Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
‘Maybe if someone hadn’t kept me in the dark for so long I would have known better.’
‘What did you say to him?’
‘I told him to back off. That you were with me. It’s sort of an honour to guide one of our kind home.’
I grimaced. ‘I wish you’d stop saying home.’
‘To Lharmell, then.’
‘How did you find me in Amentia?’ I was afraid that if he stopped talking I might never get him to start again.
‘You are full of questions. Don’t you want to get some rest?’
I shook my head. It was amazing how quickly I’d recovered. My senses felt sharp and I wasn’t sleepy in the least, or hungry. I realised it was because of the blood and tried to feel dismayed, but the intoxication obliterated any guilt. ‘Tell me how you found me,’ I insisted.
He looked at me from beneath his lashes. ‘I heard you.’
‘You were making such a racket, for months on end. I’d never heard anything like it. All the resistance you were putting up to the Lharmellins, the blood-hunger. I heard it all the way in Pergamia, and I was curious. I can travel out of my body. I was taught to do it a long time ago. It’s useful for travelling long distances.’
I imagined him sitting in his turret room, hearing me rail against the hunger. I’d thought the whole time I’d been alone. ‘How long ago did you hear me? How many times did you visit?’
‘Oh . . . Once or twice . . .’
He’d known my name. He’d spoken it like it was as familiar as his own. At least, I thought he had. But it was too intimate to put into words. So I changed the subject. ‘Tell me what you’re doing in Pergamia.’
‘You know what I’m doing. Fighting the Lharmellins.’
‘But what specifically? What’s with all the equipment in your room?’
He gave me a long look.
‘Well, come on!’ I said. ‘We can’t have any secrets now.’
‘No, it’s not that. I’m just choosing my words. Trying to be tactful.’
‘That’s not like you.’
‘How true. Have you ever wondered why such a big, glorious nation like Pergamia would form an alliance with a tin-pot country like yours?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘You Pergamians are so full of yourselves. And what happened to being tactful?’
‘As you said, not in my nature. And I’m not Pergam- ian. When the king showed me the letter from your mother, the one outlining a possible alliance with Amentia, there was something in it that caught my interest.’
‘The harming sister?’
‘It’s not always about you, Zeraphina.’
I scowled. ‘I was kidding. You’re always so serious.’
‘And you’re always so –’
‘All right, all right. The letter. What was in it?’
‘Your mother mentioned the Teripsiin Mountains. They’re full of metals: tin, iron, copper and so on.’
‘Yes, Renata told us that would interest Pergamia.’
‘Not those metals.’ Rodden picked up the lamp that was giving off the orange glow. ‘This is yelbar. It’s an alloy of yelinate and bennium. Both are extremely rare elements and are never found together in nature. But when you artificially fuse them you get a metal that, while innocuous to humans, is lethal to Lharmellins and harmings.’ He picked up an arrow. I saw that its tip was glowing faintly too. ‘These have yelbar in the tip, hence the disintegration of our little friends out there. As we have Lharmellin blood they’re toxic to you and me, so don’t touch them with your bare hands, and for heaven’s sake be careful where you fire them. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, for instance, because you’ll crumple up like a burning leaf. You’d be wise to keep your gloves on at all times.’
‘So we can be killed the same way as a Lharmellin, but Lharmell is still poisonous to us?’ I held up my hands, reddened by contact with the dirt.
Rodden pulled a small pot of salve out of his pack and gave it to me. ‘Here, use this on your burns. A human in Lharmell would be dead in hours. But as you’ve seen, they don’t last that long.’
I grimaced, thinking of the Lharmellins clicking to each other as they hunted. I rubbed the salve on and the burning subsided. ‘And if we’re not in Lharmell we get driven crazy by the urge to come here,’ I continued. ‘Bit of a paradox, don’t you think?’
‘I’d never really thought about it that way. But you’re right.’
‘Can’t we reverse it somehow?’
He shook his head. ‘I’ve searched for a way ever since I came to Pergamia. I’ve collected every book with even the vaguest mention of Lharmell, but I’ve never found a way to free myself. I’m still looking, but . . .’
‘You’re not hopeful,’ I finished.
There was no way out. No way to go back to being a normal human girl, the way I was before the hunger started.
I pressed my face into my hands. ‘Then what the hell is the point?’
‘Part-harmings don’t last long in the wild, so to speak. The urge to go north is so strong they can’t ignore it. You’re the first one I’ve met, other than myself, who’s been able to resist.’
‘I don’t know.’
I gave a short laugh. Able to resist? ‘Haven’t you realised where we are? Look around. This is Lharmell. Some resistance.’
He waved my comment away. ‘You were drunk, and you thought you had to get away from me. And then you called down that blasted brant.’
‘That huge bird of prey. It’s a rider-brant, trained by the Lharmellins. They breed them in the tors.’
‘How did I call it down?’
‘You were giving off all these need-to-get-away signals, so it helpfully obliged.’
‘Quite. Lharmellins don’t use words, they use thought-patterns. Pictures. Yours are quite strong for a part-harming and you let them go zipping off in all directions.’
‘And you don’t?’
‘No. I was trained. Anyway, I was telling you about that letter. The Teripsiin Mountains, as I subsequently discovered, are a rich source of yelinate, which is why your country is suffering so much. The Lharmellins can sense it and they’re trying to freeze out anyone who attempts to mine it. All the chanting they do, it’s to call the harmings home, but it’s also to draw the ice down from the sky. They thrive in the cold.’
I interrupted. ‘The Lharmellins are the reason my country is freezing?’ I thought of the empty granar- ies, the famine that could easily seize my country and the cold that had been going for decades. They had caused this? I grew angry. Why was no one doing anything to stop this? A whole country full of people could die. Rodden said he was fighting them, but what had he really done?
‘I’m afraid so. Amentia has always had hard winters, but there’s something strange happening. The Lharmellins seem to be getting stronger. I can’t be sure, but I think they have a new leader. A smart one. The cold is spreading. Soon the Lharmellins will be able to travel out of Lharmell instead of needing the harmings to do their legwork. The harmings carry vials of Lharmellin blood about the countryside, infecting humans. They also kidnap people for their blood, taking them home to Lharmell, like that boy you saw. Then they dump the bodies back where they came from. You were right about something happening on the morning of Lilith’s wedding. A dozen bodies were found at the docks, all bloodless.’
I shuddered. ‘But why are they doing this?’
‘They’re our natural predators and they want to expand their territory. I can’t be sure exactly because the records are sketchy, but once, a long time ago, the world was colder and I think the Lharmellins existed outside Lharmell. They want that territory back. There are already more harmings than ever, and places like Amentia are getting dangerously cold. As soon as the Lharmellins can leave Lharmell, we’re pretty much done for.’ He got up and went to check the cave mouth.
I didn’t want to live in pain and hunger for the rest of my life – which might not be very long, according to Rodden – and I certainly didn’t want to become a harming. I thought of Lilith, not far away across the straits, with brants circling over the keep every night. How long until something happened to her?
When he came back he said, ‘It will be dawn in about an hour. We’ll go then.’
‘Pergamia, of course. We’ll call a brant down and make our escape. It’s safer when it’s light. The slightly warmer air makes the Lharmellins sluggish.’
‘We’re just going to leave? We need to do something. Kill that leader that’s getting things organised. Buy ourselves some time.’
‘No,’ he said, with exaggerated patience. ‘I need to get you across the straits so your mother can take you home.’
‘Don’t talk to me like that!’
‘Like I’m a child. You’re always ordering me around. What gives you the right?’
‘Age and experience.’
‘You mean arrogance,’ I threw back. ‘So you’re just going to go back to fiddling around in your little turret room until you can’t stand it any longer? Because if they’re getting stronger, how long will it be until you’re begging a brant to take you to Lharmell, just to make it all stop? And what about me? My people? They’re freezing, Rodden. They’re all going to die.’
‘I know. But it’s not your responsibility to deal with this.’
‘How can you say that? They’re
‘This problem is everyone’s, not just Amentia’s.’
Then why haven’t you done anything?
’ I was fighting to keep my voice down and the words came out in a growl.
‘Because I’m not ready yet. The mines haven’t been set up in Amentia and this is almost all the yelbar I have.’
‘Listen to yourself! Making excuses. You’re just scared.’
‘You don’t know anything about me,’ he snarled.
I glared at him, breathing heavily. ‘I want to help.’
‘Why not? You said yourself we’re the only people who can come here without being poisoned to death.’
‘You’re royalty. You have a responsibility to your people.’
‘Lilith’s done enough duty for the both of us. Because of her, our people are not going to starve. But they could still freeze. I’m of more use to them here, where I can fight, than married to a rich man. In the end, what use will food be to them if they’re frozen in the streets? Or turned into harmings?’
‘We’ve got a long journey back. Surely we can argue about this at the palace.’
I picked up my bow. ‘I don’t want to go back.’
‘What?’ he exclaimed.
‘This thing, this Turning. Is there one happening soon?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘And will the leader be there?’
He looked at me stonily. ‘Zeraphina. No. It’s far too dangerous.’
‘Why? Because I’m a girl? I’m an excellent archer, you know that.’
‘It’s not enough,’ he said. ‘There will be hundreds of them. We have no supplies, nothing.’
‘We have weapons and arrows. We could kill a brant if we need blood.’
He ran a hand through his hair.
‘I can’t go back without doing something,’ I said, my voice tight in my throat. ‘I can’t. Even if we just go to one of these Turnings and watch, we might learn something.’
‘There are people who love you, Zeraphina. People who care whether you live or die. I can’t ask you to risk your life. Me, I have no one. I’m expendable.’
I reached out a hand and touched his leg. ‘I care.’ And I did. If he died or was Turned, no matter how irritating and frustrating he was, I would miss him. He was probably the first and last person in the world who was ever going to understand me, who knew what I was struggling with because he was struggling with the same thing.
He met my gaze. His eyes were less certain now. ‘We might learn nothing. Do you really want to risk everything when the chance of failure is so high?’
‘Truthfully, I want to go back to Amentia. Put my head in the sand. Shoot arrow after arrow and try to ignore the pain. But now that I know the truth, how can I?’
Rodden put his head in his hands. He sighed heavily. ‘I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this.’
I felt a flash of elation, and then a pang of alarm. We were going to do this. I’d just talked both of us into a suicide mission.
Rodden pointed a finger at me. ‘I’m in charge. You do what I say and if at any point I say we’re leaving, then we’re leaving.’
‘Yessir,’ I said, with the same tone Hoggit used when taking orders.
‘Then we’ll go a little way in. Maybe not all the way to the tors, or the Turning, but as far as we can while it’s still safe. Then we’ll go back, and no arguing. Drink up.’ He held out the flask to me.
I grimaced, but took a swig. It tasted even better that it did in my dreams. Better than anything I’d ever tasted in my life. As I drained the flask and licked my lips I felt a little guilty that I enjoyed it so much. I was taking to being a harming like a duck to water.
odden handed me one of the packs. ‘We’ve each got a water skin, a small packet of food, two dozen arrows and a bow. Keep your hood up at all times. If we see anyone, we can pass as part-harmings if you keep your head down and your thoughts under control.’
‘How do I do that?’
‘Blinker them. Here, practise on Leap.’ He picked up my cat and sat him on his lap. Leap purred and rubbed his cheek against Rodden’s chest. He was such a sucker for attention. ‘Ask him to do something with thought-pictures, like twitch his ears.’
I formed a thought-picture of Leap twitching his ears with my mind and sent it to him with something that I hoped seemed like ‘please’ tacked on the end. Leap looked at me, wide-eyed, and his ears twitched. I laughed delightedly.
‘That was very polite,’ said Rodden. ‘Almost made me want to twitch mine.’
‘You heard me?’
‘Yes, it was effective but unfocused, and far too loud. Try again, but make it just for Leap.’
I tried making the picture smaller and gave it a little nudge. Leap’s ears twitched again.
‘That’s better. I still heard you but it was very faint. Now try, but before you send the pattern, put up a big wall all around your mind so the thought can’t get through.’
I imagined the palace walls in Pergamia, steep and impenetrable. I built them up first, and then gave the thought-picture a little nudge towards Leap. He looked around in surprise, as if he’d heard something, but his ears didn’t move.
‘Good, but next time put a roof on your walls so the thoughts don’t escape over the top. We should get going.’
I was surprised that Rodden knew with such accuracy what my wall had looked like. As I shouldered my pack, a ghastly thought occurred to me. ‘You can’t read my mind, can you?’
‘No, of course not. I can just hear you when you let your thoughts go sparking off in all directions. Especially when you’re angry. And you’re angry with me a lot, so I block that out. You’re very keen to tell me in words just what you think of me so I don’t need to hear it twice. And they,’ he said, indicating Leap and Griffin, ‘can hear you when you tell them how much you love them, which is pretty much every time you look at them.’
I had no idea my thoughts were so noisy. I remembered how, as I’d been getting ready for the ball, I’d been wondering if Rodden would be there. I hoped he hadn’t heard me then. He would get entirely the wrong idea.
Rodden put his hood up and grinned at me from underneath it. The orange lamp-light made him look quite wicked. ‘And what idea would that be? That you’re a rotten show-off?’
I blanched. He’d just heard me then. I would have to be more careful.
‘You needn’t have worried,’ he said, reaching over to pull my own hood up. ‘I wouldn’t have missed that dress for anything.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Move out, soldier.’
The sky was just beginning to lighten. I stood at the cave mouth, hooking my bow and arrows to the pack at easy grabbing distance. I usually liked dawn. It was a fresh, hopeful time of day, everything turning rosy and golden as the sun broke over the horizon. But in Lharmell, the dawn was sickly. The sun turned the clouds greenish and was doing very little to lighten the blackness of the dead forest. I shivered. The cloak was warm but while it kept the cold out it couldn’t keep the other sort of goose-bumps from my skin: the sort caused by being totally spooked. At least at this time of day we wouldn’t bump into any Lharmellins, but there might be harmings around. There were at least two about on that cold morning. Us.
Rodden emerged and looked around. ‘Home sweet home, hey?’
‘Don’t even joke about that. Which way are we going?’
‘You were headed in exactly the right direction when I found you yesterday: straight to the tors.’
‘I thought I was heading for the ocean.’
We started walking. I was very glad to have a pair of good sturdy boots as it made the going infinitely easier.
‘The tors act like a sort of homing beacon and they probably turned you around. If you pay attention to them, they can act like a compass. Right now I can feel us getting closer, like there’s an invisible cord pulling us forwards. On the way back, you’ll feel the cord lengthening, but reluctantly. It will always try to pull you back. But the good thing is you can navigate your way around the whole world without a compass, just by feeling where the tors are.’
I nodded. I’d felt that cord and the pain it could cause. But I’d also felt another. The one that had yanked me back the night I’d taken off on the brant. The one that had been connected to Rodden’s agonised thought-pattern that had sounded like
It had been almost as powerful as the cord that connected me to the tors.
Griffin flashed overhead, disappearing and reappearing among the trees. Rodden nodded to her. ‘She’ll keep an eye out. We’re not likely to come across any Lharmellins during the day, but there could be harmings about. Leap’s keeping watch, too.’
‘How far is it?’
‘You tell me.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Of course I do. But so do you. You have the same instincts as me, so work it out.’
I felt around a bit with my mind, searching for the cord. But Leap and Griffin kept getting in the way. Rodden’s mind was completely closed; he wasn’t giving anything away. Leap’s mind was fuzzy and warm, his thoughts swarming like a cloud of midges as he took in sights, smells and sounds all at once. I wondered that he could concentrate on anything with all that thought-noise. Griffin was all about her eyes: her mind was clean and focused and razor sharp. I was getting just as much interference from her, though, because her thoughts were so directed.
‘They’ll never stop,’ Rodden said. ‘You have to learn to block them out when you need to.’
‘Give me a break. This is all new to me,’ I grumbled. I tried again, wiping everything
from my mind. After a second I felt a faint tug, and fastened my mind onto the thread.
,’ Rodden said, surprised.
‘You were supposed to have your mind closed.’
‘Well, close it some more.’ I tried again. There it was, the white-blue cord, as cold as ice but strong as steel, pulling me onwards to the tors. I tested it, tugging back, feeling the distance between us.
‘Got it?’ asked Rodden.
‘Yes. It’s far, but . . .’ I imagined the distance in paces, as if I was walking the cord like a tightrope. ‘About a day-and-a-half’s walk?’
Rodden nodded. ‘About that.’
We walked in silence for a while. I wanted to ask Rodden why I could still pick up his thought-pattern when he had his mind closed, but he didn’t seem to be in a talkative mood any more.
We rested when the sun was directly overhead, sitting on our packs to keep off the poisonous dirt. The clouds had begun to thin but there was still little warmth in the air.
‘Eat the bread and cheese. It’ll go stale soon anyway.’
I resisted the urge to snap that I would eat or drink what I pleased, but he must have heard me anyway as he muttered, ‘Fine, do what you like.’
I ate because I was going to do it anyway. I just didn’t want him to think I was doing it because of his say-so. When I’d finished I pushed the dirt around with the toe of my boot. ‘What makes the forest so toxic?’
‘There’s a sort of acid rain that falls occasionally. The Lharmellins make it to keep the humans out. But the harmings and brants don’t like it much either so they don’t do it very often.’ He glanced at the sky. The clouds had gathered again but they were pale and thin. ‘We really don’t want to get caught in an acid storm. It’s a good thing everything is so toxic right now as it means they’ve probably just had one.’
Acid storms. What a charming bunch these Lharmellins were. ‘How do you know so much about this place?’ I asked. ‘You said you’d been trained. What did you mean by that?’
‘Nothing,’ he said, stuffing the remains of his lunch back into his pack.
‘Have you been here before?’
‘You said you weren’t Pergamian. Where are you from?’
‘I’m not in the mood to reminisce, Zeraphina.’ He stood up, shouldering his pack.
The way was getting steeper now so I saved my breath for walking. Sometime in the mid-afternoon, craggy mountaintops rose behind the trees.
‘The tors?’ I asked.
By twilight the trees had begun to thin and the ground was rocky with lots of boulders and loose stones scattered around, scree from the mountains. We found a sort of natural dolmen, a large flat rock being supported by two others that formed a shelter.
Rodden gave it a sharp kick. ‘It’s solid,’ he pronounced.
‘And you determined this how?’ I asked, walking around the structure. If it collapsed in the night we would be squashed like bugs. I leaned heavily against it in several places, testing its soundness.
‘I said it’s fine.’
‘Do you want to fight about it or can I just get on with it?’ I snapped. I watched Rodden throw his pack under the dolmen and slump against it, his eyes closed. He looked bone tired.
I crawled in after him. ‘Have you slept since the ball?’
He kept his eyes closed and shook his head.
‘Oh.’ He stayed silent, and I sensed the inad- equacy of the ‘oh’. Because it would gall me, and because he would probably throw it back in my face, I was reluctant to express any gratitude. But I had to. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘For coming to find me. I thought I was going to die.’
‘Any time,’ he mumbled.
Leap walked the length of my legs and curled up between us, instantly falling asleep.
Talking about the ball made me think of Renata and Lilith for the first time all day. I missed them with a force that surprised me. Bossy and interfering as she was, Renata always had my best interests at heart. And I would give anything to hear Lilith call me Fina again. I was even more surprised to find that I was homesick for Amentia and our cold, dreary castle.
I sighed heavily. ‘I’ll keep first watch,’ I offered.
‘No need. Griffin’s dozing in a tree out there. She’ll wake us if something happens.’
I made my pack into a makeshift pillow and lay down. The ground was horribly hard and cold, but it was better than being on my feet. Rodden looked like he was already asleep. His face was roughened by stubble, but as he wasn’t frowning for the moment he looked almost agreeable.
I wasn’t sleepy just yet so I examined the thought-threads in my mind. There was Leap’s, vibrating with purrs and warmth. Griffin’s was sharp and alert. The tor-line was thick and strong now that we were so close. But I pushed these three aside, searching for another. There it was, humming away quietly: the thread between me and the man sleeping beside me. I brushed it with my mind, very softly. He noticed and clamped down on it immediately, severing our connection.
‘Go to sleep.’
‘Sorry,’ I whispered back.
‘Hmph. Always poking your nose in . . .’
After the initial coven of Lharmellins I’d stumbled into we’d been blood-sucking-monster-free – apart from ourselves, of course. We couldn’t continue to be so lucky, especially not this close to the tors.
Between them, Griffin and Leap woke us four times that night.
I would like to say that the first occasion was the worst. But it wasn’t. Each time a blazing, anxious
thought-pattern shocked me out of consciousness I think I died a little inside.
When the first alarm came, I realised I’d stupidly left my bow and arrows hooked to my pack and I couldn’t get to them without dragging them out from underneath everything. Not only would it be far too noisy to do so, it wasn’t exactly the best place to store delicate weaponry. I sent a miserable
to Rodden when he asked me what the hell I was playing at and could I get my weapon out already? He had his bow trained on the blackness and replied with an image of a wall, telling me to block my thoughts. I concentrated on doing so while I searched the landscape for tell-tale bluish glows and listening for the clicks that would announce a pack of Lharmellins on the hunt. I could barely see a thing, and the only sounds were the crunch of stones underfoot, far off. It was a decidedly non-Lharmellin sound.
Eventually I heard Rodden un-notch his arrow. ‘Harmings,’ he whispered. ‘Just a handful and Griffin says they’ve gone. Where’s your weapon?’
‘Under my pack.’
‘Because I left it there,’ I hissed. I had already been chastising myself enough.
‘Well, get it out now.’
‘Don’t shoot anything unless we’re spotted. We don’t want to draw attention to our presence here. We want them to think that after killing those Lharmellins we left or died in the poisonous forest, not that we travelled closer to the tors.’
‘We should have decided this before we went to sleep,’ I grumbled.
‘I already did. I thought it was obvious, but apparently not to someone who can’t keep her weapon handy.’
I slapped my bow down at easy grabbing distance and turned my back to him.
‘And put a lid on all those irritated thoughts. Anything could hear you.’
I thought about asking Leap to bite his hand but decided that while it was tempting, it was also rather unethical.
The second time we were woken I was up and aiming before Rodden had his eyes open – probably because I had been fuming too much to sleep. I heard the dull thud of footsteps against hard-packed earth, and then a skittering of stones. It had to be harmings again as Lharmellins didn’t technically walk. There seemed to be about a dozen of them and they were heading up the mountain. The sounds grew fainter and we both relaxed, easing ourselves back down without a word.
The third and fourth times were much the same: footsteps in the dark. ‘We must be near a mountain pass,’ Rodden said softly as the fourth group faded away.
‘Do you think they’re looking for us?’
‘It’s hard to say.’
I remembered what he’d said about acid storms. It seemed a rather too effective way of clearing the forest of unwanted guests. I just hoped there were too many harmings about to make it worth the Lharmellins’ while.