Zin pulled herself to her feet. She had been lying in a puddle of mud. No. Not mud, something else. It stuck to her face, clung to her hair and when she tried to wipe it free from her hands, it slung between her fingers in drapes.
She gazed around her, in horror, in awe. What had happened? One moment she was riding her horse alongside Aaron and the next she was here. In this place. In this … nothingness. Two moons glowed above. A distant gleam brightened the horizon. If you could call it a horizon. But there was nothing more. No mountains. No trees. Not even a breeze.
She gasped at a sudden lurch. She was sinking! Quickly she slogged out of the sludge pit and onto solid ground. She looked down at her skirt in disgust. It was weighed down heavily with the stuff. It pulled against her hips. And it stank so bad.
Shaking her head, she looked around her again. How was she going to get out of this? Was she dreaming? She flexed and straightened her fingers. It felt real.
She turned, unsheathing her sword at a sudden whinny, but her surroundings were empty. She tightened her grip at the distant sound of thundering hooves. There was a second whinny. She spun and spun but couldn’t see anything but emptiness.
‘Show yourself!’ she cried.
The air shimmered and she leapt back with a yell as it suddenly appeared at her shoulder. A monster of a horse. Legs as thick as branches. Black as night. Panting, she gripped hard on her sword, then lowered it. Could it be?
‘Spirit?’ she breathed.
The horse shook its dark mane with a snort.
Both abba and amma used to speak about him. The horse killed by the Paleskins. Abba had always told her that he died from a sword thrust. She reached out to touch the pink, hairless scars across his chest. These were no sword thrusts. The horse was watching her, snorting gently. What was going on? If he truly was Spirit then why was he here, with her, now? What had really happened to him? Nothing added up. Their stories had never rung true. What weren’t they telling her? Somehow, in some way, she knew it all had something to do with her.
She smiled as she gazed at the horse. She could imagine her father on a beast like this. Raiding and murdering. He would have been a terrible force to be reckoned with. For a moment she felt some of the fear her mother must have had when she first saw it as a helpless village girl.
Flicking its tail, the horse nosed her hand, and that’s when she noticed something strange. A silvery rope. It was caught between them. Chest to chest. It was short because they were so close but when she stepped back, it lengthened and lengthened, and when she tried to grab it, her hands passed right through as though it didn’t exist.
Only one of so many strange things. Should she ride him? Would that get her out of here? She winced at the landscape. The sheer desolation was starting to make her head ache. She paused, squinting. There was something in the distance. In the sky. Little more than a black speck. A speck that was growing—fast.
The horse nickered, then whinnied, then reared up on his hind legs, his hooves thudding hard into the barren earth as he landed.
‘What is it?’ she said.
She backed away. It was a creature of some sort. Beating through the air on wings of darkness. Without thinking, she leapt onto Spirit.
They fled, and the horse seemed to skirt right over the sludge, thundering over the landscape. She turned to look behind. It was gaining on them. And that’s when she saw that it wasn’t a creature at all.
Zin woke with a gasp, coughed and spluttered.
‘Zin! Zin!’ Aaron hauled her up into a sitting position. He brushed the hair from her face.
‘Are you all right?’ He shook her. ‘Talk to me.’
She struggled to speak but her mouth wouldn’t obey. Finally, she nodded, though her heart kept thundering. The image of that creature wouldn’t leave her mind. That terrible face. Those hate-filled eyes.
‘What happened?’ she croaked.
‘I don’t know. You were having the shakes. More than just the shakes. You were—’ he shook his head. ‘You’re not well. We need to go to the next town and see a physician.’
He tried to haul her to her feet but Zin resisted. ‘The same men who let your brother’s mother die? Your father?’
‘They know what they’re doing, Zin.’
‘It doesn’t seem like it.’
He pulled a face. ‘Zin.’
He sighed. ‘You’re just going to let this pass?’
‘It was nothing.’
‘It didn’t seem like—’
‘It was nothing! Time is running out. We need to get to Fairmont.’
He squeezed his lips together. ‘Fine. But if it happens again, you have no choice.’
She nodded. ‘If it happens again.’ Aaron rose by her side as she stood. He went to help her as she wobbled, but she brushed him off.
She looked around, scratching her head. They stood close to the road. Her horse was rubbing her neck against a tree. The second horse was staring at them, swishing his tail. There was the clatter of a wagon. She saw it pass by, half-hidden by tall grasses. She pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes.
Trying not to wince at the pounding in her head, she looked into the sky. She couldn’t get the image out of her mind. And she felt strange. Lighter somehow. Like her feet were not quite touching the ground. She looked back to the trees, then to Aaron. They were all staring at her. It felt like the whole world was staring at her. And what was that faint beating beneath her feet? She lifted one boot, then the other, then crouched to the ground, pressing her hand against the grass.
Something was different. Something was happening. She glanced up at Aaron, who was watching her with concern.
There was something wrong with her. She was pale, with a sickly hollowness beneath her eyes. And when she stood again, her hands were trembling. She had the look of someone who hadn’t slept in days.
‘I think you need a rest, Zin.’
She opened her mouth, about to protest, then shut it with a nod.
She lay down with her head in his lap, breathing gently, her eyelids fluttering as she dreamed. He rested one hand against her head, the other against her shoulder, starting to feel better. Already she was getting her colour back.
Once back on the road, Aaron made sure to slow their pace, despite Zin’s objections. They took frequent breaks, he watched her closely, and when they were riding he made sure to keep her close to his side. It was less than two days to Fairmont where she would be able to rest properly.
It wasn’t soon enough.
Zin was sick. She had only been riding an hour and she was struggling to hold on, sitting so crooked Aaron was worried she would slip out the saddle. Her fists were white around the reins. Her pallor had returned. But when he asked that they should stop, she refused.
Aaron clenched his jaw. Her stubbornness would get her killed one day.
At one point she nodded off, the reins slipping through her hands, her arse sliding in the saddle. She would have fallen if Aaron hadn’t been trotting by her side to catch her.
‘That’s it!’ he said. She righted herself with a gasp, blinking. ‘You’re riding with me.’ He snatched away her reins before she could take them again. She tried to snatch them back. ‘Zin! You will do as I say, Goddamnit! Stop acting like a fool!’
She glared at him a moment. Aaron’s heart was thudding. How white she was! Then her shoulders sagged. With a sigh, she eased to the ground. Aaron reached down a hand to help her up onto his horse. She took it but couldn’t manage. Her foot kept missing the stirrup and when she tried to hoist herself up, her shoulders collapsed beneath her. Aaron’s heart sank. Something was very wrong.
He got down and swung her up himself. Sitting behind her, he wrapped one arm around her waist to keep her steady. Just like old times. Except this time she wasn’t stiff and resistant. Now she was limp, lying against him as though holding up her own weight was too much effort.
He felt her forehead. It was damp with sweat and she was burning up. ‘Shit.’
He glanced at the second horse. Zin was wearing all her weapons, everything that mattered to her. There was only waterskins, food and blankets strapped to its back. She would hate him but he could buy her another horse.
He kicked his horse into a gallop. Two days was too far. He would take her to the next town and get a physician.
But the physician proved just as useless as Zin predicted.
‘She’s a slave,’ the physician said as he looked into her eyes, opened her mouth. ‘They are weak in the mind as well as the soul. It’s not uncommon that they should be so sick. That’s why they rarely live to an old age.’ He began tapping at various points of her body with a strange looking hammer. Zin was awake—barely. Eyes half-shuttered, panting and unmoving. She looked at Aaron as though wanting to say something, but when he went over she closed her eyes again.
Aaron rested his hand against her head, struggling not to seize that ridiculous hammer and smash the old fool over the head with it. ‘So, what you’re saying is, there’s nothing you can do.’
‘Oh, I can do something, of course.’ He opened his satchel and withdrew a vial. ‘Give her this every two hours. It will help with her fever. And if you are willing, we can bleed her overnight. Her blood is dirty with sickness. We must remove it.’
Aaron dragged his tongue over his teeth. ‘Leeches.’
‘That’s right, but it may not be effective. She’s one of them. We’ll never fully get rid of the filth.’
Aaron’s eyes narrowed. The hand on Zin’s head clenched into a fist. Aaron reacted so fast the old fool didn’t know what hit him until he was halfway up the wall.
‘My lord,’ the physician choked, scrabbling at the back of his hand.
He released his grip and the physician dropped to the floor, coughing and gasping. Lord Aaron threw his satchel at him but kept the tonic. The old fool fled out the door and Aaron slammed it shut behind him.
He turned, his heart in his throat. She was looking worse. Sweat beaded her forehead.
Her eyes had sunken in. He couldn’t wait.
‘Zin.’ Her eyelids fluttered. ‘Zin.’ He unstoppered the cork. She wasn’t quite awake but he lifted her head and dripped the contents carefully into her mouth. She licked her lips, swallowed. When he was done, he scooped her into his arms. That opened her eyes. Those dark, beautiful eyes. So tired now. So dim.
‘We cannot wait. My uncle has the greatest physicians in the land. They can help you.’
She murmured something in the back of her throat that might have been assent, then closed her eyes again. She was damp with sweat and felt almost weightless in his arms.
Kicking the door open, he left.
He rode his horse hard. It was late afternoon. The sun guided his way. All he could do was pray that there would be a cloudless sky tonight. A full moon.
Please, God, light our way.
God answered. The moon was full. The palfrey was strong. Aaron’s whole body ached but he wouldn’t give in. Zin hadn’t said a word in several hours and he feared ever more greatly at every passing moment. He could only hope the physicians had the power to do something.
Zin remained limp in his aching arms. He sweated, he panted, he cursed at his weakening strength. But at least she was alive: breathing, grunting, dreaming. Every so often he pressed his fingertips to her throat. Her heart was bounding. Her skin was hot. She wasn’t beyond help. It gave him hope.
Aaron only stopped to relieve himself and to water the horse. His arse ached. His back was worse. His tunic clung to his armpits and back. His hair was plastered to his head. When roads were too busy, he galloped through fields and forests, farmers shouting in alarm and fury when he trampled their crops and ruined their newly tilled soil.
It was edging morning by the time Fairmont reared up ahead, the sunrise turning the white walls pink. His horse was snorting and grunting. Frothy spittle turned Aaron’s hands sticky. The palfrey was on his last legs. But they had made it.
‘Zin, Zin. Wake up. We’re here. Zin!’
People dove out of his way. The knights watched him wide-eyed as he galloped through the gates. Hooves clattered over the cobblestone path. His mount snorted and grunted, its brown mane blowing back at the speed. The loveliest buildings in the whole of Toth rose up on either side: arched roofs, great pillars, sweeping steps and marble floors; glass in their windows. Built by the greatest architects and engineers in both Toth and the whole of Euroba. Aaron barely spared them a glance.
The portcullis to the castle was open. The knights crossed their lances in front of him. His horse snorted. ‘Out of my way! I am Lord Aaron, nephew to the king!’
The knight on the left merely tightened his hold on his lance. The one on the right, however, lifted his visor. Aaron’s eyes widened. It was Sir Ream. He gazed at Aaron, then turned his eyes to Zin. She was slumped against him, her hair draped over her face. The knight’s eyes narrowed but he stood back. The second knight looked at Sir Ream, then did the same.
Lord Aaron raced on ahead and the noise of his entrance echoed against the walls of the bailey. People watched, open-mouthed, or jumped back with startled cries as he raced past. A young woman swung out of his way just in time, but not her basket of eggs, which he trampled into the dust. More guards stood at the open doors of the great hall. He blasted past them without a care.
A bunch of faceless people cried and screamed, scattering, as he thundered inside.
It was a magnificent hall. A hall he knew so well. The knights wore polished armour with gleaming swords, white cloaks falling to their ankles. The ceiling was high and echoing, pigeons nesting in the arched beams. Religious tapestries lined the walls. Stained-glass windows looked out onto the bailey. A long royal carpet led towards the marble throne. Heavy candelabras, marble pillars, man-sized statues watched from their stone plinths: saints and holy men. An enormous brass cross was nailed to the wall behind the throne.
Aaron reined up, surrounded by a ring of swords and lances—King Guston’s personal knights. The horse backed up, then reared. Aaron yanked at the reins, fearing his waning strength, that Zin might fall. His arms were trembling.
‘Protect the king!’ one of the knights cried.
‘I am Lord Aaron!’ he shouted. ‘King Guston’s nephew, fourth in line to the throne. I want to see my uncle!’
‘Down off your horse!’
‘Uncle! I have arrived! Show yourself!’ Aaron’s voice boomed through the hall. The horse skittered again as the knights bunched threateningly.
‘Down off your horse! We won’t ask again.’
‘I can’t get down, you fool! Not without help.’ He clutched Zin more tightly against him. ‘And you’re not touching her. She’s sick! Do you want to catch what she’s got?’ That drove them back.
Ignoring them, Aaron looked past their gleaming swords to the empty throne, then to the tapestry in the corner where he knew the king’s chambers lay beyond. He had entered often enough as a child. Several people rushed through to fetch him.
Aching all over, anxious and sweating, he waited several long minutes that felt like hours. Zin was panting against his throat. She was sweating heavily too and the front of his tunic stuck wetly against his chest. Come on! He opened his mouth, about to call again when the tapestry shifted, revealing a familiar figure.
‘Lord Aaron,’ his uncle boomed, ‘my nephew. Returned at last.’ Several long strides, and he climbed the podium to the throne. He was dressed casually. Long-sleeved tunic with billowing sleeves, black britches with thigh-high boots. He wore no crown. Unsurprising, considering how abruptly he had been pulled from his chambers.
He sat the throne, hands on the arms, crossing one leg over the other. Those who had left to fetch him filed back into the hall. He looked around curiously, glanced at Zin. He didn’t seem perturbed by Aaron’s horse or the lingering evidence of chaos in his great hall.
‘You look like you’ve been through a war, nephew.’ He dropped his eyes to the girl. ‘So this must be the slave who has caused so many problems. What’s wrong with her?’
‘She’s sick, Uncle. I-I need your help.’
His uncle raised an eyebrow. The king looked like his father in many respects. But he also looked like Jeffrey too: dark, thick eyebrows; long, dark hair. The same sarcastic tilt to his mouth. Aaron’s heart thudded desperately. The last time he saw a mouth like that, it was bloodied and smashed up beneath his fist.
‘My help?’ Pursing his lips, he rubbed at his throat. Numerous golden rings glimmered. ‘A big thing to ask after all you’ve done. Leave us!’ the king commanded to those in the hall. ‘All of you. And close the doors.’
They obeyed. And soon, they were alone. Aaron had never known the hall to be so empty.
‘Uncle,’ he said desperately. His shoulders ached. He was dizzy. All night he’d ridden almost non-stop. No food. No water. He swayed in the saddle. Sweat dripped from his fringe.
‘Nephew, you don’t look well.’
‘I need a physician. She needs a physician.’
‘I can get you a physician, Aaron, but I won’t for her. She’s a slave.’
Aaron went to speak.
‘No!’ the king bellowed. ‘You will not speak before the king. Know your place!’
He rose, his boots scuffing against the stone floor as he descended the steps. Aaron watched him anxiously. The king’s eyes were blazing. He wasn’t the man Aaron remembered. Aaron felt a cold rush of fear.
The king gripped Aaron’s thigh as he leant in close. ‘Could you imagine the whispers? The rumours?’ he told Aaron quietly. ‘A king assisting a slave before his own people. Don’t get me wrong, nephew. I have sympathy.’ He looked at Zin. ‘I have a heart and a cock too. But there are ears everywhere. A king’s strength relies on arms as well as loyalty.’
Aaron was shaking now. His left arm was aching as he struggled to hold up Zin. He yanked at the reins as he tried to steady himself. The room was spinning. The horse whinnied and skittered. Pain shot through his aching arm and into his pounding heart. But it was nothing to the surge of relief—an almost physical pain that made the room spin worse. ‘Uncle, thank you.’
‘Roland!’ the king called.
A man entered the hall via the same tapestry his uncle had entered. ‘Yes, my king?’
‘See Aaron to his chambers and fetch him Augustus. He’s not well.’
‘Yes, my king.’ He hurried over.
‘Go,’ the king told Aaron. ‘I’ll meet with you shortly. Augustus is one of my most trusted men. He’ll help her.’ He raised his voice again just in case any should hear. ‘Then I’ll figure out what to do with this filthy savage.’
He turned and went back the way he’d come.
‘Come, my lord,’ Roland said. ‘Let me help you.’
The room was simple to the point of bland. No curtains. No decorations. Few comforts. A bed and a table, a couch, alongside a few other pieces of furniture. A small tub. A high-ranking prisoner’s room. Aaron was still trembling, his heart still pounding. Not because he was so tired. Not even because he was so worried about Zin. Everything: his life, her life, his mother’s and sister’s futures, hung off his trust in his uncle.
Had it truly paid off?
Aaron lay on the couch, half-asleep, while Zin lay peacefully on the big bed. Sweat beaded her forehead. She was panting.
A servant had brought food and wine. The dishes remained untouched.
Aaron looked up at the sound of footsteps coming down the hall, rose to his feet as his uncle entered. The king quickly took stock of the room before shaking his head and closing the door. ‘Boy, you have caused me strife and no mistake.’
Aaron gave him a weak smile. ‘Apologies, Uncle.’
The king’s eyes flicked over him. ‘Sit down before you fall down.’ He looked at Zin. ‘Augustus still hasn’t arrived, then.’
The king pursed his mouth. ‘He must still be tending the villagers. They have contracted some terrible skin-rotting disease from God knows where. People have died.’ An explanation, not an apology. Those were his people. Zin was only a slave.
Aaron sighed. ‘How are my cousins?’ He sat back on the couch.
‘They’re well. Jacob is in Euroba, studying. Robert is in the Eastern Lands dealing with the Sand People.’ His uncle turned to look at a painting above the dresser. It was of a horse. A beige destrier. A mare. She looked familiar. As though Aaron had seen the painting before.
‘Zork was her name. Had her as a child. The best I ever rode,’ his father once explained, coming up behind Aaron as he stood studying the painting in the Grand hall. ‘Never saddled her. Barely needed to use the reins. We were so close, she always seemed to know what I wanted. Almost as though she could read my mind.’
The sudden recollection brought a prickle of tears to Aaron’s eyes.
‘You’ve had quite the adventure,’ the king said, gazing at the painting. ‘Pity I missed it. Pity I didn’t get to see the look on your brother’s face when you decked him.’
‘Uncle?’ Aaron said in surprise.
The king laughed. ‘You know I detest the boy. And yes, he is a boy. Not a man. I half wish you had done the job properly and killed him. If I didn’t value your life so much I would have wholly wished it.’ He turned to Aaron with a sour look. ‘He sent me a letter by carrier pigeon. Arrived weeks ago.’ He handed Aaron a small piece of rolled up parchment.
There was only so much that could be sent via bird. The message was succinct. Betrayal in the east. Aaron must pay.
Aaron crushed the note in his fist. The king pursed his lips. ‘Tales of what happened between you two arrived even before that bird did. The whole kingdom is talking about you. You’ll never recover from this.’
‘I know, Uncle.’
‘And all for her.’ He nodded at Zin, then shook his head. ‘Your holding, your wealth, your power. Sounds like something one would read out of a child’s fairy tale. Have you tried kissing her, nephew? She might wake up.’
Aaron gave a wan smile.
The king’s face darkened. His voice turned grim. He began to pace the room, his boots whumping softly against the rug. ‘As much as I detest him, your brother is right. You must pay in some way. And the punishment must fit the crime.’
Aaron’s heart went cold. He didn’t speak.
‘As much as it pains me, Aaron, Greakin Landing can no longer be yours. You can keep your lordship. You are royalty, after all, but you will own no land. You will command no troops. At least, not till I see fit. Your mother and sister will be under my protection here in Fairmont.’
Aaron’s mouth went dry. He kept his voice steady, though he knew the worst was yet to come. ‘What else?’
‘You will be sent to Euroba, far away from your brother, far away from trouble, far away from danger. You cannot be trusted. Your brother cannot be trusted. Even now, I’d advise to keep your wits about you. Your brother has a long reach.’
Lord Aaron closed his eyes. Euroba. Practically banished. And there was no way his uncle would let Zin accompany him. What would happen to her?
‘You’re fortunate,’ his uncle continued. ‘Any other king might have had you killed, tortured or banished to the White Desert to live out your days with the Sand People. It’s only my love for you that has stayed my hand. And my love for my dead brother.’
Aaron opened his eyes. The king was staring at the painting of the horse again, as though gazing into old memories. He grunted, blinked, as he returned to the present. ‘There are cloaks in the closet, as well as new boots. Clean clothes.’
‘Thank you, Uncle.’
‘I’m not done yet.’ He looked at Aaron meaningfully. ‘I will station no guard at your door. I have several well-rested horses in my private stable.’
Aaron sat tall.
‘You will have three days before I must hand down my judgement. Pick your time wisely. The moment your absence is realised, I will send all necessary forces to hunt you down. If you are caught, I will show no mercy. I can do no less for a traitor.’
‘Thank you, Uncle,’ Aaron said breathlessly.
The king nodded, then turned to look at Zin, studying her for several long moments. ‘Was she worth it, Aaron?’
Aaron looked at her. Her breast rose and fell as she breathed. Those small, strong hands. Those soft lips. That roguish glint in her eye he loved so much—how he so badly wanted to see it again.
And somehow, despite it all, a smile pulled at his lips. ‘Every bit of it.’
The king looked at Aaron, his expression unreadable, then turned to leave.
‘Uncle.’ The king turned back. Aaron rose from his chair, gripping the arm as the room spun. ‘I will forever regret not at least trying. The natives, they’re dying. Jeffrey is destroying their home. By the time he is done there will be nothing left. I beseech you—’
‘I know what you would ask,’ his uncle said darkly. ‘And you know the answer. We need that land. The savages have had numerous opportunities throughout my father and grandfather’s generations and all the years since we first came to this land, to become a part of us. A part of Toth. They have always refused. If they won’t leave their land, then we must take it from them. And whatever happens to them is by their own choosing.’
Aaron’s eyes flicked to Zin, then back to the king. He opened his mouth.
‘Do you really think it wise to push the point, nephew, with so much at stake?’
Aaron paused. His uncle’s face was stern. Lowering his eyes, Aaron gave a faint nod.