15.

Sweat trickled down his neck. His eyes stung against the wind. His gut roared with hunger. He had barely eaten or drunk, barely slept, forever tossing and turning. At every passing village, Mock would abandon the horse he was riding to steal another. He couldn’t wait for the beasts to rest up. There was no telling what might be happening to Zin. Any minute lost was a minute wasted. And if they were taking her to Fairmont …

He kicked at the horse’s flanks. ‘Ha!’

Fields rolled beneath. The sky rolled above. But he seemed to be getting nowhere fast. He had wasted the last six days searching, following tracks that led to nothing. The Paleskin camp was enormous with too many people coming and going: farmers, knights, soldiers, merchants. Big processions, small retinues, all heading in various directions towards the west. Mock had skill but not even he could decipher the mess.

Six days.

She could be anywhere.

Bit by bit, his daughter’s life was slipping through his fingers.

He was quickly losing heart over this newest trail. He was following the tracks of several horses and a wagon, but so far there were no tell-tale signs there might be a slave or even a woman present. No long hair caught on branches. No bloodied linen of her moontime. No light footprints of smaller feet. Women urinated a particular way too. He saw no evidence of that. Only the stink of men. He also looked for the glimmer of seed that might suggest sex or rape, but all he found were the usual deposits against trees and in bushes.

Soon, the sun began to set, splashing scarlet against the clouds and turning the sky pink. Mock’s vision wasn’t great at the best of times and he was forced to stop. The tunic and britches he had stolen were wet with sweat and stuck to his back and groin. It had been many years since he had known Paleskin clothing and they itched and scratched against his skin. But he needed them. It was no good charging around in his bare chest and kinta.

Before he lay down to rest he tore them off and hung them on a branch to dry out. As he gazed up at the stars, he wondered if Zin was doing the same, or maybe Grinda—no, she was stuck in those dark, dank caves along with the rest of his children with only rock to gaze at. It filled him with despair. Even after he had found Zin and returned her to where she belonged, what then? Those Paleskin machines would not stop. The Paleskins themselves would never stop. Mock would protect them all until his dying breath, but he was only a man.

Anger swelled in his chest. Where was the Mother in all this? Would she do nothing? Would she merely sit back and watch her children die? She had already let the Paleskins destroy so much. Not for the first time, Mock wondered if the Mother was nothing but hot air blasting between old men’s lips.

Yet old habits died hard, and he couldn’t help but pray.

The Mother help us. Protect Grinda and my children. Help guide me to Zin before it’s too late. Protect her. Keep her. Help my people. Help us all.

*

Mock hated this place. He hadn’t dreamt it in years but it inexplicably came back to him now in full force. The world of ash and char. It sucked at his boots, filled his lungs with its stink. The desolation made his eyes ache. But this time something was different. He could feel. More precisely, he could feel her.

‘Zin! His voice echoed impossibly around him. ‘Zin!’

He rubbed at his chest at a strange burning sensation. He had felt it once before, many years back, down beyond the ether. He remembered it now. That white tether. That link. That’s why he knew she couldn’t be dead. He would know if she was.

He turned at the thunder of hooves, the echoing shrill of a scream. He squinted into the distance. The air seemed to ripple. He sucked in a breath.

‘Spirit?’

Mock couldn’t be sure. It screamed again. A dark shadow galloped across the dull gleam of the horizon. Something was attached to its side, coiling right past Mock. And that’s when Mock remembered that the beast, too, had the link to Zin.

Mock turned, following the direction of Spirit’s white tether, until he was facing behind. He clutched at a second rope with a start. His rope. It passed from his chest, right through his hands and into the distance. Insubstantial it might be. But it was there. It was there!

A path to Zin.

*

Mock woke and scrambled to his feet. He glanced at his surroundings. The new horse he had stolen shook its head and snorted. The fire he had lit was cold ash. The sun was a blazing orb against the pink horizon. A new morning. A new day.

He turned in the direction where the tether had led. He could no longer see it, but he could feel it like a spreading warmth in his chest. Had the Mother answered him, after all? He stared hard into the distance, as though he could peel back the leagues and spot his daughter: the shine of her long braid, that dark hard look, that stubborn jaw he had come to love so much.

The conversation he last had with shamri Thall suddenly flashed in his mind:

You see wrong, Thall. That’s your job. What am I against the morgrar? I have no power.

You have more than you think.

There was no more time to waste.

 

16.

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