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Darkness was a beautiful thing. The kiss of a shadow. A caress as soft as moonlight. It had always been my refuge, my place of escape, whether I was sneaking onto a rooftop lit only by the stars or down a midnight alley to be with my brothers. Darkness was my ally. It made me forget the world I was in and invited me to dream of another.
I sank deeper, searching for its comfort. Sweet murmurs stirred me. Only a sliver of golden moon shone in the liquid dark, floating, rocking, always moving, always out of my reach. Its shifting light illuminated a meadow. My spirits lifted. I saw Walther dancing with Greta. Just beyond them, Aster twirled to music I couldn’t quite hear, and her long hair flowed past her shoulders. Was it the Festival of Deliverance already? Aster called out to me, Don’t tarry now, Miz. Deep colors swirled; a sprinkling of stars turned purple; the edges of the moon dissolved like wet sugar into black sky; the darkness deepened. Warm. Welcoming. Soft.
Except for the jostle.
The rhythmic shake came again and again. Demanding.
The voice that wouldn’t let go. Cold and bright and sharp.
A broad hard chest, frosty breaths when my eyes rolled open, a voice that kept pulling the blanket away, pain bearing down, so numbing I couldn’t breathe. The terrible brightness flashing, stabbing, and finally ebbing when I could take no more.
Darkness again. Inviting me to stay. No breaths. No anything.
When I was halfway between one world and another, a moment of clarity broke through.
This is what it was to die.
* * *
The comfort of darkness was stripped away again. The gentle warmth turned unbearably hot. More voices came. Harsh. Shouts. Deep. Too many voices.
The Sanctum. I was back in the Sanctum. Soldiers, governors … the Komizar.
My skin was on fire, burning, stinging, wet with heat.
Lia, open your eyes. Now.
They had found me.
My eyes flew open. The room spun with fire and shadows, flesh and faces. Surrounded. I tried to pull back, but searing pain wrenched my breath away. My vision fluttered.
“Lia, don’t move.”
And then a flurry of voices. She’s come to. Hold her down. Don’t let her get up.
I forced a shallow breath into my lungs, and my eyes focused. I surveyed the faces staring down at me. Governor Obraun and his guard. It wasn’t a dream. They had captured me. And then a hand gently turned my head.
He knelt by my side.
I looked back at the others, remembering. Governor Obraun and his guard had fought on our side. They helped us escape. Why? Beside them were Jeb and Tavish.
“Governor,” I whispered, too weak to say more.
“Sven, Your Highness,” he said, dropping to one knee. “Please call me Sven.”
The name was familiar. I’d heard it in frantic blurred moments. Rafe had called him Sven. I looked around, trying to get my bearings. I lay on the ground on a bedroll. Piles of heavy blankets that smelled of horses were on top of me. Saddle blankets.
I tried to rise up on one arm, and pain tore through me again. I fell back, the room spinning.
We have to get the barbs out.
She’s too weak.
She’s burning with fever. She’s only going to get weaker.
The wounds have to be cleaned and stitched.
I’ve never stitched a girl before.
Flesh is flesh.
I listened to them argue, and then I remembered. Malich had shot me. An arrow in my thigh, and one in my back. The last I remembered I was on a riverbank and Rafe was scooping me into his arms, his lips cool against mine. How long ago was that? Where were we now?
She’s strong enough. Do it, Tavish.
Rafe cupped my face and leaned close. “Lia, the barbs are deep. We’ll have to cut the wounds to get them out.”
His eyes glistened. “You can’t move. I’ll have to hold you down.”
“It’s all right,” I whispered. “I’m strong. Like you said.” I heard the weakness of my voice contradicting my words.
Sven winced. “I wish I had some red-eye for you, girl.” He handed Rafe something. “Put this in her mouth to bite down on.” I knew what it was for—so I wouldn’t scream. Was the enemy near?
Rafe put a leather sheath in my mouth. Cool air streamed onto my bare leg as Tavish folded back the blanket to expose my thigh, and I realized that I had little on beneath the blankets. A chemise, if that. They must have removed my sodden dress.
Tavish mumbled an apology to me but wasted no time. Rafe pinned down my arms, and someone else pressed down on my legs. The knife cut into my thigh. My chest shuddered. Moans escaped through my clenched teeth. My body recoiled against my will, and Rafe pressed harder. “Look at me, Lia. Keep your eyes on me. It’ll be over soon.”
I locked onto his eyes, the blue blazing. His gaze held me like fire. Sweat dripped down his brow. The knife probed, and I lost focus. Gurgled noises jumped from my throat.
Look at me, Lia.
“Got it!” Tavish finally shouted.
My breath came in gulps. Jeb wiped my face with a cool cloth.
Good job, Princess, from whom I didn’t know.
The stitching was easy compared to the cutting and probing. I counted each time the needle went in. Fourteen times.
“Now for the back,” Tavish said. “That one will be a little harder.”
* * *
I woke to Rafe sleeping beside me. His arm rested heavily across my stomach. I couldn’t remember much about Tavish working on my back except him telling me the arrow was embedded in my rib and that probably saved my life. I had felt the cut, the probe, and then pain so bright I couldn’t see anymore. Finally, as if from a hundred miles away, Rafe had whispered in my ear, It’s out.
A small fire burned in a ring of rocks not far from me. It illuminated one nearby wall, but the rest of our shelter remained in shadows. It was a large cave of some sort. I heard the whicker of horses. They were in here with us. On the other side of the fire ring I saw Jeb, Tavish, and Orrin asleep on their bedrolls, and just to my left, sitting back against the cave wall, Governor Obraun—Sven.
It hit me fully for the first time. These were Rafe’s four men, the four I’d had no confidence in—governor, guard, patty clapper, and raft builder. I didn’t know where we were, but against all odds they had somehow gotten us across the river. All of us alive. Except for—
My head ached, trying to sort it all out. Our freedom came at a high cost to others. Who had died and who had survived the bloodbath?
I tried to ease Rafe’s arm from my stomach so I could sit up, but even that small movement sent blinding jolts through my back. Sven sat upright, alerted by my movement and whispered, “Don’t try to get up, Your Highness. It’s too soon.”
I nodded, measuring my breaths until the pain receded.
“Your rib is most likely cracked by the impact of the arrow. You may have cracked more bones in the river. Rest.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“A little hideaway I tucked into many years ago. I was thankful I could still find it.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Two days. It’s a miracle you’re alive.”
I remembered sinking in the river. Thrashing, then being spit up, a quick gust of air filling my lungs and then being pulled under again. And again. My hands clutched at boulders, logs, everything slipping from my grasp, and then there was the fuzzy recollection of Rafe leaning over me. I turned my head toward Sven. “Rafe found me on the bank.”
“He carried you for twelve miles before we found him. This is the first sleep he’s had.”
I looked at Rafe, his face gaunt and bruised. He had a gash over his left brow. The river had taken its toll on him too. Sven explained how he, Jeb, Orrin, and Tavish had maneuvered the raft to the planned destination. They’d left their own horses and a half dozen Vendan ones they had taken in battle in a makeshift paddock, but many had escaped. They rounded up what they could, gathered the supplies and saddles they had stashed in nearby ruins, and began backtracking, searching the banks and forest for us. They finally spotted some tracks and followed them. Once they found us, they rode through the night to this shelter.
“If you were able to find our tracks, then—”
“Not to worry, Your Highness. Listen.” He cocked his head to the side.
A heavy whine vibrated through the cavern.
“A blizzard,” he said. “There will be no tracks to follow.”
Whether the storm was a blessing or hindrance, I wasn’t sure—it would prevent us from traveling too. I remembered my aunt Bernette telling me and my brothers about the great white storms of her homeland that blocked out sky and earth and left snow piled so high that she and her sisters could venture outside only from the second floor of their fortress. Dogs with webbed feet had pulled their sleds across the snow.
“But they will try to follow,” I said. “Eventually.”
I had killed the Komizar. Griz had lifted my hand to the clans who were the backbone of Venda. He had declared me queen and Komizar in a single breath. The clans had cheered. Only producing my dead body would prove a successor’s claim to rule. I imagined that successor to be Malich. I tried not to think about what had happened to Kaden. I couldn’t allow my mind to drift there, but still, his face loomed before me, and his last expression of hurt and betrayal. Had Malich struck him down? Or one of his other countrymen? He had fought against them for me. Ultimately, he chose me over the Komizar. Was it the sight of a child’s body in the snow that had finally pushed him over the edge? It was what had pushed me.
I had killed the Komizar. It had been easy. I’d had no hesitation, no remorse. Would my mother think of me as little more than an animal? I’d felt nothing as I plunged the knife into him. Nothing when I plunged it in again, except for the slight tug of flesh and gut. Nothing when I killed three more Vendans after that. Or was it five? Their shocked faces blended together in a distant rush.
But none of it had come soon enough to save Aster.
Now it was her face that loomed, an image I couldn’t bear.
Sven held a cup of broth to my lips, claiming I needed nutrition, but I already felt darkness closing in again, and I gratefully let it overtake me.
Copyright © 2016 by Mary E. Pearson
Map copyright © 2016 by Keith Thompson