Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
I pressed my hands even harder over my mouth, willing myself not to make a noise. Whoever it was in the clearing was crying now, calling out in fright. I could do nothing but stare helplessly as a Lharmellin shot into the clearing. In the light from its eyes I saw a boy crouched in the dirt. He shielded himself from the glow with his arm and sobbed. The Lharmellin threw back its head and clicked again, and, so fast that they were a blur, eight more materialised and surrounded the boy. They didn’t appear to walk, but slid over the ground, their dark hooded cloaks trailing over the dirt.
I saw them reach for the cowering figure with long, thin fingers, and I buried my face in my knees, shaking with silent tears. The boy screamed once more, frantic and high pitched, and then was silent.
The only noise was a faint, appreciative clicking as the Lharmellins fed.
I still had my face buried in my skirt when I heard a loud, questioning click at my elbow. I looked up and saw a Lharmellin a few feet away, staring at me, its head cocked to one side. This close I could see its needle-like teeth stained red, the skeleton grin on its features. Its eyes were glowing white-blue and I felt myself bathed in their unnatural light. The thing was very tall and thin, only its twisted grey hands and face visible beneath its cloak. Up close I could see it didn’t possess feet, but a thick tail, like a worm.
I scrambled to my feet and backed away.
The Lharmellin raised its chin and clicked again, louder this time. Its companions, who were dozens of feet away, seemed to materialise by its side instantly. They were all looking right at me, their eyes glowing eerily. They began their crooning song.
My stomach balled into a fist of dread.
But I found that I couldn’t move. My feet were glued to the spot.
Ever so slowly they began to drift towards me, slithering over the ground, fingers outstretched. With their tails, and their heads cocked to one side, they looked vaguely reptilian, like curious snakes wondering whether to strike.
I opened my mouth to scream but the sound was frozen in my throat.
wished fervently that I had died of exposure, because facing the Lharmellins now I saw it would be a far, far better way to go.
There was a flash of gold overhead. Then, in quick succession, three Lharmellins were struck by arrows. They threw back their heads and let out shrieks like an accordion being stepped on, before their bodies collapsed inside their cloaks and they fell into smoking piles.
The other six stopped singing and I found I could move again. I turned and ran. My foot caught on a tree root and I went flying, landing on my forearms in the dirt. Stinging pain shot through my arms.
‘Get up! You’ll be burned,’ a voice snapped.
,’ I said through gritted teeth. I struggled up. I hated being told what to do when I was already doing it. It made me furious. Especially when it was him. Because, of course, it was Rodden. He notched up an arrow and fired again, and an answering shriek told me he had hit his mark. The remaining Lharmellins fled, disappearing into the trees. Rodden lowered his bow and looked at me.
What a sight I must have looked, huddled and shivering inside the torn dress, rags on my feet. ‘You took your time,’ I said, though I hadn’t really been expecting to be rescued.
Rodden reached into his pack and pulled out a black cloak, similar to the one he was wearing. In fact it was very similar to the ones the Lharmellins had been wearing. As he wrapped it around me I heard a trill and felt something brush against my legs.
‘Leap!’ I bent down to scoop him up. ‘He’s not in pain?’ I asked, checking his paws.
‘No, this place is only poisonous to humans. Come on, we have to get moving. They’ll be back ten-fold.’
I remembered the flash of gold I’d seen just before the arrows had been fired, and looked around for Griffin.
‘She’ll follow us. There’s a cave not far off.’
Among a copse of smaller trees was an entrance to a cave. It didn’t look like much from the outside, and wasn’t large enough to stand up in, but as we moved further in I saw that it was quite deep. We made a turn, and then another. Rodden stopped and pulled something out of his pack, and an orange glow filled the cave. It was the same coloured glow that I had seen coming from his turret room.
I was about to slump to the ground until I remembered the poisonous dirt. But the floor was rock, and I gratefully slid down, my back against the hard wall.
‘Water,’ I muttered.
Rodden handed me a flask. ‘Just tiny sips,’ he said.
As I drank, doing my best not to gulp the water down, I watched Rodden unpacking. He pulled out trousers, a shirt and a pair of boots and stacked them next to me. I looked at the boots with relief. I wouldn’t have to trudge all the way back to Pergamia in the remains of my ball shoes.
Finally I could manage to speak. ‘They were Lharmellins?’ I asked.
Rodden nodded. ‘That was them. Endearing creatures, aren’t they?’
‘They were hunting. They’re so
. They killed a boy in the clearing. I think they were about to kill me.’
He shook his head. ‘They killed the boy, but they were greeting you. Must have figured you got lost on your way to the tors.’
I was about to ask him about the tors when he pulled something out of his pack that gladdened my heart even more than the boots: my bow. He proceeded to string it and laid it down next to me. I caressed the smooth, shiny wood. Then Rodden pulled out a quiver of arrows but didn’t give them to me until he’d also found a pair of gloves that matched the pair he was wearing. He gave me a stern look. ‘Never, ever, touch these arrows without these gloves on your hands. They’re poisonous to those with Lharmellin blood.’
I frowned. A minute ago he’d said Lharmell was only poisonous to humans. So what was I, human or harming? I put on the gloves. They were very long, reaching all the way up past my elbows.
‘Get changed.’ He nodded to the stack of clothing next to me and ducked out of sight around the corner.
After a minute of struggling I had to call him back.
‘I can’t get it off.’
‘Yes, and the corset.’ I turned my back to him, though I hated to ask him for help.
As he picked at the fastenings he muttered, ‘That’s right, I forgot you have servants to do this.’
‘So would you if you had to go around in this ridiculous get-up all the time.’
Rodden pulled out a knife and cut everything off me. I let out a sigh of relief as the corset loosened. He went away again and I slipped out of the remains of the dress and foot-bindings and put on the shirt and trousers. I marvelled at the clothes. What an odd sensation! I spun around. To have such freedom of movement was invigorating. It also felt illicit to wear such things. What would my mother think?
‘I’m done,’ I called as I was buckling up the boots.
Rodden sat down opposite me and held out a package. ‘Can you eat?’
I grimaced and shook my head. I’d begun to feel trembly and sick. I wrapped the cloak about myself again. It helped a little, but as I tried to relax I felt a tightness in my chest. It radiated outwards, making it difficult to breathe. Not now! I didn’t want Rodden to see me collapse in a fit. To distract myself I patted my lap and Leap came over and curled himself against my stomach, a rumbling emanating from deep in his chest. I forced my fingers not to clench in his fur.
‘They’ve got a fix on you,’ Rodden said, nodding to Leap and Griffin as he repacked everything into two bags. ‘It was the only way I could find you.’
I nodded, my jaw clenched too tightly to speak. I would fight this down. I was a human, not a harming.
‘If you’d left me with that ring I could have found you just as easily, but that bird of yours comes in handy. She’s a good tracker and scout.’
By now my legs were trembling with the effort not to give in to the pain. Rodden saw the shaking. ‘Are you okay?’
I nodded, though I knew it couldn’t be very convincing as my eyes were wide and darting around like caged birds.
‘No, you’re not, you’re –’
And then it hit me. I moaned and doubled over. Leap scrambled off my lap. I curled into a ball, pressing my forehead against my knees. This was the worst yet. It felt like someone was dragging white-hot hooks across my insides. From far off I heard Rodden urging me to be quiet and I realised I was screaming in pain. He pulled me up and held a flask to my lips. What was he doing? I didn’t want water at a time like this. The fluid filled my mouth and I swallowed involuntarily. Instantly the pain subsided. Laudanum. He’d given me laudanum. I slumped back with relief.
‘Thanks,’ I muttered.
He was screwing the cap back on the flask, regarding me warily. ‘You’re, ah . . . welcome.’
I licked my lips and frowned. Laudanum sure had a funny taste. Sort of thick and tangy, not unpleasant but faintly . . . metallic. My eyes widened. I rubbed the back of my hand across my mouth and looked at it in the dim light. There was a dark red smear on my hand. That wasn’t laudanum. That was blood.
My head snapped up. ‘You gave me blood?’
‘Yes. It’s what you needed. You’d die otherwise. What did you think I gave you?’
‘That stuff ’s practically useless. It can only mask the pain for a while, not make it go away.’ He was so cool, so logical.
I flew at him and beat him with my fists. ‘I don’t want to drink blood! Do you hear me? It’s vile! It’s inhuman!’
He grabbed my wrists and pushed me back. ‘You need to keep your voice down,’ he growled. ‘There’ll be dozens of Lharmellins in the area.’
‘I don’t care!’ I hollered. ‘I’d rather be dead than live like this.’
He clamped a hand over my mouth. ‘If they catch us they will torture your cat and your bird to death. So shut the hell up.’
I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth about Leap and Griffin, but the look in his eye made me fall silent.
He grabbed his bow and quiver and stood up. ‘Stay here.’ After five minutes he came back. ‘There’s nothing out there. But you need to keep quiet, because they’ll be coming.’
I watched Leap and Griffin, so perfect in the lamplight. Their eyes shone like stars, one pair green, one pair gold. So vivid and alive. I loved them dearly. If Rodden hadn’t needed them to track me down they would be safely in Pergamia right now. I hoped they weren’t going to die because of me.
‘It wasn’t human blood, was it?’ I asked as he sat down opposite me.
‘No. Rabbit.’ He stretched his legs out, his left thigh warm against my own.
I remembered the hutch in his room. ‘The ones in your turret?’
‘Oh.’ I couldn’t help the small cry of dismay, remembering how sweet they were.
He sighed. ‘Yes, I know. They’re hideously cute and trusting. I’m a monster.’
‘No, they’re . . . it’s not – it’s okay,’ I finished lamely. Why on earth was I trying to comfort him? It
‘I’m glad you think so. You’ll need your own set-up like that when we get back. Rabbits are the best. They breed like, well, rabbits, and the turnover is quick so you don’t have enough time to get attached to them. And one is just the right amount of blood.’
I grimaced, wondering how many small creatures he’d gone through in his quest to find one that was ‘just right’. ‘Before, you said this place was only poisonous to humans. So if I’m human why would I need blood?’
‘Because you’re not all human. You’re a part-harming. You’ve tasted Lharmellin blood but you haven’t gone through the Turning. That’s what you’re being drawn northwards for.’
‘What’s a Turning?’
‘It’s a ceremony. It makes you into a full harming. After, you don’t feel the pain any more if you try to go south.’
‘But Lharmell will become your home. The Lharmellins your masters. You won’t be Zera- phina any more, but something wicked. Without conscience.’
I shuddered. ‘I don’t think I want to go to a Turning. Is that what you are, a full harming?’
He snorted. ‘I am
I’m a part-harming, like you are.’
‘Oh. But you are wicked and unconscionable?’
made a good impression,’ he muttered.
I narrowed my eyes. ‘I notice you don’t deny the charges.’
He put his hand on his heart. ‘Any wickedness or lack of conscience that I possess can be attributed only to my flaws of character. I swear.’
‘Drat. I was looking forward to the day you would be tried for treason.’
‘But I have no recollection of meeting one of these creatures,’ I said, turning back to the matter at hand. ‘How did this happen to me?’
He considered this. ‘I think you should ask your mother.’
I remembered Renata’s white face when I’d mentioned Lharmell. The odd story about the sickness. There was something she wasn’t telling me. Had she known what I was all along, and kept it from me? How could she do such a thing?
‘Do all harmings have pale eyes and black hair?’
He nodded. ‘We also need blood to survive and have uncontrollable urges to return “home”. I was hoping you were going to overcome yours and get in that damned carriage, but here you are.’
I was indignant at that. ‘If you wanted me to go home so badly, why did you draw me here in the first place? I know you’re the phantom.’
‘The thing in my room. All I could see was your eyes. You stole my ring.’
‘I took the ring to track you. I wanted to be sure that if you were coming to Pergamia that you would actually get there. There are harmings all over Brivora keeping an eye out for little lost souls like you.’
‘So you didn’t actually draw me northwards?’
‘No. That was the Lharmellins.’
‘But why pretend you did?’ I asked, exasperated.
He smiled. ‘You were just so convinced I was the bad guy. If you wasted time spying on me I thought it would keep you distracted from Lharmell until it was time for you to go home.’
‘And the archery tournament?’
‘I was curious about how good you were with that bow and arrow. We rate skilled archers very highly in Pergamia. They’re our best defence against the harmings that come to steal our people for blood. And again, it was to distract you from Lharmell. And to see the look on your face when I threw in the bit about marrying me.’ He laughed.
‘You laugh now, but hasn’t your plan rather . . . backfired? You had me so convinced you were the bad guy I had to jump on a giant bird to get away from you.’
‘Yes, perhaps I did lay it on a bit thick.’ He looked at his hands. ‘I admit I was rather enjoying myself.’ A smile quirked the corners of his mouth. ‘I was so angry when I found you in my room, but you should have seen your face when you told me you would be watching
from then on. I knew what you were the minute I saw you, that you were like me, and you seemed so fierce, so . . . human, that it gave me hope. It’s lonely when you think you’re the only person like you in the world. I thought if I could get you far enough away without finding out anything about harmings, then you might not need the blood. You might not feel like a monster for the rest of your life. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.’
‘Oh Rodden,’ I muttered. ‘I already did feel like a monster –
feel like one. Telling me would have helped, don’t you see?’
He nodded. ‘It was stupid of me. But I wanted to give you the chance that I never –’ He stopped himself, shaking his head. ‘When you collapsed after the tournament I thought I might just tell you the nice things. The one nice thing. The mind commun- ication with Leap and Griffin. You’ll get better at it with time. Because you’re so close you’ll be able to sense what they’re thinking.’
I looked at them both, watching us intently as if they really were following the conversation. Being able to talk to them, as it were; that would be a great comfort.
‘The man at the tournament. Was he a harming?’
Rodden’s face grew hard. ‘Yes. I wanted to kill him as soon as I saw him. I couldn’t believe his audacity, competing right there in front of everybody. Harmings are usually more secretive. And you! Running off by yourself. I couldn’t believe how stupid you were.’