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.
Zin had travelled throughout the night as fast as bearably possible, only stopping once to fill her water skin. 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’s 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 the long brown hair glinting in the sunlight and the rumples in her bedding. Grinda could see she’d 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 their 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 only young—and scared. Everything was changing. Nothing would be the same. Their future was uncertain. And now two of those they 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. ‘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 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 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. Branches snapped. Men shouted.
Mock gripped his spear tightly.