‘Let’s go,’ Croki said, waving his burning torch.
Grinda and her children followed reluctantly. The further they went into the caves, the darker and danker it became. Water trickled down the walls. The rocky floor was slippery with moss. And the world became tighter, smaller, lower. Until even Grinda, as small as she was, was forced to duck her head.
But they had no choice.
Quess was weeping. The rest of her children were silent. They could hear her people’s machinery even through the mountain. A deep growling, snarling noise that vibrated through their feet, through the walls of the caves and filled the Quarthi with dread.
The natives had never seen anything like it. And neither had Grinda. It had been many years since she had heard anything at all of her people. It was startling how quickly things changed.
She winced. There was a collective gasp from the people around her. Cries from children. Another fallen tree. A big one. The boom as it hit the ground overcame even the noise of the machinery. Grinda felt it in her bones.
A tear rolled down her cheek. It was painful. She felt it in her chest, in her heart, in that part of her mind that had contacted the Mother those many years ago, since gone dark the day Zin was born. It came back to her now: the day of Zin’s birth. Grinda had been exhausted, her heart and mind wrapped up around her little girl. It had taken a full day before Grinda had realised the change. The emptiness. With Zin’s birth Grinda’s powers had vanished, her connection to the Mother severed. Where once she could sense a wark from across the world, now she had to smoke chokra to find anything at all. It had been a sudden and terrible transition, like her heart had been ripped from her chest. But she’d had her little girl to pull her through. To fill that empty spot.
The Quarthi felt the destruction of the forest keenly. Children were sobbing, women were weeping, the men were silent. Their home. Their Mother. It was as though the world was falling down around them. The end was coming. They sensed it. They knew it.
It was only a matter of time.
They settled at the back of the caves, hundreds of screaming babies, crying children and helpless women, while anyone wanting to fight armed themselves with whatever they could took a defensive position in the tunnels. Xala was one of them. Grinda had tried to stop her before realising the futility. If the Toths found the caves, they were all dead, no matter where they stood. Grinda would have followed her daughter had she not three other children to think about.
Mock. Zin. She lowered her face. She couldn’t think about them now or it would destroy her, and she had to be strong. For her children. For the Quarthi. Never more did she regret the loss of her powers than she did at that moment.
Please, Mother, if they’re alive, keep them safe. Keep them away. Don’t let them come home.
Home. Grinda. His children.
Mock felt them waiting ahead as much as he felt Zin falling behind. Like roaring heat. Like crashing waves. Like his hammering heart had stretched in both directions. The horse thundered beneath him, snorting and grunting. Frothy saliva sprayed against Mock’s britches. A new horse. The last one had collapsed under him. But he would not stop. He would not stop. If this were to be the Quarthi’s last stand, let him be there. Let him protect them. Let him fight till his last breath.
But he was still days away yet until he reached the Paleskin camp. And from there it was another several days journey through the mountains. The thought crushed the air out of his lungs.
Please Mother. Don’t let me be too late. Don’t let me find them …
I WILL NOT BURY MY CHILDREN.
He kicked the horse. ‘MOVE!’
For a moment the snarl of the machinery stopped and there came the shouts and laughter of the Toths. It echoed through what was left of the great forest. An empty forest, eerily quiet. All the animals had fled: from the rats to the birds. Even the insects had flown away in swarms, unable to cope with the thick cloud of dust that hung like a pall over everything, coating the leaves and branches and nectar and the dense forest floor.
The forest was immense, still a little less than two-thirds left, sprawling in a great waving canopy all the way to the sands of the Crantic Ocean. But the machines were fast and brutal and the Toths ambitious.
At the edge of the remaining forest stood a tree. It looked like any ordinary tree, as ordinary as any tree could be, with its massive tentacular roots and blood-red bark. It stood at a lean as though carrying a heavy burden. Leaves had piled up at its roots. A bird had made a nest in the crook of its branches. One of its smaller branches near the top hung limp and broken from a recent storm.
The Toth farmer who wielded the cutter thought nothing of it. For a moment, he paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, then wound up the machine, the wheels skidding through the ground litter. It growled and snarled, then roared as the blade bit deep into its massive trunk. The vines hanging from its branches swayed, then shuddered. Leaves fell in a shower or blew away in the breeze, lost to the haze. The cutter groaned, whined. The farmer’s whole body shook at the vibration. His teeth rattled in his head. He winced as a strange, dark liquid sprayed onto his clothes and into his face but kept going. He didn’t worry. It wasn’t the first time.
The tree creaked dangerously. The lean became a tip.
The farmer pulled himself and the cutter hurriedly back. A low moan and the tree crashed through its neighbours, the loud crack! of snapping branches echoing through the forest, before it slammed into the ground with a thud that the farmer felt through the soles of his boots.
More of that strange sap swelled from the stump, leaking onto the ground and filling the air with a sharp, earthy smell that stuck at the back of his throat.
Far from done, the farmer wound up the cutter again and set to cutting the trunk into manageable pieces.
Just another tree. More timber to haul away. More land to farm.
There was no reason at all to think any more of it.
‘Zin?’ Aaron grabbed at her shoulder as she leaned in the saddle. ‘Are you all right?
They were trotting along the road. It was close to midday and Lord Aaron was sweating. Zin was sweating too, he could see. Droplets beaded her chest and forehead and across her lip. But unlike him it wasn’t from the heat. She didn’t look well. ‘Zin?’
She didn’t answer, staring emptily into the distance, panting heavily. Almost gasping. Then she slumped against him, her eyes rolling back in her head. ‘Zin!’ He pulled her onto his horse before she could sag to the ground. ‘Zin.’ He touched her cheek. Ice cold and as white as death.
She was still breathing, her heart still beating. Then she stiffened, made a choking sound. Gritting her teeth, she began to shake.
Mock sucked in a breath as he lost his grip on the cliff wall. He scrabbled furiously for purchase, found a hold by the very fingertips of his left hand. His chest slammed into the rock, his legs swung out into empty space.
‘Fuck!’ he cried, dangling.
With a snarl, he flung out his other arm and gripped onto an outjutting rock. Gasping for breath, he looked between his feet. The ground was far below. Trees looked like weeds. High winds swept through his hair and made the smaller rocks skitter. He had taken the more difficult route through the mountains to gain time. He was regretting it now. Then again, he didn’t expect his strength to suddenly fail him like that, like water draining through a hole in a cup. What had happened? Pain stabbed behind the eyes. He ignored it. Reaching out with his other arm, he snagged another handhold and hauled himself up.
Grinda sat tall at the sound of a scream. Cries and sobbing followed. Then people were rushing, shouting. Startled, Quip wailed in his sling. Quess gripped onto Grinda’s hand. ‘What’s happening, amma?’
Grinda couldn’t answer. It was too hard to see in the flickering torchlight of the dark caves. Were the Toths attacking? Couldn’t be. She could still hear the machines.
‘The Paleskin! I’m looking for the Paleskin woman!’ a man’s voice boomed above the clamour.
Somebody whistled for silence. ‘Quiet!’
She recognised the voice yet couldn’t put a name to it. She sucked in a breath at a strange tingling at the very edge of her mind, like the brush of fingertips. Shamri Pock.
Quickly come. Thall is asking for you.
‘Shamri Thall?’ Her heart skipped a beat. What would he want with her? She turned to her children. ‘Quess, Grit, stay with Seera and your cousins.’
‘Amma?’ Grit said fearfully.
‘Look after your sister, I’ll be right back.’
Quip was still sobbing at her breast but was calming again. No more shouting or running, the caves now filled with quiet weeping. Men and women watched anxiously as she stepped between them to the back corner of the cave where the shamri dwelt.
The five shamri were standing around something. At her approach they backed away. The torches flickered on the walls, bringing out the fear in their faces. Their dark, glittering eyes. Their shock. Grinda swallowed. They were never surprised.
Stretched out at their feet was Grand shamri Thall, looking so pale he was almost white. He lay in a bundle of pelts, his long white hair piled around his head, gazing wide-eyed at the ceiling as the breath rattled in his chest. His big hands lay at his sides, clenching and unclenching.
‘What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?’ Shamri Thall was over one hundred years old. The oldest Quarthi in living memory. She had never known him to fall ill.
‘No. He is dying.’
Her eyes widened. ‘What?’
‘Kneel. Talk to him. His time is running out,’ shamri Flip explained urgently.
Grinda did so, one hand against Quip’s back as he snuggled at her chest. Thall’s head turned. He raised a big hand. Grinda took it. It was devastating to see him so vulnerable. The oldest and most powerful shamri—dying. And at a time like this.
The old shamri’s eyes met hers but they seemed to see straight through her. Grinda bowed her head.
‘Zin,’ he croaked. Grinda raised her head. His hand tightened around hers. ‘Wark. Morgrar. Death and life.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said.
He licked his lips. ‘Light and darkness. It’s not over. It’s not over.’ He turned his head and a stream of unintelligible words followed. His hand slipped from her grasp.
Grinda looked up at the surrounding shamri helplessly, but all they gave her were solemn looks. She turned back.
He licked his lips again. ‘Ash and char. The Mother. The Mother. She knows. She knows. She has to fail. She has to fall. Let her fall.’ He turned his head again, looked up at her and suddenly he was staring straight into her eyes. Grinda reeled back as he seized her wrist.
He bared his teeth. His eyes were glittering now. ‘I see now. I see it all. He will die and she will fall. Let her fall. Let her fall. Her sorrow will save us all. To drag the Darkness down. The Mother knows. The Mother plots. Trust in the Mother. Light in the darkness. Light in the darkness.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t understand.’
His grip around her wrist tightened. His eyes flashed. ‘The Morgrar is here. He is here. Let him take her. Let him destroy her. He must.’
His grip loosened and he sagged back into the pile of pelts. He took a last, rattling breath, then no more.