3.

Zin kept close behind Xala as she crept through the woods, trying to move in time with the ram so it wouldn’t hear their footsteps. ‘Don’t lose him.’

‘I won’t.’

Here and there they saw a flash of a heavy grey coat between the trees, and once what might have been the shine of one of its spiralled horns.
Xala turned sharply. A stick cracked underfoot.

‘Don’t lose him!’ Zin hissed.

‘I won’t!’ Xala hissed back, knuckles white around her spear.

Zin’s younger sister still had a lot to learn about patience. The hunt was less about throwing a clean shot and much more about learning the ways of one’s prey. How it moved, how it thought. And to work with the forest, not against it. Zin should know. She was one of the Quarthi’s finest hunters. She smiled at the thought, then winced as another stick cracked underfoot.

The ram stopped moving. Xala bristled, annoyed with herself. They heard an anxious bleat, followed by a soft scratching as it pawed the ground nervously. The two sisters stayed as still as stone, barely breathing. Xala’s long braid lay flat down her naked back, so long it reached the top of her kinta.

Then it was moving again. Zin heard Xala release a breath. And they continued with their quiet chase.

Soon the ram stopped again, giving them the opportunity to catch up. Leaves rustled. Debris crunched. It bleated softly. Then they saw it. It was straight ahead, feeding on some bushes. Xala’s shoulders stiffened. Her movements slowed. A bead of sweat trickled down behind her ear.

Zin held her breath as her little sister pulled back the spear, her whole fist whitening as she tightened her grip. If she was successful, this would be her first big kill. The muscles in her shoulders and lower back bunched up, there was a lengthy exhale of air, then three swift steps and she released. A good throw. A strong throw.

They both turned at a strange noise. It silenced, then started up again. Long and sonorous, like the deep moan of an old man grieving, it echoed through the forest. Zin’s arms prickled with goose bumps. It was unmistakeable—the questat horn. She had only ever heard it sound during mourning ceremonies when someone had died. To hear it now meant something was wrong.

They were in danger.

The sisters looked at each other. Xala’s face was pale. Without a word she hurried to fetch her spear. It had thudded deep into the trunk of a tree. The ram was long gone, startled by the noise. When she rejoined Zin, her mouth was set. She didn’t make a fuss, didn’t complain, though the spear stuck right where the ram’s powerful shoulders had been only moments before.

 

The camp was clamouring upon their arrival. Men were shouting, mothers were screaming for their children, children were crying. Rams bellowed as they were dragged this way and that, supplies thrust upon their backs.

‘What’s going on?’ Xala yelled to Zin over the noise.

The horn sounded again as it had done throughout the sisters’ journey back. The man playing it stood at the camp’s centre, drawn and red-faced. It was no easy thing to work. Beside him stood Clan Leader Kob, along with none other than Grand shamri Thall himself, straight-backed and hard-faced. Powerful-looking, despite his white hair and beard. His eyes flicked her way, as though he sensed her interest, and she promptly turned her gaze. For reasons she couldn’t understand, he always made her nervous.

‘Come on.’ Zin took Xala’s hand.

Their family’s tent was in just as much disarray as the camp itself; their belongings strewn across the ground. She could hear Quip and Quess wailing inside, Grit yelling, sharp words from their mother. Then their father stepped outside. At the sight of them, relief swept over his face.

He grabbed Xala’s arm. ‘Help your mother. Pack up only that you need. We’re leaving.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘We’re making for the mountains.’ He locked eyes with Zin. ‘We move swiftly or die. The Paleskins are coming.’

 

4.

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