6.

Zin didn’t know what to expect when she caught up with the rest of the warriors: chaos, devastation, failure… What she didn’t expect was a silence so deep her ears rang. It was still too. The wind didn’t rustle through the branches. No animals crunched through the leaf litter or made their mating calls. A cricket chirped, but it was alone. It was as though the forest itself was taking a deep breath.

Waiting.

Zin had been travelling throughout the night as fast as bearably possible, only stopping once to fill her waterskin. She wasn’t tired. As a hunter, she was used to long, difficult journeys. But her mind had been torn, plagued by the thought she might not get to the battle in time and with fears for her mother. Zin tugged at her braid as she glanced into the canopy. It would be daylight shortly. Soon, her mother would wake to find her daughter gone.

The moon glinted through the trees. The shadows were long. She tried her best to stay undetected, but she felt eyes following her. It didn’t concern her too much. She doubted anyone but her father would care. If he discovered her, he might try and drag her back to the clan. Though even that was doubtful now. It was too late. The tension was so thick it filled her lungs like a fog and gripped at her throat. There was an uncomfortable prickling up her spine.

The Paleskins were near, and she’d best be ready.

She craned her head back to look up at one of the taller trees.

Swift and silent, she climbed, the branches hardly rustling as she achieved the heights.

She wasn’t the only one with the same idea. Several other figures sat high in the branches of the surrounding trees. The moonlight glinted against their hair and shoulders. Some stood, others sat, but all were turned to the scene ahead.

It was disappointing. Zin squinted but she was too far from the edge of the forest to see anything much at all, their enemy little more than a shadow in the distance. She glanced at the neighbouring warriors. Most were resting. A good idea. Zin sat, clutching her bow in her lap, trying her best not to think about the mess she’d left behind.

*

Xala noticed Zin’s absence first, and the moment she screamed for Grinda, Grinda knew.

Grinda stared at her eldest daughter’ empty spot. Xala didn’t have the sense to be fearful. Pacing around, kicking at the earth as she pouted.

‘I want to go too! I don’t want to be stuck here! It isn’t fair.’

Quess was crying. Grit was silent and pale. Quip was still asleep, thankfully, but wouldn’t be for long if Xala continued with her attitude. Others in the camp gave her sympathetic looks as they packed up their things, preparing for another long day.

She continued to stare at Zin’s empty spot, at a long brown hair glinting in the sunlight, at the rumples in her bedding. Grinda could see she had been tossing and turning. She had slept there, her daughter. Only hours before. Comfortable. Safe. Dreaming.

Her beautiful daughter.

And now she was gone. First Mock, now Zin. Almost a third of her family.

Xala kept whinging. ‘Amma, are you listening to me? I want to go too!’

Finally, Grinda had had enough. She snapped her head up. Her daughter stepped back but Grinda snatched at her chin before she had a chance to escape. Her daughter might tower over her, but she was still a child and Grinda was still her mother.

‘Now, you listen to me,’ Grinda hissed. ‘I don’t care what you feel or what you think. You’re going to stay and you’re going to do as I say. And if you fight with me or try anything foolish, I’ll tie you up and drag you behind the rest of us like a dog. Understood?’

Eyes so wide they seemed to swallow up her face, Xala nodded.

Grinda released her. Xala rubbed at her chin, looking at her feet as she struggled against her tears. Grinda felt a surge of guilt. Xala was just a child, after all—and scared.

Everything was changing. Nothing would be the same. Their future was uncertain. And now two of those she loved were gone.

‘I’m sorry,’ Grinda said.

A tear trickled down Xala’s cheek. ‘I’m frightened.’

Grinda pulled her into a fierce hug. ‘I know, biala.’ She squeezed her tight. ‘I know. But I need you, now more than ever. You need to be strong for your brothers and sister. And for me.’ She kissed her cheek. ‘All right?’

Xala wiped at her face. Grinda did the same.

By the time they were packed and ready to go, the sun had barely risen. Quip was happy in his sling. Quess and Grit were up ahead with Xala. Her older daughter had taken Grinda’s words to heart and was keeping them close, both their hands gripped tightly in hers.

Just as she was about to leave, Grinda looked over her shoulder towards where she knew Mock and Zin must be.

‘Find each other. Protect each other. Then come back to me.’ Her voice broke, and she pushed the tears back. ‘In two whole pieces, if you could.’

*

Surprise. As always, it was their greatest ally. But even surprise had its limits against a force as formidable as the Paleskins’. The Quarthi might have had the shadows and the trees, but their enemy had armour and power and sheer numbers.

Many would die today.

Mock’s brothers and sisters were spread thin. Most in the heights, some on the ground, depending whether their strength was the bow or the spear. The sun had begun to rise and the Paleskins were on the move, though the majority of their force still waited well beyond the tree line, like a dark shadow against the horizon.

But waiting for what?

The first sound of battle was the whizz of arrows. Cries, shouts and screams followed. Horses whinnied. The thud of hooves, the crack of a snapping branches, the shout of English commands.

Mock gripped his spear tightly in his fist.

*

Zin unleashed arrow after arrow, but her targets were hard to hit. Moving quickly, flashing between trees on their big horses and in their shining metal or hard leather. That metal! How she hated it. At every successful hit there were several more misses, denting harmlessly against them. It wasn’t fair. They were cheating. Cowards! They weren’t warriors at all.

It seemed only moments when she sent fly the last of her arrows. Her heart thudded in her throat. Her blood thrummed through her veins. Her stomach was twisted in a sickly knot. She stood frozen on her perch, at a loss.

She watched as the last of those in the trees made his way down. He vanished and now she was the only one left. She wiped away the sweat trickling down her neck. Men were screaming. Never in her life had she heard a man scream like that.

Grabbing the handle of her slashing blade, she slowed her breaths. Only cowards hid in the trees.

Her heart was beating in her ears as she descended into the chaos below. Her hands were so slippery with sweat, she almost fell several times. It was embarrassing.

Strong and brave. Strong and brave. Strong and brave.

I am my father’s daughter.

She made her final jump, hit the ground hard, tumbled, scrambled. She turned at the sound of thunder. A horse. A Paleskin. In her mind she had always thought them small and weak. Much like her mother. But they were nothing of the sort. He looked as big as a mountain, and his metal clothes seemed to catch fire in the sun.

A burning mountain.

What chance did she have?

He swung his sword hard and fast. His horse screamed and rolled its eyes. No time. Duck, dive, roll. She grunted as one of the horse’s hooves slammed into her hip. Fire burned up her side, into her head before exploding behind her left eye. Half-blind, she slashed out with her blade. The horse screamed and collapsed on its haunches, blood pissing out of its ankle, throwing its rider.

Zin didn’t hesitate.

Her legs seemed to move of their own accord. The bone of her blade glinted. The Paleskin’s eyes widened. A roar she had never thought herself capable of clawed up her throat. Her first slash clanged off the metal at his breast, but her second found its target.

Along with her third, fourth, sixth.

She spared only a moment to assess what she’d done. Blood. Lots of blood. On her breasts, down her arms, spreading darkly across the ground. A strange roaring filled her ears, muffling the noises around her to a distant buzz. Oddly enough, she felt numb. Empty. Except for the thrum of her blood in her veins, the pounding of her heart. She didn’t even feel pain.

The knot in her stomach loosened.

She could do this.

She lifted her head at a scream. One of her sisters was in trouble.

Not for long.

*

Croki cut swathes through the charging Paleskins. There was more blood in the sky than air. But Mock was better. Big he might be, but Croki had nothing on Mock’s skill. While Croki was like a thundering giant, Mock was like the wind.

And he couldn’t deny he missed it. The thrill of the fight. The feel of his muscles moving smoothly beneath his skin. He might be getting old: grey in his beard, instincts a little blunt. But he still had plenty of fire yet.

Slash. Chop. Smash. Teeth broke beneath his elbow. He couldn’t help but be reminded of his raiding days. Duck, leap, swipe. Blood sprayed as a white belly opened. Mock licked his lips at the taste of iron. Power flowed down his chest, through his limbs, into his balls, until he throbbed and burned.

Oh, but it felt good.

But that didn’t change the fact that they were losing. That they were always meant to lose, despite Kob’s encouraging words.

Clan Leader Kob. A decent man. A great leader. Beloved father. One of the first to die.

All those children he had left behind.

Quip. Xala. Quess. Grit. Zin … Grinda. All their faces and loving arms.

His senses slipped. He unbalanced. Somehow the blade slid from his grasp. His opponent charged. Mock fumbled with his sword.

*

Zin’s arms shook, her legs trembled, sweat coursed down her back, beneath her arms, between her breasts. When she spun, it flicked like rain from the ends of her hair. She hardly knew where she was or what she was doing. A Paleskin grin. Shining steel. Step back. Stumble. Twist. Slash. She had abandoned her bow long ago and now she was down to only the spear at her back and the two blades at her belt, the last still embedded deep in the neck of one of her enemy.

She was losing. They were all losing. How she managed to survive so far was a miracle. Every time she lifted her left arm it felt like she was lifting a tree branch. The wound in her shoulder was deep, and blood gushed like a waterfall every time she moved. Her whole left side was drenched with it. Her right leg kept bowing beneath her from an old kick to her kneecap. Pain everywhere. Blood everywhere. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t swallow and it made her heart thud so hard she thought it must explode through her chest. Her kinta stuck to her thighs. Her braid had come undone and sweaty strands stuck to her face. She panted and gasped, sucking at the air, but it did nothing to quench the fire in her chest.

A Paleskin charged. She leapt over a body. There were so many dead. So many of her own people. It didn’t make sense. The Quarthi were the Mother’s children. She was supposed to protect them. A sword came down and Zin ducked. She felt a sting as the blade whispered against the back of her neck. She turned with a scream, whipping out her boar blade as she did. Satisfaction burned through her chest as his cheek opened up. He staggered, clutching at himself. And Zin leapt on his back, stabbing and chopping until he fell to the ground, screaming.

Then she was running again, as much as she could run on her gummy leg. There were Quarthi up ahead. Alive. One of them had a sword.

The air caught in her throat. ‘Abba!’ she tried to scream, only to cough and splutter. It almost seemed to happen in slow motion. The two men met with an awful clang of their swords that somehow punched through the deafening clamour of the surrounding battle. The Paleskin seemed bigger than in her dream. Angrier. In my dream. And then she realised—she had seen this all before. Somehow. Someway.

Her father was angrier still. Furious. Feral. All hair and muscle and gritted teeth. And for a brief moment, Zin could see what the Paleskin must have seen and wondered how he possessed the courage to face him. The Paleskin sword smashed through her father’s. Her father discarded his broken blade and punched down so hard on his opponent’s arm that he dropped his sword. The Paleskin didn’t seem so big anymore, almost small, as her father threw him to the ground. Her father’s face twisted into an ugly snarl as he raised his boot with a roar.

Abba!’ she screamed.

This time he heard her. His eyes widened. He turned, hair flaring around him in a shower of sweat and blood—too late. But Zin’s spear was already soaring through the air. Desperate. Powerful. Her arm wrenched. She felt something in her shoulder tear. It went high but did the job, slamming into the second Paleskin’s head, knocking him off his feet and sending the eagle-carved encasing flying through the air.

Zin collapsed to her knees with a gasp. Someone shouted her name but it seemed oceans away. Her ears rang. She spat out a mouthful of blood. She couldn’t move. Both her arms useless. Her knee worse. She stared at the ground, pink drool hanging from her lips. Then suddenly she was in the air. Big slippery hands. Unbelievable strength. A flash of a familiar beard and dark eyes that filled her heart with warmth. Not such a monster now. Her father: kind and sweet and loving. She had never really told him, never really known until then, how much she loved him. The canopy arced and soon she was staring at the ground again, draped over his shoulder, watching as his boots churned through mud, horseshit and blood.

She would tell him now.

Abba …’ was all she managed, her tongue thick and useless in her mouth.

‘I’ve got you, Zin.’

*

‘I’ve got you.’

Mock didn’t have time to wonder what she was doing there, only to get her away. Something hard swelled in his throat. His chest tightened, making the air wheeze in his lungs. The look of her: covered in blood, kneeling over like that as though she were about to gasp her last breath. It would haunt his nightmares forever.

She was just a girl.

His little girl.

Fuck the battle. Fuck whether they won or lost. The only thing that mattered was Zin. She hung over him, lifeless. And he had never felt such fear. Not even during his darkest days in the cells of Fairmont. But he couldn’t check on her now. All he could do was run. The Paleskins were everywhere. He could hear Croki’s roar. Screaming from somewhere to his left. Another shout. A shrill neigh from a startled horse. He jumped over bodies, dodged and ducked, lashing out defensively with his blade as he did.

But he wasn’t quick enough. This was war and nobody cared about his desperation. A Paleskin to his left! He turned but his enemy slammed into him before he could make a strike. Mock struck the ground, his head smashing into something hard. Stars exploded behind his eyes.

Zin.

His nose filled with the stink of blood.

Then blackness.

*

The world seemed to ripple. Muffled voices. Fuzzy light and shadow. There was movement around her. Figures. Sometimes dark. Sometimes shining. What were they doing? Zin blinked. Where was she? It was daylight, so why was she lying on the ground? She looked up. The trees looked different. Everything looked different. She tried to turn her head, to ask Xala what was happening, when she stopped with a hiss. She closed her eyes. Pain. So much pain. It exploded in her neck, shoulders, ribs, then down through her arm and into her knees before whipping throughout the rest of her body until the tears gushed from her eyes. She would have screamed if her throat wasn’t so dry; instead, she coughed and retched, which unleashed another wave of agony.

She opened her eyes at a shout. The word was strange. It wasn’t Quarthi. It was English. She knew it! But it was so hard to remember anything. But why was he speaking English? A figure hovered over her. And slowly the light and shadow coalesced. She sucked in a breath.

A Paleskin. Short sweaty hair. A filthy metal plate hugging a broad chest. There was a streak of blood down the side of his face. Thick stubble. Two, glittering blue eyes.

She knew those eyes.

It all came back in a rush: leaving the campsite, the battle, her collapse, abba! Her eyes rolled in her head as she tried to look for her father, too painful to turn her neck. Where he had gone, she could only guess. She could only hope he was alive and some place better than she was.

Hot white fire burst along her shoulder as she reached for her belt of knives. Only one blade left. Her bird blade. Used for skinning small animals. Small and razor sharp. Perfect. They wouldn’t take her alive. The Paleskin shouted in alarm but the blade was already at her throat.

A swift slash. A sharp pain. A haze of red. The Paleskin knocked the blade out of her grip, but he was too late. He pressed down hard on her neck to staunch the bleeding. His eyes were wide, almost fearful. He shouted something again but it was muffled.
Abba, Amma, Xala …

She tried to remember them. Their faces. Their love.

Grit, Quess …

She spat out a mouthful of blood.
Quip …

Xala, Abba

The Paleskin pressed down harder until she gurgled.

Quess …

Amma, Abba

Darkness stretched over her eyes.

Quip, Grit, Quess …

Forgive me.

 

7.

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