Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
Rodden shook me awake at first light. This was my third morning in Lharmell, and it was starting to show. My hair was a tangled mess, I was grimy and I was starting to stink. Rodden was in much the same condition. I poured the tiniest amount of water on a rag I’d saved from my petticoat and wiped it over my face and neck. It refreshed me a little despite the fractured night’s sleep.
Griffin had been on a morning hunt and to my surprise she was butchering a large rat in a tree. Leap was sitting nearby, and I saw her drop down the hindquarters for him. Leap snatched it up and scurried off with his prize.
Rodden drained the flask and shouldered his pack. ‘There’s life nearby. We should try to hunt.’ He turned to me. ‘Or have you had enough? Ready to go home perhaps?’
I shouldered my pack. ‘You can go. I’m fine.’
His eyebrows rose as if in surprise, but he quickly dropped the expression.
Together we looked to the mountains rising steeply ahead of us.
‘The tors surround a circular valley, which is what we’re aiming for,’ Rodden said. ‘Judging from last night’s foot-traffic there must be a pass very near here,’ he continued. ‘What do you reckon, over there?’
I looked at where he was pointing. There was a crease in the ranges where two peaks met. It wasn’t too high up, but the going looked steep. I shook my head. ‘There must be an easier way to get in. Did the harmings leave any tracks?’
We looked around us at the scree but the jumbled stones were giving nothing away.
I scanned the mountains again. ‘There,’ I said. ‘Where those trees extend up the mountain a bit. Right above that, it looks like a pass.’
‘That’s even higher than the other one.’
‘But it’s less steep.’
Rodden considered this, and then nodded. ‘All right, then.’
What, no argument?
Rodden notched an arrow. ‘Keep your eyes peeled for rats. They don’t taste as nice as rabbits, but they’ll do. If we can shoot a couple it will save us slaughtering a brant, which might bring us unwanted attention.’
The rocky ground was tricky to clamber over. As the gradient increased, so did the amount of slipping and sliding we did over the loose stones. I was grateful for my gloves, as they meant my hands weren’t torn to ribbons. Leap was light and agile enough to bound up ahead of us. Griffin flew ahead and then glowered down at our pathetic progress.
‘This can’t be the right way,’ Rodden muttered. ‘I can’t believe the harmings do this all the time.’
‘Maybe that’s a good thing,’ I panted. ‘We don’t want to go barrelling in their front door.’
‘What if there’s only one entrance and we’re just wasting time?’
‘Call a brant down then. We’ll fly in.’
Just then the stones beneath my feet gave way. Rodden snatched at my hand, missed, and I could do nothing but slide painfully down the mountain-side on my right leg. A sharp rock sliced into my calf. I doubled up in pain and pressed my hands over the wound, biting my cheek so I didn’t cry out.
Rodden came scrambling down after me. ‘Are you okay?’
I didn’t bother to respond to such an inane question.
‘Here, let me see,’ he said, prising my fingers off my leg. Blood had started to soak my trousers. I looked at the gash. It was about a foot long, but I couldn’t see how deep. Rodden poked at it with his fingers and the pain was intense.
‘Stop touching it!’ I gasped.
‘I have to check it. I think you’re okay. It’s just a bad scratch.’ He pulled some clean white cloth out of his pack and began tearing it into strips. ‘I don’t like all this blood everywhere,’ he muttered.
‘There’s a first.’
He gave me a wry look. ‘I mean it could be dangerous. They’ll know we came this way.’
‘Part-harmings might come this way all the time.’
‘Yes, but what happens when a good little convert with a big cut doesn’t turn itself in? They’ll know it’s us.’ He bound my leg up tightly and sat back on his heels. ‘Maybe it’s time we called down a brant and went home.’
‘No. We’ve come this far already.’
‘Can you go any further? I doubt you can even walk.’
‘I can,’ I insisted. I stood up and tested my leg. It hurt like hell, but I was determined. I looked up at the pass. ‘I’ll make a deal with you,’ I said. ‘If I can’t reach that pass, or if it turns out to be blocked somehow, we’ll get a brant home.’
Rodden gave me a long look. Again, I was expecting an argument but he just nodded.
This time he went first, testing the ground before he put his foot down. While we were going over the rockier parts he kept a hold of my hand. I was preoccupied with the pain in my leg and the worry that I was leaving a blood trail, so it came as a surprise to me when my feet landed on dirt as well as stone and the ground levelled out.
Rodden looked down. ‘No footprints. This isn’t the pass that was used last night.’
I found a rock and slumped onto it, not bothering to remove my pack.
‘How’s the leg?’
I looked at him through half-closed eyes. ‘A real picnic.’
He crouched down beside me and notched up an arrow.
‘Are we in danger?’
‘No,’ he whispered. ‘I see a rat.’ He drew back and fired, then jumped up so I guessed that he must have found his mark. I sat dozing in the afternoon sunlight, the rough night catching up with me. I was just imagining having a long, hot bath in my room in Pergamia when something landed in my lap. My eyes snapped open to see an enormous dead rat. It was all I could do not to start shrieking. I wasn’t particularly frightened of rats but I was on edge and a dead, bloodied creature falling out of the sky was unsettling at the best of times.
‘All yours,’ Rodden said graciously.
I hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to touch it. The arrow had pierced the thing’s rib-cage, but it wasn’t the wound that was appalling me the most. It was the rat’s long, hairless, floppy tail. ‘I think I’m going to be sick. Can’t you put the blood in a flask or something?’
‘Just hurry up and suck on the wound before it clots. It’ll help your cut heal faster.’
I looked at the rat again. I didn’t want to touch it, let alone put my mouth on it.
Leap ate them all the time, I reasoned. So did Griffin. If it was good enough for them . . .
I raised the furry body to my mouth, fighting down my gag reflex. Once I got going it wasn’t too bad. There wasn’t much blood in it, but I found what little I drank made my leg throb a bit less. I threw the carcass to Leap, who was far more excited about it than I was. I wiped my hand across my mouth, trying to rid myself of the feel of its fur. I shuddered and said, as gratefully as I could manage, ‘Thank you.’
Rodden bowed. ‘My pleasure, Your Highness,’ he said in his best courtly voice.
‘You toad,’ I said. ‘You think this is funny?’
He grinned. ‘Just a little. The high and mighty Princess Zeraphina just ate rat.’
I narrowed my eyes at him. ‘You will regret this.’ My threat wasn’t as convincing as I would have liked as a moment later I had to ask him to help me up.
We approached the pass with some trepidation.
‘Do you think they have guards?’ I whispered.
‘Difficult to say, but I think not. Those woods keep the humans away, and I doubt they’d consider a threat from their own kind. As far as I know, we’re the first harming rebels.’
Rebels. I liked the sound of that.
Just to be sure, we asked Griffin to scout ahead for us. She flew into the pass, disappeared for about two minutes and then flew back. She sent a thought-picture to us, showing a narrow but acceptable path through the mountains, free from harmings and Lharmellins.
Rodden turned to me. ‘So this is it. The point of no return.’
‘I thought I passed that three days ago.’
‘Are you sure you can do this?’
I tested my leg. It still hurt, but I was limping less and I thought I could even run if I needed to. ‘Yes.’
‘From this point on, I’m a harming bringing you to the fold. I can pass for a full harming but I don’t think you can. Keep your head down, your hood up and your mind closed. If we come across other harmings, which we likely will, don’t lose your nerve. Let me do the talking. And tell Leap and Griffin they have to keep out of sight.’
It was dark between the mountains and sheer walls rose on both sides. Any stone that we kicked by accident made a lot of racket, the noise amplified by echoes. Neither of us spoke, though I desperately wanted to ask Rodden what he thought was on the other side. I dared not do it by thought-patterns, either, in case everything on the mountain heard me.
A long, thin shriek made me jump three feet in the air. Leap flattened himself against the ground.
‘Brant chick,’ Rodden said. ‘There’s a nest right above us.’
Sure enough, a ball of sharp black twigs was wedged high up in a crevice. A bald, pink chick glared down at us with beady eyes.
It was dusk when we emerged on the other side. The panoramic view of curving mountains on all sides was breathtaking. They were bluish and windswept and totally barren. The far side must have been five miles away. I looked down into the bowl-shaped valley but all I could see was darkness. The sky had cleared and the sun had prematurely set over the rim of mountains. A little way below us there was some greenery and I hoped there was a forest further down. I felt more at home in the cover of living trees.
‘It’s a huge volcanic crater,’ Rodden said. ‘These mountains are made from basalt and black glass. Spewed out of the earth, in other words.’
‘So we’re teetering on the brink of something dangerous?’ I asked.
‘You could say that.’
‘Do you have a plan?’
‘We save humanity from slavery and death.’
‘Could you be more specific?’
‘Not right now, no.’
We descended into the darkness. There was indeed a forest in the valley, and to my utter delight, a stream.
‘It’s a mineral spring, coming up out of the mountains. It looks safe to drink.’
‘I don’t want to drink, I want to wash. Now go away.’
He folded his arms. ‘I don’t know if it’s safe to leave you alone.’
‘I’m not asking you to go out of earshot. Just go sit behind a tree.’
He looked around, scanning the forest. ‘Fine. Keep your leg dry.’
The water wasn’t deep enough to bathe, but I gave myself a pretty good scrub with a rag. Even after all this time I was still washing gold powder off my shoulders. I dearly wanted some soap but Rodden hadn’t thought to bring any, so all I could do was wash the dust from my hair and tie it back with another rag. By the time I was done I was shivering but pleasantly refreshed, even inside my filthy clothes.
Rodden came back with a dead brant chick and another rat. ‘The choice is yours, my lady. I don’t normally drink blood in the evenings, as it keeps you awake, but tonight is different.’
‘We’re not sleeping tonight.’
I sighed. ‘Give me the chick then.’ Neither of the dead animals appealed to me, but if I had to suck rat, so did he. We were finishing off our dinner when we saw cloaked figures approaching. I hastily pulled my hood up and put a wall around my mind. Leap and Griffin sank into the shadows.
Rodden stood, moving towards the party and deliberately putting himself between them and me. He raised his hand in greeting. In the other the rat still dangled by its tail.
‘Glory to Lharmell,’ I heard one of the figures at the front say.
‘Glory to Lharmell,’ Rodden repeated. ‘An impressive flock.’
‘Yes,’ replied the harming, pride in his voice. ‘Six converts.’
‘I have but one,’ Rodden replied, sounding rather disappointed.
I felt something like black tentacles probing at my mind. It was the harming. He didn’t get far as I’d sealed my mind like a vice.
‘She’s a dim creature,’ observed the harming.
‘Indeed she is,’ Rodden replied.
I resisted the urge to scowl. I could see the other ‘converts’ shuffling nervously, as if they were anxious to get going.
‘There is a Turning tonight,’ said the harming.
The others broke into excited whispers. ‘A Turning. A Turning,’ they said to each other.
I made myself echo their childish tone. ‘A Turning.’
‘We shall see you there,’ replied Rodden. ‘Praise for blood.’
‘Praise for blood,’ replied the harming, and he and his flock moved off into the trees.
Rodden walked back, throwing the rat into the bushes. He grinned at me. ‘Good work with the dim creature act. Your mind-blocking is getting better.’
‘How did you know to say “praise for blood” instead of just “goodbye”?’ I asked suspiciously. ‘I thought you hadn’t been here before.’
Rodden sat down beside me. ‘All right. You got me. The past three days have been an elaborate ruse to lull you into a false sense of security. Rescuing you. Killing six Lharmellins. Teaching you to outwit other harmings. Just to see the look on your face when I hand you over. I can’t wait.’
I sniffed. ‘I wouldn’t put it past you.’
‘I told you, I’ve been trained.’
‘Yes, but you didn’t say how.’
‘Now is hardly the time. We have a Turning to attend.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘Exactly what it sounds like. Here’s a hint: don’t drink anything.’
We hid our packs under some bushes and our weapons under our cloaks next to our bodies. I bid Leap and Griffin goodbye, urging them to stay out of sight.
And then, trying not to feel like a lamb to the slaughter, I let Rodden lead me to the Turning.
rom beneath my hood I watched the harmings arrive. There were hundreds of them, trickling down to the very base of the valley. They gathered in the clearing as the last rays of the sun disappeared from the sky. The Evening Star appeared, and then as the sky darkened from azure to sapphire, a thousand more emerged above the natural enclos- ure of the mountains. The moon rose, bloated and yellow, climbing above the rim of the tors like a night-god’s eye to witness the events below. Tremors of excitement ran through the crowd. Brants swirled overhead. There was no sign of the Lharmellins yet, but we could feel them coming.
It took all my concentration to keep my thoughts to myself and others’ out. Strange and hideous thought-patterns exploded in my head before fading rapidly. They were violent and bloodied contemplations and I hoped I wasn’t reliving someone’s horrific deeds. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the images to stop.
Rodden took my gloved hand and squeezed it gently, and I experienced a ripple of cool and calm flow up my arm. I felt the thread between us, thrumming like a bow-string.
A hush fell over the crowd. Rodden kept a firm grip on my hand as four Lharmellins appeared atop the large flat rock at the other end of the clearing.
The Lharmellins on the rock began to sing. The crowd moaned and we were thrust forward by a press of bodies. I could make out what sounded like a strange language, but the four seemed to be speaking different words at once, garbling the foreign tongue. The effect was eerie, yet beautiful. The horde of harmings was enraptured, Turned and un-Turned alike, maniacal grins on their faces.
A fifth Lharmellin appeared atop the rock. The crowd sobbed with love for the creature, their hands reaching to it as if they were drowning. This Lharmellin wore a black robe like the others, but it was stitched with strange patterns that glowed ice-blue like its eyes. The hood fell back, revealing its face. The thing was hairless and a mass of puffy blue veins. Its mouth was just as it appeared in my book: lipless, baring dozens of needle-like teeth. It glared out at the crowd, a look of fierce joy in its expression. Gloating at the frenzy of the harmings below.
It raised its arms, and its voice joined the others in song, coiling its notes through the others’, bringing the chorus to a crescendo of madness. I was thrust against my neighbours by the jostling harmings, pinned front and back by bodies. I fought to keep a grip on Rodden’s hand.
There was no doubt in my mind that we beheld the leader. Killing it was our goal tonight. I felt Rodden’s agreement surge along our connecting thread. With my free hand I fingered an arrow but in the crowd there was no room to draw a bow. And if we did kill it, right there in front of everyone, what would the harmings do to us?
The leader turned to its neighbour on the rock, raised its claw-like fingers and ripped out the Lharmellin’s throat while it was mid-song. Unperturbed, the others kept up their song. Dark blood sprayed over the harmings, and the mob went wild. They screamed for blood. They threw their heads back and bayed at the moon. I was shoved forward and I lost my grip on Rodden. The second our hands parted the blood-hunger bloomed in my chest. I was whipped into a frenzy by the potent smell of Lharmellin blood and I screamed with the rest of them. I scrabbled at those in front of me, trying to pull them out of my way. I had to get to the dying Lharmellin, the blood that pumped from its throat.
The harmings tried to climb the rock, reaching with desperate arms. The leader shredded the throat of another Lharmellin with its sharp nails and threw it into the mob. It was still alive, its singing garbled by blood. Harmings leapt for the fallen creature. The bodies in front of me parted and I leapt forwards. I was faster than the others and was at the front first. There were other harmings lapping at the rock where the blood flowed down and still others trying to scale the face of it. I felt hands grab my cloak and try to pull me away. I smashed my elbow into another harming’s nose and she howled with pain.
, a voice snarled in my head. My voice, wild like a starving animal’s.
I worked my way around the rock, searching for a way to scale it. Rodden, still trapped in the mob, was letting off a frantic
and it was scrambling my concentration. I threw a furious
at him and felt him reel backwards. My fingers found purchase on the rock and I hauled myself up, kicking away the hands of those who tried to follow me. I reached the top and stood, and found myself face-to-face with the Lharmellin in the glowing robe.
The clamour from the mob died away until all I could hear was the Lharmellins’ singing. I felt such bittersweet pain, such joy. Tears ran down my face. The creature grinned, gloating over the utter sup- plication in my eyes. I fell to my knees before it.
Something was trying to yank me from the rock but I could feel no hands on my body, only a flaming pain in my chest. It burned, tongues of heat licking at my insides, making me scream. The dead Lharmellin, blood still pouring from its throat and down the boulder, was just a few feet away. The smell was intoxicating, but I could still feel a bombardment of near-hysterical thought-pictures and an incessant pulling at my insides, making me writhe in pain.
I wished it would
I would make it stop. It was
. I would stop him, I would kill him. I would crunch his bones with my bare hands and lap at the rivers of blood that would run down my arms.
The pain stopped abruptly.
With a swift movement I shook down the arrows that I’d slipped into my sleeves. There was no time for my bow, and no space to draw. My eyes were blurred with tears.
I will be free.
Break the skin, let the poison in.
Break the skin.
A face flashed before me, angered, familiar, then the Lharmellin’s. My eyes cleared and I saw my love standing before me.
. Though it shredded my heart
I knew what I had to do to make it
I gripped the shafts of the arrows and thrust upwards with all the strength in my arms, plunging the points into the leader’s belly. Brackish blood flowed over my fingers.
The Lharmellin’s grin faltered and it looked to its stomach with something like surprise. It opened its mouth to shriek, its clawed hands rising to strike me. I pressed the shafts deeper, up into its ribcage, feeling the crackle of bone and gristle. The icy light in the Lharmellin’s eyes turned a sickly orange as the yelbar coursed through its system. I waited for the creature’s dying revenge, the claws to swipe at my throat. But its flesh began to blacken and smoke, and then its body disinteg- rated inside its robe.
I felt sweet release, the poisonous frenzy ebbing away with the blood that ran like venomous rivers down my arms. There was a tug on my insides, the familiar thrum of the tall man’s thread, he of the arrows and the watchful eyes, whispering my name over and over in fury and relief.
The crowd staggered, stared, and then let rip with a mighty roar of outrage. The remaining two Lharmellins turned on me with a shriek and I fumbled for another arrow. Then they were shrieking in pain, arrows sprouting from their chests and I knew Rodden had found the space to fire.
I leapt off the back of the rock, hit the ground running and pelted away with all the strength I had in my legs. I cast a desperate thought for Leap and Griffin to follow me, hoping the harmings wouldn’t hear me.
I was headed straight into the unknown, away from Rodden and the mountain pass, perhaps directly into the path of more Lharmellins. I had to get away from the baying mob behind me. They wanted my blood. They wanted to rip the flesh from my bones. I could hear them wanting it, screaming for it.
As I ran my eyes scanned the forest. It was thick, which gave me cover, but it also made it difficult to negotiate. One slip-up and they would be on me. I’d had a small head-start while the harmings were still reeling, but they were gaining on me now. The tors were lit up by the full moon and I made them my aim.
Griffin, a pass!
I called to her.
Find a pass
. I felt her wheel away to the mountains. I desperately wanted to send a thought-pattern to Rodden but I didn’t trust myself to cast it with accuracy. He was within the crowd of harmings and if I sent anything I might blanket the lot with my whereabouts. I hoped that he would locate Leap, who was making a beeline for me.
Griffin flashed a thought-picture to me: it was an unguarded pass to the north-west, roughly the direction I was headed, but miles off. I would never make it on foot. My lungs were burning with the need for air. The frenzied harmings would overtake me before long. I looked to the sky. Brants were flapping erratically overhead, unsettled by the commotion below. I had ten arrows, the quiver tucked inside my robe with my bow. There was a break in the trees up ahead and I made for it, hurling a command at the closest brant. I notched an arrow and aimed as the enormous bird descended, ready for anything that might be on its back.
The wind whipped up, and on it I heard the voices of the Lharmellins, their singing frantic now and purposeful. How could they sing at a time like this?
A harming broke through the trees, saw me and screamed in anger. He was un-Turned, practically human. Except for his face, which was contorted into a mask of rage and frustrated blood-lust. I re-aimed and loosed the arrow, striking the thing through its neck. It crumpled to the ground. I hoped I had killed it before it could summon any others.
I heard a rumbling overhead. Great banks of greenish clouds were appearing over the tors. Lightning flashed. The brant overhead baulked and tried to fly away but I grabbed it with my mind and yanked it down. It was riderless. I held it in place and searched around me for Leap.
Where were the harmings? They should have caught up with me by now.
The moon disappeared, obliterated by the encroaching clouds, and I realised why the harmings had scattered: the Lharmellins were calling down an acid storm. Fear shot through me. There was no cover anywhere near me, and where was Rodden?
Leap burst out of a bush and I snatched him up. I climbed onto the brant’s back, settled my cat in front of me and flung an
command at the bird. As we rose into the air I sent frantic thought-patterns to Rodden, not caring now what might hear me. The clouds above the valley were thickening. I couldn’t tell how long until the acid started to rain down on us, but it wouldn’t be long.
I guided the brant back to where the Turning had been, scanning the ground with my eyes and mind. A hiss from Leap made my head snap up. A brant being ridden by a Lharmellin was bearing down on us, talons first. I brought up my bow, wavering between the brant and the rider for an instant, and then shot the bird in the neck. As I fumbled for another arrow the raptor tipped off balance and tumbled to the ground, taking the Lharmellin with it.
The sky cleared of brants. The storm was going to break at any moment. I hollered Rodden’s name with thought-patterns before remembering the cord between us. I wiped the other threads from my mind, found his and yanked with all my might. There! I grasped the reins as we dove through the trees. The brant struck the ground at speed and I tumbled off. The impact winded me but I struggled up, bow drawn. Rodden was fighting off a group of harmings, using his bow as a staff. I had eight arrows left and used four to pick the harmings off before they knew I was there. A remaining three glanced at the sky and sprinted off.
Rodden spotted me and ran over. ‘Acid storm,’ he gasped. ‘Make for the dolmen.’
We climbed onto the brant. It was getting stroppy having to carry two people and a cat, and the thunder overhead was unsettling it. It flapped its wings, rising up on the tips of its talons to shake us off. I sent an urgent
picture to it that carried all my terror of the approaching storm. It got the message and shot into the air, fear overcoming its stubbornness. To Griffin I cast a picture of the dolmen. We would have to fly through the pass we had traversed earlier. It would take too long to fly over the tors. I prayed the brant would be able to navigate the narrow space in the agitated state it was in.
The night had grown dark and the tors rushed towards us out of nowhere. The brant dipped a wing towards the ground, flying at an angle to narrow its broad span. Its wingtips skimmed the parallel rock faces as we hurtled through at breakneck speed. The wind whistled in my ears. Rodden tugged my hood firmly over my head and reached his arms around me to grip the saddle. I folded Leap into my cloak and cast about for Griffin. She was behind us, but I couldn’t tell how far. As we burst out of the pass the first drops of rain began to fall and I heard them sizzle on my cloak. I steered the brant down the tors, hoping that I was aiming for the dolmen. A lightning bolt lit up the sky brighter than day and I spotted it.
The brant screamed and shook its head frantic- ally. It had acid in its eyes. I plunged the bird into the ground and we skidded over the scree, coming to a halt about ten yards from the shelter. I half-fell, half-dismounted, felt Rodden haul me up by my arms and we stumbled over the uneven ground. Spots of acid fell on my arms and they burned like fire. We flung ourselves under the dolmen as the rain began to beat down.
‘Griffin!’ I screamed her name with my mind and my mouth. She’d been right behind us, I was sure of it. I waited for her to come hurtling out of the sky. She didn’t. Outside, the brant was caught in the storm. It was screaming in pain, desperately flapping its wings. One looked to be broken. The rain began to strip the feathers from its body, the flesh beneath turning an angry red.
I turned to Rodden. ‘You said the acid was only poisonous to humans.’
‘After it’s fallen, yes. Apparently not before.’
I gripped his arms. ‘Then Griffin’s out in it somewhere. Where is she? I can’t find her. I can’t hear her.’
Rodden looked out into the night, searching for the eagle. He shook his head. ‘The rain’s throwing up too much interference. I can’t trace her. She’ll have found shelter, don’t worry.’ He kept a grip on my arm, as if worried that I was going to go back out in the storm to look for her.