went back to work and tried again.
“Bend your front knee deeply when you swipe,” Brennan said. “And keep your back leg and your spine straight.”
After a few minutes, she felt that she at least had the order of the sequence down, if not the execution of it. Brennan seemed to feel it too.
“We leave in half an hour,” he said. “Practice.”
With that, he stepped out of the woods and went back into the camp.
Between him and Ivan, Sienna thought, she had better make some progress, and soon. Both her teachers were intimidating, each in his own way. She reminded herself that she had asked for this, but now that she was involved in it, she didn’t dare risk disappointing either of them. So she went without a hot breakfast, and she practiced.
* * *
By the time she climbed into a wagon, she was already tired. Arnold, Raven, the two boys from yesterday, and several people she didn’t know climbed in after her. She listened halfheartedly to the chatter Arnold provided, but her attention was more focused on how not to meet Raven’s eye. There was no way she’d be able to keep from looking at her for the rest of day, sitting across from each other as they were, but she couldn’t quite work up the courage yet. Leaning her head back, she shut her eyes and tried to nap. She managed to fall into a very light doze, but instead of dreaming, she shifted into Arnold’s mind, seeing his memory as he told a story to Raven.
In the girls’ bedroom. The walls are mostly bare except for a beautiful children’s tapestry woven by Irma on one wall, portraying different animals in bright colors leaping and playing with one another. Most people have wooden floors, but we are lucky enough to have been able to afford house with stone foundations. Irma made the fluffy beige rug that runs to the door. The house is comfortable and clean. I am sitting on the edge of the bed which both my daughters use. Mina is already asleep on her side, facing away from us. Callie has her face turned toward me and her eyes are closed. Her hair is short for a girl’s, sticking out every which way, and shockingly blonde against the dark pillowcase.
“I was putting Mina and Callie to bed, and I was helping Callie go to sleep. She was only about four then. They’re getting a little old for it now, but sometimes when they couldn’t settle down, I would sit on the edge of their beds and tell them they’re getting tired, and their legs and arms are made out of stone, and their eyelids were getting heavier… things like that. It’s like a game for them, and it usually helps them relax and go to sleep that much sooner.”
Their bedroom smells like flowers in the summer because Irma always has enormous yellow flowers blooming under their windows, no matter how dry the season. Irma can’t grow a vegetable to save her life but she always has time for flowers.
“So I was kneeling by Callie’s little bed, and I was just winding up, and in my smoothest voice I said, ‘You are getting sleepy… and in the morning when you wake up, you are going to be a chicken.’”
Callie had nuzzled deeper into her pillow, her eyes shut. Both my kids have such terrifically long eyelashes.
“Callie talked in her sleep. She said, ‘I’m going to be a big chicken.’”
Raven laughs with me. I glance at Sienna to see her response, but her head has rolled over to rest on her shoulder; she is asleep. She can probably hear us laughing in her dream, because she’s almost smiling. A few strands of that auburn hair lay across her face. It shines like a precious metal where a shaft of sunlight touches.
I can’t believe her whole town got destroyed. That’s a hard thing for a kid to go through, but she seems to bear it well. She’d get along with my daughters, I just know it. Sometimes she even reminds me of Mina.
“That one’s trouble,” I say gently, inclining my head in Sienna’s direction.
Raven gives me a funny look. Oh, hell. What did she think I meant?
“Stubborn as a mule,” I try to explain. “She’s learning to fight with that staff of hers. I never seen a girl put up with the kind of beatings that Ivan is giving her.”
“Ivan?” Raven says. “So that’s who it is; I might have known. I wrapped her arm up last night for her. Poor thing was black and blue. The man should be more gentle on a young girl, especially one who’s already injured. I need to remember to talk to him about that.”
That wouldn’t do. Sienna woke herself up. “No,” she said groggily, straightening. “I’d rather he didn’t treat me like a young girl.”
Raven raised her eyes and hands to heaven in a gesture of resignation. “Alright, I won’t interfere. But I only have so many herbs I can spare for you, child. You’d better learn how to dodge, and quick.”
Arnold laughed, and Raven’s ire faded at the sound.
Raven was treating her like a normal human being. Even though Sienna could read her mind and, for all she knew, catch things on fire and hurl them at people, she was still being honestly kind to her. Better than kind; she was still concerned about her bruises. Sienna swallowed hard and met her eyes, flashing a nervous smile her way. She got a conspiratorial wink in response.
The relief was immense. Raven wasn’t going to tell. Perhaps she could fall asleep after all. Snuggling down on the bench with her head on her pack, she let herself relax into a deeper sleep.
* * *
For a week, Sienna kept up the brutal pace of Ivan and Brennan’s separate training sessions. She didn’t tell Ivan about Brennan’s extra lessons; he was a proud man, and might take offense. She didn’t want to face him when his blood was up, especially considering that every evening with him invariably ended with his sword tip at her heart or throat. And she didn’t want him to get angry at Brennan, either. Though she didn’t doubt Brennan could take care of himself, when she saw him next to Ivan, she couldn’t help noticing how large and brutal Ivan was in comparison. From the looks of it, all he had to do was get a good grip.
Ivan’s lessons were always practical sparring. He seemed to love to try to take her by surprise, or hit her with the flat of his sword, trying to provoke her into doing something foolish so he could click his tongue at her, his sword at her throat once again. She never seemed to be able to move as fast as he did. But she was getting better, and occasionally she was able to block several of his blows in succession. Of course, that only made him up the intensity until he had scored twice as many hits on her. Just when she thought she was giving him a good fight, he would fall down on her like an avalanche.
Lessons with Brennan were entirely different. He would stress form and control, and never sparred with her beyond sharing a blow or two to demonstrate something. He spoke little, but she found herself more frustrated during those lessons than she was with Ivan’s. At least she felt like she was making progress with Ivan. With Brennan, she was always a novice. He demanded a mental and physical discipline from her that she was never able to attain. There were always a hundred things she had forgotten from last morning and a hundred new things to learn the next morning. He was brusque and formal, and she was lucky if she got so much as a nod of approval for her efforts.
She would skip breakfast to meet Brennan, practice, then go into the wagon and eat the cooling leftovers that Arnold and Raven had gotten into the habit of saving for her. After the day’s journey, she would scarf down her dinner and meet Ivan for her evening session. She was sore in places she didn’t even know there was supposed to be muscle. But by the end of the week, she noticed a difference. Although she was still thoroughly bludgeoned by both of them each session, she woke up each day a little less stiff than she had the day before. She was getting stronger.
* * *
Brennan arose early and circled the camp once on foot, checking for threats to the caravan. Many knights of the Order would consider being a hired guard below them, but he took his promise seriously; he had promised to protect the people of Azaria, and this caravan was no exception.
He found mutant tracks. Though it was normal for mutants to follow a caravan, they were growing more bold and getting closer all the time. It was possible they had increased to dangerous numbers. He needed to scout deeper into the woods, when he found the time, and take a head count. But he would have to go alone. They were good at hiding, with keen senses, and it would take special care to catch them unawares.
Most mutants ran wild, but there were times when Others would bend them to their will, and he was suspicious that Pell, the little merchant from Tio, might be an Other. Sienna had told him in their morning practices that Pell was the same man who’d tried to break into her room and take her staff, which confirmed his suspicions that the staff was special. It also proved that Pell had an unsavory character. It did not, however, prove that Pell was an Other, and only Others fully deserved death.
Brennan was watching him. All he needed was for the man to slip up, just once, and Brennan would be there to end him.
But Pell was sleeping now, and it was time for Sienna’s lesson. She had wandered into a little extension of the field in which they were camped and found a ruin. It was a small tiered ziggurat about eight feet high, of reddish stone. Half of it had fallen in, and the other half had been nearly encased in woody ivy and gnarled roots. He suspected the vines were all that held the remains of the place up. It looked beyond ancient. Sienna’s fresh skin and vivid hair made a striking contrast to gray lugubriousness of the ruin.
She was running her fingers over an especially knotted root, fascination writ on her face. Brennan came forward to join her; he made no attempt to be quiet but she was still startled when he said, “This looks like it was once a sacrificial altar.”
She turned to him eagerly. “How old do you think it is?”
“All the ruins are at least a thousand years old,” Brennan said. “This one may be even more.”
“You sound so sure.”
“I am sure.”
“What do you know about the ruins?” Sienna said. “Where I grew up, everyone had their own idea of what they were. They thought that the ruins had powerful connections with the gods. They sacrificed chickens and goats on them, and buried their dead inside. But nobody had any good reasons or real knowledge about them.”
“It’s not just where you grew up,” Brennan said, sitting down on a large fallen stone and leaning his back against the broken wall. “People still hold on to the superstitions and the lies, but nobody remembers the history. You’ve heard of Azar?”
Sienna furrowed her brow. “Isn’t he supposed to be one of the gods?”
“He was the first Other. Fifteen hundred years ago, Azar united the lands to the east of the desert with his power. He named it Azaria, and together he and his queen ruled the people, masquerading as gods.
“Nobody denies that the things they did were magnificent. Through their power, they made the roads and buildings, many of which were so strong that they are still standing today. By their influence, the yield of crops magnified a hundredfold. Nobody had to work; they only had to worship the Azars and obey their rules.
“Lots of people see these relics and yearn for the wealth and glory of the past, but they have forgotten the Azars’ cruelty. They murdered people for entertainment, made them into slaves, sacrificed them as their divine right. They were depraved. People were forbidden to read and write, to question their god-kings, to meet in secret. Others were employed by Azar to watch the people for rebellion, and any independence of mind or deed was found and crushed. The easy lifestyle and propaganda promoted by the Azars made the people bland and ignorant.
“The Others were insatiable. Masses of people were slain in battles for supremacy between members of the Azar family. Others ruled the cities as well; they played mayor or magistrate, wallowing in luxury and using their power to work their way on people.
“For five hundred years the descendants of the Azars ruled Azaria in blood and wealth, until an assassin found his way into their palace undetected and killed the last king and queen where they slept in their beds. The empire fell apart. Without their gods, the people were lost. They lived in the houses that still remained, but they didn’t remember how to work or think or fend for themselves. Lots of people died, but slowly they learned to survive on their own again, by their own rules, through honest means.
“Today people look at the skeletons of these buildings and they fantasize. They hear tales of gods that walked among men, abundant food, easy lifestyles, and they yearn for those days to be back again. But below the earth, where they cannot see, are the skeletons of the people whom these so-called gods trampled in their lust and greed.”
The story he’d just told Sienna wasn’t exactly complete, but there were some things he was forbidden to share.
The Darcean Order taught all the initiates the history. It was the story of their founding, their reason for existence. The assassin that brought down the empire had been one of his Order.
The Order had started as a group of people who had realized the Others’ mortality. They learned how to fight them, and fight them they did, in secret, for generations, hardening their acolytes and perfecting their creed. They eventually succeeded in their goal and brought down the empire, and man was free again, along with all the responsibility and suffering which that entailed.
The Order did not fall with the empire. As long as there were Others, the Order would be there to hunt them. Many of the Others they found were still children, newly turned and lacking discipline, leaving an obvious swathe of destruction behind them. The harder ones to catch were the ones who had lived long enough to survive in a world where the Order watched; these were exceptionally crafty. Their lust for power was never sated; they could be found masquerading as governors, or wealthy merchants who bought their way, or executioners who saw death as the ultimate power over life. Cruelty was their hallmark.
“Azar and his queen were the first Others?” Sienna said.
“Nobody knows for sure. But Azar was the first Other who was successful enough to create an empire.”
“Where do you think Others came from?”
Brennan shook his head. “Nobody knows.”
“How can people have forgotten something so important?” Sienna mused.
“They told their children stories about the Azars, but those stories have drifted into the mythology of the gods. Azar’s name and his power is all the truth that is remembered.”
Sienna looked once more at the ruined ziggurat. A large slab had once been set in the middle of the construction, but it had broken. Half of it had sunk into the mud, the other half had been overtaken by thick vines. The fascination that had been on Sienna’s face had turned to horror.
“They sacrificed people here, on this rock, to Others?”
“I think so,” Brennan said. He let her think a moment longer, then said, “We talked too long; now we don’t have much time to practice. Show me the sequence I taught you yesterday.”
“Alright,” she said. Stepping away from the ancient altar with one more nervous little glance at it, she fell into the motions, and he watched for mistakes. She was a quick and determined learner. Already she’d had a strong back and arms from ferrying; now she was starting to gain some confidence. She was still clumsy, but it was less marked than before. Not once did she complain about her bruises or her skipped meals. She was a good student.
“Stop. Your stance is wrong on that left-hand block,” Brennan said. “Do it again, slower.”
* * *
Pell rode in a wagon with several people whose names he had not deigned to remember. They’d stopped trying to make conversation with him. It took them long enough to take the hint, but he was finally getting some blessed silence. He didn’t have the energy to pretend with the vermin, as his temper was growing shorter every day.
The girl hadn’t set down his staff for a minute. She even slept with it in her bag.
His first instinct had been to try commands on her, but her will was too strong. She shook them off without even realizing what had been attempted. Commands were his strong suit, too. Without his staff, he couldn’t do much more than that.
He would have loved to throttle her in her sleep. Three times now, he had crept upon her in the dark, but each time he drew near, the guard with the light eyes always appeared out of nowhere, and he would have to move on and pretend he was only going to the woods to urinate.
That man made him nervous; he looked dangerous. He looked like a knight of the Order. If that was so, then Pell would need to be extra careful. He couldn’t use his powers without giving away what he was; instead, he would have to do something subtle. That was alright. Since he wasn’t a strong Other, he had by necessity become good at subterfuge.
That is why he began calling together the mutants they passed in the woods. A pack here, a pack there. By now he had amassed a mob of them. He only had the strength to command a few at a time, but mutants feared Others, and rightly so. As long as they knew what an Other wanted, they would hasten to obey whether they had been compelled or not.
They followed the caravan just out of notice. He had to gather enough of them to attack. This caravan had a lot of guards, some of them veterans. The way he figured, if he got a hundred mutants together, even if he lost twenty or so of them in rivalry squabbles, he would still have enough to break through the caravan’s defenses and get close enough to kill the people. Once they got the girl, he could slip away with his staff. If there were any survivors, they would blame the mutants without ever suspecting an Other was involved.
Even better would be if the mutants could capture the girl alive for him. He owed her some rough treatment.
“I’ll get a nice tapestry in Dellville tomorrow,” one man was saying.
“Tomorrow?” Pell said, startling everyone.
There was an awkward silence. People had grown used to him not speaking.
“Yes,” the man said slowly. “We reach Dellville tomorrow.”
Pell bit his lip and tried to think.
He would have to move soon. The mutants would be hard to keep in check if he allowed them to get too close. They might smell the town and, in their great numbers, see opportunity enough to forget his orders and go foraging. They only fought when they were sure to win the fight, and it wouldn’t take them long to realize that they were enough mutants to take a small town.
That decided it. Enough or no, he would have to strike today. Tomorrow they would reach Dellville, and he didn’t want to pass through another miserable human settlement.
He reached his mind out toward the woods to count his mutants, farther and farther, until his bile rose.
They were out of his reach.
They had already smelled Dellville.
Once the town was raided, they would fight amongst themselves and disperse. He could only hope that they hadn’t reached Dellville yet. Not only did he need to keep them together, but it would be a disappointment to miss the sacking. Tonight he would steal a horse and ride ahead through the night to regroup the mutants. That way, when the caravan arrived, he would be ready for them.
* * *
“We’re getting close,” Arnold said. “Just three more curves in the road and we’ll be able to see the it.”
Over the past few days, Arnold and Sienna had become fast friends. He was the first adult she had ever met whose thoughts always matched his words. He was honest to the core. Sienna had to smile at the childlike exuberance he radiated, and she peered at the trees, waiting for her first glimpse of the town that so enchanted him. The late afternoon sun was behind them, casting a warm light on the road ahead. Any minute now they would be in Dellville, and Arnold would be reunited with his family. Sienna would miss him. Without Arnold, things were going to seem so serious.
She had grim plans for the future, but if she survived them, the first thing she would do would be to come back and visit Arnold in his little house hung with tapestries. She felt like she already knew his family.
Although she wanted to see Dellville, the idea of being in a town again was less than savory. It was not nearly as large as Tio, but even little Cumbry had been too much at times. This caravan could be too much. But she was stronger than she’d been before; Brennan had been teaching her meditation techniques to help her with her staff fighting, and she’d found they helped with more than just combat. She only hoped she would be comfortable enough to enjoy herself.
They were getting close; she could tell by the lines of smoke rising above the trees ahead. Usually she could sense a town at this distance, but still she sensed nothing. The town must have been smaller than she’d originally anticipated. Even the fields that spotted the land around the town were strangely lacking in farmers. Where was everybody?
People watched the road ahead eagerly, but Sienna grew increasingly unsettled. Was she the only one with a bad feeling?
She glanced ahead at Brennan, who rode close to the head of the caravan, but his back was as inscrutable and straight as ever. Even Arnold didn’t seem to think anything was different. He looked around eagerly, pointing out the hills where he took his family sledding in the winter, and a tree out of which he had fallen as a child and broken his arm. She tried to smile at him, but it wasn’t long before his talk trailed off.
“I wonder why it’s so quiet,” he mused aloud. “Usually you can hear the blacksmith from here.”
A shadow crossed his face and he stopped speaking as they neared the last curve in the road.
Sienna watched the land ahead intently as they rounded the curve and entered the dell, the trees thinning out before them, giving them a sweeping vista of the town a quarter of a mile away. A whistle blew, and the caravan halted.
It might have been a lovely view once.
What Sienna had taken to be friendly chimney fires turned out to be large piles of rubble that still smoked. Perhaps two hundred people had lived here, but now there was nothing more than charcoal and blackened stone. She squinted her eyes and saw a dark form in the street; she winced, but a second glance revealed that it was only a bit of furniture and a blanket.
The guards convened and spoke in low voices, and then five of them, including Brennan and Ivan, detached from the caravan, riding ahead to scout the town while the rest of them posted themselves strategically around the caravan. The people stood to gawk; some got out of their seats. Their emotions grew loud in her ears as Arnold, Sienna, and Raven descended from their wagon and faced the carnage in shock.
—oor people, I wonder h—
—ill I get my tapestry if—
—otel tonight. I was look—
—still around? What cou—
But no thoughts came from Arnold; there was only confusion on his face. He took a few distracted steps toward the town as if he wasn’t sure whether or not he was in the right place. But once those first few steps were taken, he found his momentum and broke into an all-out run toward Dellville.
“Arnold, it’s not safe!” Raven cried.
He ignored her and ran ahead. Sienna followed. She couldn’t let him face this alone. As she tried to catch up, the tall trees on either side of her loomed dark and dangerously close to the road. She was still a few paces back when he got to the edge of the town, but he slowed down to pick his way through the tangled mess that used to be the Dellville’s wooden walls. Something had uprooted the log-sized pickets and thrown them aside as if they were firewood. A footprint, clear in the gray mud, caught Sienna’s attention. It was large and deformed, the toes unevenly spaced.
Within the town, charred timbers and blackened empty door frames greeted them on either side. Red coals still glowed within the hearts of the houses, and dry heat from dying fires toasted her face. Half-burned clothes and household goods had been scattered through the street, trampled in the mud and ash. There were signs of struggle, but they were few and far between: a small hand ax, caked with gore, near the door of one house; on the next street, an arrow embedded in the dirt. People had tried to fight, but it was over before it was begun. Still, if people had lost so badly, then where were the bodies? The call of crows echoed through the empty streets, but she had yet to see a single corpse. Arnold picked his way slowly through the wreckage, making his way toward his house. Now that he was closer, he had lost his hurry; he wasn’t ready yet to face his own blackened house.
Sienna walked alongside him, not saying a word. What was there to say?
They came to a street she knew and halted in front of one of the houses; she recognized it from his memories. But it could hardly be called a house any more. The ceiling and one wall had fallen over onto what was left of the muddy lawn, and been trampled into bits. All that remained were a few black walls and a dark hallway. The heat assailed her as she got closer, burning her face and attacking her eyes.
Arnold paused in front of the door frame and reached out a shaking hand to lean on it, but the timber retained fire, and he withdrew it immediately. The door itself was lying on the blackened stone of the floor inside, partially eaten by the fire. They stepped in, walking over a crispy black patch that might once have been a rug. Sienna could hear no thoughts from him. His silence was punctuated only by the cry of the carrion birds and the small crackling of dying fires; he was too numb to speak.
She kept near and followed him quietly from room to room. The heat gained as they went deeper into the house; it was difficult to keep her eyes open enough to see where she was going. They stepped over broken dishes and smashed tables, scattered clothes and bits of food. An empty loom sat like a broken skeleton against one wall, all of the threads burned away.
At last they came to the girls’ room. Arnold stood still at the door for long time before walking through. The bright tapestry that once hung on the wall had half-fallen to the floor, crumpled and blackened. Traces of the original cheerful children’s colors still lingered in places. The bedding was all ash now, and the legs of the bed no more than brittle and cracked charcoal.
Arnold stood facing away from her and stared at the bed; slowly his shoulders slumped, and then he crumpled to his knees, heedless of the hot stone floor.
Callie and Mina were still asleep when I left. It hurts to leave your children for a reason. This is that reason. I should never have left them. I should have shared their fate.
Unable to stand by in the face of his grief any longer, Sienna hunkered down beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. Down lower, the air was less smoky and slightly cooler. She studied Arnold’s face through her stinging eyes. Despite the heat, he was pale and shaky, but he shed no tears.
“Leave me,” he said, his eyes still on the bed. “Leave me alone.”
“It’s not safe,” she began.
He turned to look at her; it was like looking into the face of a dead man. “Leave me alone,” he said again, quieter and with more control. “I don’t want your pity. I want you to leave me the hell alone.”
Sienna rose, concern knotting her stomach, and stepped quietly away, leaving him alone on his knees in his ruined house. He had a right to grieve for his family in solitude, but it didn’t feel right to abandon him in this forsaken place. Nobody should have to go through that without a friend at his side. But who did he have to lean on? She’d only known him for a few days; that wasn’t grounds enough to force your company on someone who didn’t want it. She wouldn’t force it, but she would be there when he got back. What else could she do?
Raven would know what to do. She was a healer; she had seen death and pain. Maybe she would know how to soothe a small measure of this damage. She would find Raven.
She picked her way through the smoking ruins back toward the caravan, keeping her eyes on the road and wishing with all her might that this had not happened.
She missed her home. Though at the time her problems had seemed serious, she had a better perspective now. Her biggest concerns were that someone might see her sinewy arms, or that someone would try to take her ferry away from her. She would get upset if she got distracted and burned her dinner, or if she heard someone tell a damaging lie and wasn’t able to say anything to anyone about it.
Out here, things were more complicated. This was huge. It was a tragedy so immense, she couldn’t even begin to assimilate it; she felt distant from it all, almost as if she were in a dream. In a way, she was more affected by Arnold’s grief than she had been by the destruction of her own town. She hadn’t loved anyone there the way he had loved his family. He hadn’t deserved this.
Everywhere she went lately, death followed her.
Get woman, a thought pierced through her contemplations. Alone woman.
Sienna snapped to attention and studied the woods, looking for the source. She was alone, wasn’t she? She had been too distracted to realize it, but she was in a very vulnerable position, partway between the caravan and Dellville, dead in the center of the flagstone highway. The staff in her hand only gave her a small measure of confidence.
There was no mistaking that simple mind, the way it oozed hate and menace. She’d felt thoughts like that before. There was a mutant in the woods. She tried to think quickly. Some of the guards were exploring the town behind her, making sure it was safe, but she couldn’t see a single one of them. The greater contingent was with the caravan, but the town was closer. She would find a guard there; it was only one mutant after all. Though her gut churned anxiously, her decision was made, so she turned on her heel and ran full-on back to the town. Something rustled in the trees to the left behind her, but she dared not lose speed by looking back. If there was one thing she’d learned from her previous encounter with mutants, it was that they were fast.
She nearly tripped through the scattered picket walls and pushed forward into city, scanning desperately for movement as she ran. “Help!” she called. A guard poked his head out of a ruined house to look at her as she altered his course his way. He looked kind; she hoped he knew how to fight. Seeing her distress, he ran forward and caught her by the arms. He wore a caravan-issue sword on his side.
“Mutant,” she panted, then pulled away from his grip and looked back toward where she had come. Nothing was there. Sienna was shaking badly. She tried not to think about her fear, but her shoulder pulsed with remembered pain. The guard’s eyes widened slightly and he looked in the direction from which she had come.
Nothing was there. The trees rustled peacefully in the wind, and the carrion birds called above them. That wasn’t right; there was no way she could have outrun a mutant. It had to be there. Sienna turned, then turned again, peering into the woods, searching desperately. It could be anywhere.
—it for her, but I don’t see anything. Is there even anything out there? I hope no—
No; she was letting her fear get a hold of her. She tried to relax and get her breathing back under control. It was no good if she lost her head.
There it was; she could sense it. It was coming their way on the left, where the woods reached close to the scattered palisades. It was only a few paces out of sight. She turned to face it, popping the blades out of her staff. This felt better; this felt right. Running was terrifying, but when she turned to face her attacker, some of the weakness lifted, and her trembling slowed. The guard was surprised at the change in her demeanor, but he asked no questions and waited alongside her, straining to see what she saw.
The leaves rustled for a fraction of a second before the mutant burst through, aimed straight at them. It was going for the guard, who held his sword out defensively.
Its powerful, uneven legs carried it to the guard in only a few short strides. He swung the sword at it, but it batted the weapon aside with its bare hand as it slammed bodily into him, tackling him to the ground with an audible thud. Sienna lifted her bladed staff above the struggling pair and stabbed the mutant in the center of the back, lifting and stabbing, again and again, until at last it stopped moving. The guard shoved it aside and gagged. She extended a shaking hand toward him to help him up, which he took gratefully.
“Gods, they smell,” he said as he straightened, then coughed unhappily to clear his lungs. He had a smooth face and fine blonde hair. He couldn’t be much older than herself.
She hadn’t seen him at the guards’ campfires at night; he was one of the guards who went to join his family or friends at their own fire. He had probably joined the guard to waive the caravan fees, and had never been in a fight in his life. He wasn’t going to be much help; she had ended up saving him. Sienna felt a wild laugh bubble up in her, but repressed it. The mutant was dead; they were okay.
But if that was true, why was the guard looking at her that way? No, he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking behind her, at the woods.
She followed his gaze and saw three more mutants charging in their direction from out of the darkness of the trees.
There was no way they could fight them alone. Neither she nor her new companion were cut out for this.
“Mutants!” she cried out, taking the young guard by the sleeve and pulling him with her so their backs were toward the safety of the wall. She only hoped the other guards in town were close enough to hear her. What if they had returned to the caravan already? “Help! Mutants!”
And then the mutants were upon them. Sienna swung the end of her staff at the closest one, scoring it deeply along the chest. It tried to grab her weapon but missed as she dodged out of its reach, swiping under its outstretched arms toward its armpit; her aim was true, and she cut a tendon there. It fell a step back and let out a beastly yell, grasping at its armpit as if to hold itself together.
Finding herself free, she went after the nearest one of the two mutants who were swiping at the guard. He slashed desperately, keeping them at bay with tip of his sword. The nearest mutant was yet unaware of her, and she was able to poke her blade through its throat before it even realized what had happened.
The mutant with the wounded arm had found its courage and was making for her again, but the second mutant had grabbed on to the end of the staff that was buried in its throat and wouldn’t let go. Sienna kicked the attacking mutant, hard and low, directly in its putrid genitalia. The monster twitched a little, but did not collapse as she’d hoped. Instead it roared, trying to barrel into her and take her down bodily. She gave another yank on her staff. At last, the mutant lost its strength; she was able to free the weapon in time to duck this newest mutant’s lunge. She didn’t have time to raise her staff, so she swept at the closest thing to her blade: its ankles. To her surprise, it cut deeply and nearly severed its foot. The mutant didn’t make a sound. It tried to step backward, and the foot got bent to the side, opening the wound further and bleeding copiously. Sienna, still crouched, turned her staff nearly upright, under the mutant’s chin, then stood, thrusting upward as hard as she could with her arms. The mutant twitched as the blade drove through its throat and into its brain, and was nearly lifted off of its good foot. She tugged the blade out of the still-standing corpse, letting it fall to the earth, and turned to join the guard’s battle.
He was, by some miracle, uninjured. He had even wounded the mutant in the belly deep enough that it would have dropped a human, but the mutant wasn’t slowed in the least. Sienna hacked her blade into the strong tendons and muscle where the neck met the shoulders. It clutched the mortal wound and fell backwards, landing hard on its rump. But its slitted eyes were still full of rage, and it rolled forward, reaching for her ankles with its last burst of energy. Sienna cried out and stabbed wildly at its hands before she realized it was dead.
They stood still, panting and trembling, staring at the carnage they had wrought. Four mutants lay at their feet. At last Sienna spoke.
“Let’s get back,” she said. “Before we find any more.”
The guard smiled weakly. Though at first she had taken him for a youth, he was actually older than she was; maybe closer to twenty. How odd to think that this clumsy darling was the same age as Brennan. But where this man was all friendly sweetness, Brennan was steel and ghosts. “Well fought,” he said, extending a clammy hand. “My name is Garrett.”
“Sienna,” she said quietly, and tried to smile back. “Come on, there may be more.” Her Other told her that the fighting was not done. Putrid hate spoiled the air around them; she could almost smell it.
Moving cautiously, they rounded the corner of the house they had been backed against.
Nine more mutants had congregated a few houses away. Perhaps they could sneak by them. She looked at Garrett and put her finger against her lips, and they sneaked back toward the other side of the house, out of their view.
Kill the girl. Take the staff.
The thought struck her with imperious force. She blinked it away. That had been Pell’s voice. But who would hear that besides herself?
Her question was answered when the group of mutants turned as one and charged in their direction. Sienna grabbed Garrett’s hand and ran, dragging him behind her. He resisted her, and she glanced back at him to see what the trouble was. Alarmed by the frenzy in his eyes, she let go of his hand.
“Die!” Garrett cried out, swinging his sword at her wildly. Only Ivan’s training saved her from his surprise attack.
“Garrett!” she screamed at him, backing quickly away. “Stop!”
“Give me that staff!” he growled, and swung again. Sienna could not bring herself to fight him, and the mutants were gaining. She sprinted into the woods, with Garrett close behind her.
* * *
Brennan hunkered down on his heels, examining the uneven footprints in the mud outside one of the charred houses. This didn’t feel right. Mutants might raid towns on occasion, but they neither knew nor cared enough to torch the place behind them. Usually they raided towns for food. Occasionally they would eat the men they killed. But the corpses weren’t chewed; they were gone. Why would they make a concerted effort to drag them all away? And how many had it taken to overwhelm a town of this size? Seventy-five? A hundred? Mutants didn’t travel in packs that large.
This stank of Others.
“Brennan,” Ivan called. Brennan straightened and walked toward him. Ivan was pale. It took a lot to make a man like Ivan pale. “You should see this.”
With some misgivings, Brennan followed Ivan as he jogged between several houses and up to the town center. Looking up, he saw that the birds were convening on this area. When they rounded the last corner, Brennan understood why none of the townspeople’s remains had been in the houses.
The caravan guards stood around the center, one staring, one unable to look, and one retching. Dellville’s town center was circular, and had been paved with once-cheerful blue and white stone. Now flagstones were brown and red with gore. Half-gnawed bones lay piled eight feet high, the metallic smell of blood and raw meat hung thick in the air. Fat green flies had congregated on and around the heap. The tattered remains of a dress dangled wetly from the pile.
His gorge threatened to rise, but he closed his eyes and stepped his emotions away from it all. Once steady, he looked again, even walking closer to inspect the pile. Warmth still radiated from it, enveloping him in sickly wet heat. He addressed the men.
“This is less than a few hours old,” he called to them. “It would have needed at least a hundred mutants to take a town this large. Be aware and stick together. Do not underestimate them: they might have intelligent leadership. Let’s get our people away from this as quickly as possible.”
The men looked at him with wan faces.
“Get up,” Brennan said, leveling a stare at each. “Warn the caravan. …Now.”
That got them moving, though slowly. The guard who had been retching had to lean on his fellow to walk steady. Brennan rejoined Ivan’s side as they left the grisly wet horror behind them.
“This isn’t right,” Ivan said gruffly. “Mutants don’t do this. They’re stupid bastards, too stupid for this. What the hell did you mean by intelligent leadership? What leadership would a hundred mutants accept? They’d kill each other.”
“There might be a human leading them,” Brennan said. Though it wasn’t entirely true, it was all that Ivan would understand.
“You tell me how in the h—“ Ivan broke off and they both froze. A woman’s voice carried to them from the edge of town, crying out for help. He looked at Ivan, whose face confirmed what he’d heard.
“That sounded like Sienna,” Ivan said.
They both set off running toward the woods, weaving between the houses. She wouldn’t have been so stupid as to leave the caravan and wander toward the town, would she? More importantly, why didn’t she call out again? He wasn’t even sure they were going in the right direction. Brennan pushed the thought away and concentrated instead on listening. He might have heard conflict from this direction, but he heard nothing now.
They slowed, and Ivan cast about him, his brow furrowed at the burnt-out houses. “Where is she?”
Brennan raised a hand to indicate silence, and they listened. Nothing sounded. Were they too late?
As if in answer, his amulet warmed, and the echo of a command filtered through to him. Kill the girl. Take the staff.
His first instinct was to watch Ivan, but the big man only blinked a few times before resuming listening, unaware of any attempts to influence him.
“This way,” Brennan said, and they hurried forward, stopping at a house where four dead mutants were still bleeding into the earth.
“Here!” Ivan said, and darted away with renewed energy. Brennan looked up just in time to see several mutants disappear into the trees in pursuit of someone. The two fighters sprinted into the woods after them. Brennan pushed ahead faster, leaving Ivan behind. He was a good runner, but he doubted he could reach Sienna in time to block the mutants’ initial attacks.
The mutants tore through the woods ahead of him, breaking branches heedlessly, leaving a clear path. Brennan glimpsed yellow through the trees, focused on it, and gained distance until he got close enough to draw his sword and run it through the back. He disengaged his sword from the body and looked up.
He had made a mistake.
Sienna had her back against a tree, but she was huddled, her posture defeated. The mutants were closing on her; because he had stopped to kill that first mutant, there was no way he could run to her in time. He started forward again, drawing his dagger to throw even as one of the mutants reached forward to grab her by the throat. She made no move to defend herself, but Brennan’s aim was true; the dagger lodged into the monster’s temple and it fell.
Seven of them still encircled her.
As the mutant with the dagger in its temple toppled, Ivan barreled past him and threw himself with a grunt at the next mutant closest to Sienna, tackling it to the ground and impaling it with his heavy sword. Brennan leaped into the opening Ivan had created in the monsters encircling her and turned to face the attackers. He noticed that she was crumpled beside the corpse of a guard, but he didn’t have time to think about it. Two more mutants were trying to seize him. Stepping easily out of their grasp, he decapitated the mutant on his right with a sweep of his sword and, without breaking the momentum of the movement, turned with it and angled the blade between ribs of the mutant next to it, piercing its heart. As he withdrew the blade, he heard Sienna take a hitching breath behind him.
“Gods damn you, Sienna!” Ivan yelled as he disemboweled another of the monsters. “Fight or die!”
One of them had found its way to Brennan’s right side. It grabbed Brennan by the wrist, arresting his sword arm. He yanked his arm toward himself, surprising the creature into taking a staggering step forward, then slammed his fist into its face with his free hand. His angle was carefully calculated; its nose, instead of breaking to the side, was driven deep into its face. Brennan twisted his sword arm free of the mutant’s grasp while blood dribbled from its face. It tottered backward a step, blinded for a moment. It was a moment more than Brennan needed, and the mutant fell with a slit throat.
With a hoarse cry of rage, Sienna rose and threw herself past the area Brennan was protecting, running the blade of her staff through the heart of another mutant that was getting close to her. Now there was only one left standing, and every one of the three friends turned on it, piercing it in three different places.
Ivan pushed it over with a grim smile. He was spattered with blood. “That was fun,” he said.
Sienna was shaking badly. A sob escaped her and she sat down.
“What’s the matter with you, girl?” Ivan asked roughly. “You’re alive, aren’t you?”
She laughed brokenly, then took three hitching breaths, which steadied her. Turning to kneel beside the young guard’s corpse, she folded his arms over his chest as tenderly as any mother putting her babe to sleep.
“Garrett?” Ivan asked. Brennan said nothing. He saw the wounds on the man. Those were neither bite marks nor torn limbs.
“He came to help me. He saved my life,” Sienna said. She met Brennan’s gaze desperately.
Ivan bent over the corpse. “You killed him,” he said, and looked at her under bristled eyebrows.
“He attacked me!” She said, beginning to shake again. “I didn’t want to! I just… he came at me and… I reacted before I knew what I was doing.”
Brennan remembered the command he had heard. That had been Pell’s voice; he was sure of it. Kill the girl, he had said. Take the staff. He wished he knew what it was about that staff that made Pell take such risks to get it back.
That would be the first thing he would ask him when he got a hold of him.
“I believe you,” he said. “But we have to get back to the caravan now.”
Ivan looked first at Brennan, then Sienna as if trying to decide whether or not he could trust them. “Alright,” he said at last. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Sienna rose, but when they walked she hesitated. “What about Garrett?” she said quietly.
“He’s dead,” Ivan said over his shoulder. “Leave him. We’ll come back later if we have time.”
Left with no choice, she followed them back down the trail the mutants had left. When the ruins of Dellville opened up before them, Sienna remembered her friend.
“Arnold!” she cried, horrified at having forgotten him for so long. She started toward his house, then stopped and turned to explain to the men. “He’s here,” she said. “He was looking for his family.”
Ivan and Brennan both looked down the road at the caravan, but it appeared untouched and placid in the distance.
“Where is he?” Brennan said.
In response, Sienna made her way toward his house. She wove through the streets, only half-sure she was going in the right direction, finding her way by the landmarks. Here was the ax she had seen earlier. There was a broken chair she recognized.
Before long they stood in front of Arnold’s house, and Sienna went in. Brennan followed her inside, keeping close behind her. The burnt tapestry was here. Callie and Mina’s bed was here.
But Arnold was gone.
Her stomach in a knot, Sienna made her way back out of the house and found Ivan keeping watch outside the door. Brennan stepped out of the house, met Ivan’s eye, and turned up his palms in an empty handed gesture.
“Maybe he’s already headed back to the caravan,” she said, but her tone betrayed her uncertainty. She knew he wouldn’t have gone back. He didn’t care about the caravan anymore. He was home.
“You don’t think he found the bodies?” Ivan said to Brennan, his face grim.
Brennan didn’t answer; his face had gone still again. Sienna threw them both a questioning look, but they only hurried off toward the center of town without a word.
Brennan walked as straight and steady as ever, but Ivan had a leaden quality to his steps that she’d couldn’t believe. What was out there that Ivan did not want to face? He eagerly sought monsters and battle. Why would he cringe at the sight of dead bodies?
She only had to wonder before the Other showed her what was in his mind. Before they rounded the last corner, she stopped, unable to face it. The men walked ahead at first before Brennan noticed her resistance and came back to her. She was shaking her head. He laid a slim hand on her shoulder and spoke softly.
“Wait here. You don’t have to look.”
She raised her face to his, too shocked by the image in her mind to fully appreciate his tenderness. But the reassuring weight of his hand on her shoulder gave her the strength to move forward again.
She wished she could avoid it, but what Brennan didn’t understand was that she was seeing it already.
Brennan removed his hand from her shoulder as they walked around the corner.
She had been wrong. Seeing it through Ivan’s eyes was one thing. Seeing it with her own eyes was another thing entirely.
What she saw made her shake with an emotion which she could not quantify. There was no way that that heap used to be a town full of living people. The only sound aside from the cries of the scavenger birds and the buzz of insects was a slow drip coming from somewhere in the pile.
Brennan walked in a slow circle around the pile. He did not look at it but to glance casually. Ivan had been looking at the pile, his lips pressed together nauseously, but when he saw Brennan searching, he straightened his back and circled the pile the other way.
“Arnold!” Brennan shouted, startling the birds into flight.
Sienna tensed. Surely the mutants would hear that. Ivan tightened his grip on his sword and looked around warily. When nothing happened, Ivan called for him, too. Receiving no answer, they shook their heads.
“He’s not here,” Brennan said. “We’re going back.”
Sienna found her voice. “Let me look one more time,” she said. Without waiting for a response, she skirted around the pile, peeking into the ruined alleyways and blackened doors that surrounded the square.
There, the Other said, and she felt her eyes drawn to a dark alley. Sienna spotted a human shape silhouetted in the dark and made her way toward it cautiously.
It was Arnold, pale as death, sitting bonelessly in a dark alley before the pile of chewed humanity. He looked through her with empty eyes that chilled her to the core. “Arnold,” she said softly, shaking his shoulder. He didn’t blink.
Brennan and Ivan joined her. “Come on,” Ivan said, and pulled on Arnold’s arm. The merchant remained unresponsive.
“Get up!” Ivan barked, and slapped him hard across the face. Sienna and Brennan stepped forward, ready to calm Ivan, but Arnold reacted to the rough treatment, blinking and focusing on the battle-scarred man. He stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. “We’ve got mutants all around us, and you can’t waste any more time feeling sorry for yourself. Move your ass!” Ivan slapped him again.
“Ivan!” Sienna said. “Give him a minute!”
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Welcome to Azaria, a land of forgotten myths and mysterious ruins. Here are creatures in human shells who can kill with a thought; they call themselves Others. They crave power and view mankind as little more than chattel. Here again is a secret order of knights who ensure the Others remain little more than a legend: assassins with the discipline to move faster than their enemies can think. They dedicate their brief lives to tracking and killing these monsters. Sienna was born with an Other in her head. When her home is destroyed by an evil spell, she vows to use the monster within her against its kin, but maintaining control of it is no easy task. Her only companion, cold assassin, leads her through mutants and madmen and wild new horizons, but to what end? With enemies on all sides, she struggles to survive. Yet her greatest trial will be defending herself from possession by her own inner demon.