24.

Trapped.

The strange worlds wouldn’t release her. And she wondered, not for the first time, if she was dead. Two worlds: the dark world and the world filled with colour. The world of colour she sensed was her own world, in some way or another. Sometimes she could hear Aaron’s voice, a few times she had even seen him. She tried to call out, to reach for him, but he was little more than a shadow passing through her hands.

The purple sky with its jagged lightning. The ground was like a flashing rainbow, pinks and golds and greens, as she and Spirit rode across its fields. Huge shadows seemed to pass overhead, turning the bright world dim, but when she looked up, there was only empty sky.

But what was most astounding were the enormous, towering pillars that seemed to hold up the sky. Warks, she soon realised. She knew them now. For the first time in her life she could feel them. And that deep thudding in the earth. She knew that too—the Mother’s heartbeat.

Then she realised; was this the world beyond the ether? The world shamri Thall had once experienced? It made sense. But why Zin and why now?

It was a confusing world. It made her feel strange. It made her feel almost … powerful. Zin flexed her fingers in Spirit’s mane at a sudden rush of energy that made her hands crackle. And Spirit himself, she could hear him, feel him too: the pounding of his heart, the churning of his stomach, his love for her, like a deep swelling in his chest. Where had that come from? It must have something to do with the silver tether.

Then there were his thoughts. Nothing in words, only feelings. The shamri could speak to animals and now she could too. She wondered what they would think of her now. The half and half with no talent riding through the world beyond the ether on a dead horse.

The air around her shimmered, the world lurched and she clawed her hands into Spirit’s mane, her heart leaping in her chest. Not again. The rainbow grass was gone, all the colour and feeling and life, the purple sky, the towering warks, the Mother’s heartbeat. Along with Aaron and anything she might have felt from the other side. She still had Spirit, at least, but he didn’t like this world either. The dark world. She felt his heart hammer. The fear of it made him snort and shake his head. The sludge spattered beneath his hooves. The stench of the place sat thickly in her lungs. Sweat beaded across her chest. She looked back at the sound of beating wings.

There it was again. That creature. No, that man. He was always chasing her. And each time she reappeared into his world he had gained a little bit. He was so fast. Faster even than Spirit.

Move, Spirit. Move.

But where to go? They couldn’t run forever. She turned to look back again. Her heart froze in her chest. He was so close now she could see detail. The weathered, hideous face. The clawed hands. The great bat-like wings. And those eyes, as black and dull as the landscape, fixed on her.

His face suddenly twisted, horribly, and she realised he was smiling.

He dove. She screamed. She unsheathed her sword. He raked his claws through the air, right by her head. She slashed out and the sword glanced off something hard. Dark blood spattered on the shoulder of her dress. The dark man arced away, quietly. No noise. No roar of pain. Only to plunge again in a blast of wind. She swiped out, missed, and he managed to coil his fist through her hair. Zin gasped as he yanked back her head. Spirit screamed. Her arse slipped from his back. And then she was falling and falling.

Then rising.

The sludgy black ground fell away. The dim sky rushed to meet her. Spirit was far below, still galloping. Zin forgot all about her horror, slinging her arms around the creature’s neck for dear life. The Mother take her! She was so high! As high as a bird. The great beating of his wings was so loud her ears ached. She was pressed up against his chest, his arms wrapped around her. His skin was warm but leathery, like an old boot.

In her mind she demanded, where are you taking me? In reality she cried, ‘Don’t drop me!’ It was humiliating. She had climbed cliffs before, but this was beyond her mind’s ability to absorb.

‘I won’t,’ he answered.

She looked at him with a start. He looked back. No longer so dull, his eyes burned with fire. And she knew that whatever he intended to do with her was going to be much worse than a swift fall to her death. She looked down with a wince, took a breath as she gathered her courage. She had lost her sword somewhere below when he had swept her off Spirit, but she still had her knives.

She yanked out her dagger, but he was quick. He let go and suddenly she found herself in freefall. Tumbling over and over. The wind blasted against her face. The world spun and looped. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream. Through her slitted eyes she saw the ground rushing up to meet her.

She closed her eyes, awaiting the impact.

Nothing.

She opened her eyes. She was back in the world of colour, lying in a daze on its rainbow grass. Lightning flashed. And there was Spirit, nosing at her face as though she hadn’t just fallen to her death. She sat up, trembling so hard her teeth chattered.

And all she could think was: not again.

*

Not again.

Panting, Aaron pinned her down by the shoulders. Zin was squirming and thrashing, snarling and baring her teeth, her eyes bulging in her head. She looked like a wild animal. His heart sat somewhere low in his guts. She hadn’t done this since that first time. He had hoped she was getting better.

Where was that damn physician? That Augustus. Aaron had been waiting for hours and the old fool still hadn’t shown up. He gritted his teeth at the pain in his arms, at the ache in his back.

‘Get me some help!’

But there was no one around. Only silence answered.

Earlier, he had pulled off his filthy tunic and folded up the bottoms of his britches. So much for the cool ocean air. His hair dripped. The air burned in his lungs as he sucked it down. He couldn’t take anymore.

Then she stopped. Just like that, she fell back into her pillow with a sigh. Her body sagged. Her eyelids fluttered, then closed. Still panting, Aaron released her tentatively. Her dress had torn during the struggle, exposing a breast. He quickly covered her up.

He hurried to the table to fetch more water. He returned, gently lifting her head as he pressed the cup to her lips.

No more spitting, no more squirming, but the shadows under her eyes were getting darker, the hollows in her cheeks deeper. She looked like a dried-out husk. He grimaced. She was drinking but not eating. And the thought that she might actually be dying suddenly turned him cold. He hadn’t dared entertain the thought. Couldn’t entertain the thought. She was sick, but sick people could get better.

Where is that damn physician!

He put the cup aside, then slumped into the chair. He thought about his uncle’s reprieve in a daze. He closed his eyes, letting the sudden wave of hope fill him up. During their happiest times, when Zin lay naked and peaceful in Aaron’s arms, he would allow himself to dream, to imagine a future where it was only the two of them. Where he was not a lord and she was not a slave. Where neither had responsibilities or loyalties that pulled them in different directions. Where their people were not at war. They would have a house. A plot of land. A warm fire and a comfortable bed. He would chop the wood in the winter. And she would watch and laugh, lovely and content as she held their sleeping baby in her arms.

It was hard to believe that it might actually happen. A way out. They had done their best to help her people and failed. But she still had a chance. They still had a chance. If only she would get better.

The king’s words rang in his ears: You will have three days.

‘Come on, Zin, get better.’

*

There was power in this world, Zin knew it now. Power she could utilise to defend herself, to attack. But not to escape. For some reason, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t break free of the power of these two worlds: the dark world and the world of colour.

She stood in the dark world, her ankles deep in the sludge, glaring at the beast-man who had tried to kidnap her.

‘Release me!’

‘No.’

‘Release me! Or I’ll …’ She clenched her fists, gritting her teeth as power surged through her arms. The sludge around his feet hissed and bubbled.

He stepped away. ‘I can’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘It is not me who is keeping you here.’

‘Then who?’

‘Nobody. Nothing. You have awakened and now you are stuck between your world and the Other.’

‘Am I dead?’

‘No.’

She shook her head. ‘Why are you here? What do you want?’

‘You. Only you.’ His eyes flashed greedily. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time.’

There were many secrets coming to her now. Many revelations. As though the universe was opening up. She could see things she hadn’t seen before. Hear things, know things, feel things. The past, the future. And she knew him. He was more than just a man. He was this world.

It was all so overwhelming. It made her stagger. It made her wince. As though her head was going to explode. She clutched at it with a cry. Her eyes were hot, as though they were boiling in her head. So much noise. So many feelings, good and bad and terrible.

‘Make it stop!’

And she didn’t know if she was calling to the creature, to the Mother, or to anyone at all. Something must have answered, however, because the pain soon eased to a bearable throb. She glared at the man-creature, panting.

And saw.

And knew.

Always, the shamri warned of the Morgrar’s coming. But she never thought she would ever be tied up in it. She, the talentless, the strange, the different. The faqwa half-breed. And nobody had told her the Darkness would be a man. Or, at least, half a man.

So many secrets unearthed. So many shadows brightened. The shamri had lied. Her mother had lied. So had her father. And she felt their deception like a sting at the back of her neck. The past, the future. No more confusion. Only knowing and understanding. The Mother showed her everything, until her mind swelled, until she could see from one horizon to the other. Until she thought her head must burst.

She gripped at her head again, snapping her eyes shut. The world was suddenly so bright. How could a world of darkness be so bright! ‘Stop it!’

But it didn’t stop. Not this time. Not until she saw. Until she understood. And she did see, in her mind’s eye: the wark they had bound her powers to. The darkness the shamri feared inside her. Thall’s warnings. And suddenly, somehow, she knew he was dead. But they were wrong. Just as abba liked to tell her: The Mother can be deceptive with her visions.

She turned back to the beast, hands hovering over the daggers at her waist. She would show them. She would be good and fierce and she would save them all. From the Paleskins. From this terrible man-beast.

From the Darkness.

But first thing’s first: she had to get out of here. There was danger afoot. Not here. Not with her. Back on her own world. She could feel it like a thorn in her side. She feared for Aaron, for her family. Things were coming to a head and she couldn’t be stuck here. She couldn’t be stuck here! The Mother had a plan for her. She knew it. She sensed it. And this creature was in her way.

‘I need to get out of here,’ she said.

‘No. That is not what’s foretold.’ He was as enormous as her uncle but with unnaturally wide shoulders that were forced to hold the weight of his huge bat-like wings, which he now had folded at his back. Long dark, matted hair coursed down his shoulders, tangling with his chest hair. Big, scarred hands with long, chipped nails. Bare feet stood in the sludge. But that wasn’t the only thing that was bare. He didn’t wear a strip of clothing. She could hold no doubt that he was a man. ‘You will transport me into your world.’

She scoffed. ‘And why would I do that?’

He was hideous. His skin was scarred and leathery, his eyes black. When she met them with her own, it was as though she were staring into a void.

‘You will because you will want to,’ he said. ‘In time you will give yourself to me. Your power, your body, your love.’

‘To you?’ She laughed.

He gave a knowing smile. She was a liar—and he knew it. She couldn’t see her future, but she sensed it. And it was cold, dark and desolate and filled with fury. And it was close, close enough she felt it like a dark cloud passing over the sun.

He took a step towards her, then another. Zin braced herself, rooting her feet into the sludge, trying to feel the beat of the Mother. It was faint in this world, somewhere far, far below, little more than the flutter of mothwings. But it was there. Enough to strengthen her. Enough to keep him back.

At least, that was what she thought.

His wings quivered. The big muscles in his arms bulged. The large tendon in the side of his neck stood out. Baring his teeth, he forced himself against her invisible defences. Not with magic but with sheer physical strength. This was his world, and no matter her power, no matter her connection with the Mother, it wasn’t enough.

He reached for her. She seized a dagger from her belt.

It was futile.

She screamed.

 

25.

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