Zin woke to a dark dawn, a grey gloom filtering through the canopy. It was still much too early but there was no way she was going back to sleep. Two days they had been travelling towards the mountains where they planned take refuge in its labyrinth of caves. Through the canopy she glimpsed their snow-tipped peaks glinting against the sky. The thought made her hands sweat. Darkness, thick heavy air, suffocating spaces. Only the most experienced hunters would be allowed to hunt and forage in the surrounding trees. She couldn’t think of anything worse.
A stone cage.
They had been moving at a steady plod. Two days! And they had seemingly made no progress. The mountains appeared just as far away, and always she felt that pinch at the back of her neck. That knowing that the Paleskins were dead on their heels. As a hunter it was agony. Zin was unused to so much burden: bulky supplies, recalcitrant rams and children, the crippled and the old. She could see the frustration in the other hunters’ faces, hear the strain in their voices as they called for their loved ones to hurry.
We move swiftly or die.
But they weren’t moving swiftly at all.
Slowly she sat up, clutching her head with a hiss. There was a pounding behind her eyes, and she knew it was from her strange dream. She had been an eagle flying high in the sky, and below were the Paleskins. An enormous host of them, so large they seemed to sprawl into the horizon. A tide of shining metal. To her eagle eyes, they almost looked like the scales of a fish. It had seemed so real she could still feel the rush of wind through her feathers, the heat of the sun against her back, the thrill of her dizzying height.
Now there was only her headache and that stomach-churning guilt that had only grown stronger since the moment she had heard of the impending attack. Heart hammering, feeling sick, she staggered to her feet. She needed to get away.
Most of the camp was still asleep, except for the occasional woman suckling a baby or old man who liked to rise early. They stared as she passed. Zin tried to ignore them but it only made her heart beat harder. Carefully, she stepped around the sleeping bodies, heading to the edge of camp.
She sat at the top of an incline, the great forest spread out below in a field of leaves and branches which rippled like water in the breeze. In the distance she could see the ocean glinting against the horizon. It would be another cloudless day. Another hot day. She should be grateful. It would make for an easy journey. But it was hard to feel anything, hard to think anything, except dark thoughts.
She turned with a start. ‘Amma. Did I wake you?’
‘No, sweet. I was already up.’
Zin shuffled over as her mother sat beside her. Her arms were empty—no Quip. She hadn’t braided her hair and it hung in a golden waterfall down her shoulders. She looked tired. They were quiet as they watched the sun rise.
‘There’s nothing wrong with being scared,’ her mother said finally.
‘I’m not scared. I mean, I am, but—’
Her mother was silent. Zin kept looking away. ‘It’s not your fault.’
Zin dug her fingers into her knees. ‘I know.’
‘Has someone in the clan said something to you?’
Zin shook her head, then took a breath. ‘No, but they look at me.’ Zin tried to control herself but the tears blurred her eyes. ‘How do you stand it, amma?’ she said suddenly. ‘We are one of them. We are the enemy. All of us. Don’t you feel—?’ She took a shuddering breath, then turned her face away as a tear trickled down her cheek.
Few in the clan truly accepted their family. They were tolerated enough but rarely accepted. Zin tried not to let it get to her but it stung every day. Her father’s parents had died before Zin was born, so she had never got a chance to know what they thought. But Zin had an aunt who didn’t want anything to do with them, along with her three children—Zin’s cousins. Her aunt only associated with her brother if she had to. And never with his Paleskin partner. Even less with his half-Paleskin offspring. Zin didn’t even know her name.
With things as they stood, it was only bound to get worse.
Her mother laid a small warm hand against Zin’s thigh. ‘I am what I am. I bear no guilt for that. I am Toth and I am Quarthi. And hate me if you want, but I’m proud to be both. The world is more complicated—’
‘Proud to be both?’ Zin’s voice rang sharp across the forest. She glared at her mother, at her dirty white skin, at her filthy golden hair. Zin always kept her hair tied up in a tight braid. It was dark like the rest of the Quarthi, like her father’s, but here and there when caught in the wrong light, one could see the streaks of gold. It made her sick. ‘How can you say that, when you know what’s going to happen?’
‘You need to stop hating yourself.’
The tears were coming thick and fast now. She swiped them away furiously. Impossible. She was asking the impossible. Why couldn’t she be normal? Why couldn’t she be like the rest of the Quarthi? She gazed down at her legs, at her arms. She wasn’t pale like her mother but she still missed out on that deep bronze that shone almost red against the firelight, that only deepened into something more beautiful in the heat of the day. It was a strong colour. A colour to be proud of. The colour of the Quarthi. Instead, she was a sickly burnt yellow and she burned in the sun like her mother. She clenched her fists until the white stuck out on her knuckles.
‘Zin—’ Her mother laid her hand on hers. ‘You’re beauti—’
Zin scrambled to her feet. ‘I have to go.’
Grinda sighed. She watched the sun rise for a little while more before returning to camp. Most of the camp had risen, already preparing for another long day. Zin was nowhere to be seen. But Mock was awake.
She paused, unwilling to disturb the moment. He was sitting with Quip in his arms, who was gazing up at him with his big dark eyes—Mock’s eyes—his hand wound tight in his father’s beard. Mock was talking with him quietly, his biceps bulging around him. His long hair trailed down his broad back in a dark curtain. She couldn’t hear what Mock was saying to him and didn’t need to. She could see the sweetness of his words in the crook of his smile, in the way he so tightly, yet so gently, held his youngest against his chest. Something expanded in her heart, rose up, then tightened in her throat.
She had never forgotten the fear she felt when they tried to conceive after Zin’s birth, only to fail time and time again. For years she thought the damage her people had done to Mock had made him sterile, even despite the Mother’s healing. Then Xala came along, like a little miracle. Then Grit, then Quess and Quip. And, the Mother willing, more. So much heartache and happiness. And so much more of both to come, she had little doubt.
She laid a hand on her lover’s shoulder.
He looked up at her. ‘‘morning, biala. You’re up early.’
She nodded and sat beside him. Reaching out, she smoothed her fingers through Quip’s thick curly locks. The only one in her family to have curly hair. Like her brothers once had. A trait of the Toths—or the Paleskins—as the Quarthi preferred to call her people. Quip looked up at her, smiled his fat cheeks, then turned back to his father, his little fist still entwined fast in his beard.
‘Did he wake you?’ she asked.
‘No, I was already awake.’
For some reason they were whispering, though the camp was noisy. She smiled at Mock and he smiled back. He leant over and kissed her. She sighed against his lips.
He pursed his lips. ‘I’m sorry.’
There was so much in that crooked smile of his. So much happiness and heartache. His and Zin’s relationship had always been tumultuous. Unsurprising. Mock did his best but Zin could never forget that she wasn’t truly his.
She kissed Mock again. It felt like her heart was sitting in her mouth. Her tongue tingled. Her mouth watered. Her lips burned. She pressed her nose to his, sucking in the scent of his face, his cheeks, his very pores. How did she come to be so lucky? Mock wasn’t like the other Quarthi. He didn’t care about the pallor of her skin nor the fact that her people had almost annihilated his—and still might. Somehow, even after all he had suffered, he saw beyond it.
‘I see you with my heart, biala. I care nothing about the rest,’ he liked to tell her.
Why couldn’t Zin be as lucky as she? At sixteen she should have already found someone to love, maybe even be big with child. She should be at least living on her own. It made
Grinda worry about the rest of her children.
It seemed she expected too much of Mock’s people.
‘What are we going to do with her?’ she asked him.
‘She has to find her own way.’
She lowered her eyes to their son, who looked up at her, gurgling happily. She pressed a finger into his fat little hand. He clenched it tight. How could such a small thing make her heart swell so big?
Zin would find happiness. One way or another.
Grinda had hope.
A large shadow spilled over them. ‘Sorry to disturb ye.’ Mock and Grinda both looked up. So did Quip, his eyes wide as he gazed up at his giant uncle. ‘But Clan Leader Kob and the shamri are askin’ for ye. They’re askin’ for all the warriors.’
Mock nodded, then turned to Grinda, his mouth twisted up.
‘Go,’ Grinda told him.
He handed over Quip, then grabbed the back of her neck and kissed her. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He dragged his finger down his son’s nose, then left.
‘Sorry,’ Croki grumbled as they walked away.
Mock waved it aside. ‘What do they want?’
‘I don’ know but it looks serious.’
Hundreds of men and women were already gathered. A buzzing filled the clearing as they muttered to each other, all looking hard and grim. At the centre stood Clan Leader Kob and three of the shamri. They were talking as they waited. Mock studied them a moment before turning to his friend.
‘How goes Seera?’ Mock asked.
Croki’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. ‘She carries the babe well, considerin’.’ Despite everything, he laughed and it boomed around the clearing. Mock smiled. Croki was the biggest of the Quarthi, towering over the rest of his brothers and sisters. Close to seven feet, he had legs wider than a girl’s waist and was so powerful he could knock over a tree (at least according to Grinda). And so far, all his children had taken after him. Seera was a sturdy woman but even she had limits.
Croki rubbed at the shine in his eye. A proud father, just like Mock.
Clan Leader Kob raised his hands.
‘We’ll make this quick,’ Grand Shamri Thall announced. He looked tired and Mock had never seen him look so old. The other two shamri, Flip and Shuk, watched on, looking as grim as the rest of them. ‘Despite our best efforts we are not moving fast enough. According to the Mother, we will not reach the caves in time.’ Surprise, shock, fury. Mock felt it rush through the crowd in a wave. Men and women shouted. Others muttered furiously.
‘I have three girls!’
‘My woman is about to give birth!’
‘Quiet!’ another yelled. ‘What must we do?’
‘We fight.’ Kob’s voice cut through their fear like a blade. Quiet fell again. He stalked in a circle, looking hard at them all, the muscles of his shoulders bunched up around his neck. He gripped a bone knife at his belt until the veins stuck out. He had a family too. ‘We fight and we win. There is a chance if we meet the enemy head on. Delay their progress. And we will delay it. Delay them so much, we’ll destroy them. This is our land, our families, our lives. They will not have it. We will not be enslaved. We will not be destroyed. No matter what they throw at us, the Quarthi will live on!’ Around him, his brothers and sisters roared. Kob’s face was flushed and he was shaking. Mock felt a crackle of energy rush up his spine. He could feel it buzzing through the crowd. The mark of a good leader.
Grand Shamri Thall raised his hands again. ‘Clan Leader Kob speaks the truth. The Mother tells us that victory can be ours if we are brave and strong. We must hasten. Kiss your lovers, hug your children, arm yourselves. No delay. We move now.’
‘Come, Mock,’ Croki slapped Mock on the back as the rest of the hunters began to leave the clearing, ‘Kob wants us.’
Of course he does. Mock glanced over his shoulder towards where he knew Grinda was waiting but followed his brother to their expectant clan leader.
Clan Leader Kob was older than Mock but not by much, grey in his beard, lines around his eyes. But he was wise, and skilled in the ways of the warrior. He liked to keep his hair tied up in a knot at the top of his head. He knotted his beard too. A leather strip encircled his forehead and was tied at the back in a tail, distinguishing him as clan leader. Years back, the shamri had approached Mock to take on the title after the last clan leader grew too old. It had been just after Quess’s birth. He had refused. The title entailed too much responsibility and his family was his life. He had never regretted the decision.
Never more so now.
‘Mock, Croki,’ Kob grabbed each of their forearms in a warrior’s grip. ‘You know why I’ve asked for you.’
‘We’ll do whatever you need,’ Croki said.
Mock grunted in agreement.
‘Good. You know the Paleskins better than anyone. Help me plan. Help me lead. Our people depend on it.’ He fingered the handle of his slashing knife, the bone blade sharp enough to eviscerate even the toughest prey—bull or boar or ram—with one skilful slash. His dark eyes grew sad, then suddenly hardened. ‘This might be our last stand. Let’s make it a good one.’
‘What do you need to know?’ Mock said.
After Kob was done with them, Mock was returning back to camp when shamri Shuk suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Mock was a great hunter, able to sense everything around him, but the shamri always had one up on him. ‘Before you go, Mock, Thall wants a word with you.’
Croki glanced at them both suspiciously. Mock nodded for him to go, then sighed as he turned back to Shuk. ‘This better be quick.’
Thall was waiting for him alone. When Mock turned to look at Shuk beside him, he had already vanished.
‘Well met, Mock,’ the old shamri said.
Mock folded his arms, keeping his distance. The shamri were people of power. Able to mind speak, talk with animals, heal the sick and make predictions, amongst a host of other abilities Mock didn’t care to know about. The average Quarthi feared and respected them, and to meet the greatest of them all was a privilege only known by a few.
Mock was different. He and the shamri didn’t have a good history. Powerful and magical they might be, but their predictions had led to Danna’s and his first unborn child’s deaths. He had never forgotten and would never forget. Even now, he had his doubts. Why hadn’t they predicted the advance of the Paleskins earlier?
‘The Mother has a plan for us, Mock,’ Thall said. ‘She shows us only what she wants to. The shamri have no control over it.’
Mock bristled. Get out of my mind.
Thall sat on a log and looked up at him. Again, that fatigue, that weakness. It was as though he had aged fifty years. Like most of the Quarthi, man or woman, he left his chest bare and Mock could see how his muscles sagged, the knotted, ropey veins that corded his forearms and spread across his broad chest like jagged lightning. Even the most powerful of the shamri, the only shamri rumoured to see the world beyond the ether, had little power against the ravages of time.
Thall gave a crooked smile. ‘You’re getting old too, Mock.’
‘You know why I brought you here.’
‘Be quick about it. I need to say goodbye to my family.’
The old man nodded. ‘I have fears for her. Her powers are bound only when the wark still stands. But the Paleskins will raze this forest, warks and all. And when that happens, not only will she come into her power but her darkness too.’
‘And what do you want me to do about it? Kill her?’
Thall’s face twisted. ‘An ugly thing to say, even for you Mock. No. I only mean to warn you. For you to keep an eye on her. To be there for her when the time comes. You know as well as I that she’s almost grown into the woman of our visions. Her time is close.’
‘Her time is close? But I thought the whole point of the binding was to protect us—and her. To halt her darkness.’
Mock stiffened. ‘Was it a mistake? Did you make a mistake? If she is as powerful as you think she is, could she have not saved us from the march of the Paleskins?’ Did I make a mistake? Mock had never forgotten that night, how he so readily handed over his daughter. Mock had seen that blackness in her eyes down beyond the ether, and the shamri had been confident what needed to be done. But the guilt, the uncertainty, had never left him.
And now this.
Clearly, he never learned.
‘There are no mistakes. It’s all part of the Mother’s plan.’
Mock growled. ‘That is no answer. Besides,’ he curled his fingers through his beard, ‘how can I help her? Am I not to die? Are we warriors not all meant to die? What do you see, old man? Do the Quarthi have any chance at all?’
Thall’s eyes glittered. ‘I am certain of it. We are the Mother’s children. We are meant to live.’ Mock shook his head in disbelief. ‘And Mock, it is vital you know—’ His voice cracked.
Mock looked at him sharply. The shamri’s knuckles turned white as he clenched his hands together.
Thall licked his lips. ‘The morgrar—it is coming. We have foreseen it. And you are wrapped up in it. You and your daughter. Protect her. Support her.’
‘You see wrong, Thall. That’s your job. What am I against the morgrar? I have no power.’
‘You have more than you think.’ He lowered his eyes to his lap and flexed his fingers.
‘And, as for me, I had hoped to help, but the Mother tells me that that is not in my future.’
He raised his eyes again and Mock saw what he meant. Mock grunted. ‘You ask the impossible, but I’ll do what I can.’
Thall frowned. ‘I know your mind, Mock. But what you believe or don’t believe matters not. You will be thrust into its path whether you like it or not. The morgrar is coming and you’d best be ready.’
Zin sat with her chin in her hand as she gazed into the depths of the great river. The water was so clear, she could see the schools of tiny fish nibbling at the algae-covered rocks down at the bottom. She sighed as she threw a rock. It plonked and the water rippled, distorting her reflection.
Better. Anything was better than the truth.
She tugged at her braid, then threw it behind her in disgust. She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there for but it was long enough that the tears had dried on her cheeks and the fury burning in her heart had reduced to a simmer. The water cleared again, and her dark eyes gazed back at her.
Her father’s eyes. Her ‘blood’ father’s eyes, her mother had once said when she thought Zin couldn’t hear.
Who would she prefer taking after? Her mother, the Paleskin? Or her father, the rapist? She knew what the other Quarthi whispered about her. She couldn’t blame them. Who wouldn’t be disgusted?
Her parents spoke often about how they met and fell in love. Her father, the raiding barbarian; her mother, a village girl—two such different people. All the good things, but rarely any of the bad. And there had been so much bad. Including the fact that her ‘blood’ father had raped her mother and tried to murder her father. Growing up, Zin knew the man who raised her wasn’t her ‘true’ father but it wasn’t until she had overheard her parents talking about it that she learnt the terrible details. She had never forgotten the confrontation soon after. Her skin prickled. How much more weren’t they telling her?
She threw another rock.
She stood and wiped down her hands, then began making her way back.
It was noisy upon her return. More than just the usual morning pack-up. Men bore dark expressions. The women were pale. Children were crying. Across the camp, she spotted her father. Quess had her arms wrapped around his neck, red-faced and screaming.
Zin’s heart flipped. She hurried over. ‘What’s going on?’
Both her parents turned. Her father was stone-faced. Her mother was close to tears.
Quess was the one who answered. ‘Abba is leaving!’
Quip wailed in her mother’s arms. Xala stood to the side with her head bowed, looking angry. Grit’s face was streaked with tears.
‘Abba is going to fight,’ Xala said.
Xala’s jaw trembled, but she held her tears back as she looked up at Zin. ‘He’s going to die like the rest of them.’
Quess screamed louder.
Their mother went white. ‘Xala, that’s not going to happen!’
Xala turned on her. ‘How do you know that, amma! How do you know that!’
‘It has to be done,’ Mock said.
He said it quietly, and yet they all silenced as though he had shouted it. Even Quess. Zin wished he had shouted. She would have known how to react. As it was, all she could do was stand frozen to the spot. The cacophony of the rest of the camp reduced to a buzz. It seemed to grow dark and cold around her. She watched numbly as he tried to lower Quess to the ground, only for Quess to tighten her grip, burying her face into his neck as she screamed again.
‘Quess. Quess. My daughter,’ he said softly. Quess lifted her tear-stained face. ‘I need to say goodbye to your sister.’
‘No, abba. I won’t let go.’
‘You will.’ His eyes flashed. ‘You are of my blood. And those of my blood are always strong and brave. Aren’t they?’
Quess stared at him a moment, then nodded. This time when he lowered her to the ground, she let go, turning away to press her face into their mother’s hip.
‘And what of those who aren’t of your blood?’ Zin said. She didn’t know what made her say it. She knew what he said wasn’t an attack on her. But the anger of that morning made her stomach twist.
Her father straightened. ‘Same applies. You might not be of my blood but you’re just as much my daughter. Strong and brave.’
Zin folded her arms as she glanced around the camp. All the warriors were strapping on their weapons and saying their goodbyes. Their partners and children were weeping. It made her feel sick. Zin was no child and she was one of the Quarthi’s finest hunters. She didn’t belong with the rest of the camp. ‘Then let me come.’
‘No!’ her mother cried. Mock!’ She grabbed his arm.
‘You say I’m brave and strong, then I should fight too.’
Mock stared at her. For a moment, Zin thought he was seriously considering it. Then he looked down at her mother and his face hardened. ‘No.’
Zin lifted her chin. ‘I am a woman now. I can make my own decisions. I’m coming.’
‘You’re not a woman grown until you’ve born a child, or at least known a man and have lived on your own.’
Zin raised an eyebrow. ‘You say I need to have fucked to be worthy to fight?’ Quess gasped. Her father stiffened. Zin swallowed, instantly regretting it. ‘Please, abba. I want to defend my people and my family just as much as you.’
‘If she goes, I want to go too,’ Xala interrupted.
‘No!’ both Zin and her father said.
Xala pursed her lips.
‘Now you see what I mean?’ he told Zin. ‘How I feel? Sending you into battle is little different to sending in Xala. You have no idea what these people—’ he spat—‘will do to you if they catch you. And I will not allow any child of mine to be their prey.’
‘But I am not your child.’ A weak retort and Zin knew it.
Mock tightened his mouth. ‘You will stay, and I’m not going to hear any further word about it.’ Xala tried to speak but snapped her mouth shut at their father’s glare. When he turned back to Zin, his face softened. His shoulders slumped. ‘Won’t you say goodbye?’
Zin didn’t move, arms still folded, looking away, but didn’t resist when he pulled her into him. For a moment she felt as hard as stone, then something sagged inside her and she slumped against him. ‘I will always love you, my daughter.’ He kissed her on the cheek.
Zin watched him go, watched all the warriors leave, one by one, still touching her cheek long after the last of them had disappeared through the trees.