This is the first chapter in book three (of three) of this series. If you haven’t read Fog and Flames or Snow and Ash yet, I suggest you start there. (Note: I changed the names of Alanna to Ilanna and Evelle to Avelle.)
“I said kneel.”
I didn’t want to kneel. Not to Avelle, not to anyone. I’d rather die.
Avelle pulled water from her urn behind me, formed it into a slab of ice, then slammed it down on the tops of my calves. My knees drilled into the dry, hard ground of her tent without protest from me.
I wanted to die.
Not just because of the misery Avelle had in store for me. If I had something worth living for, I’d happily grasp onto that with all my remaining strength. But I didn’t.
Every second longer I survived, the chances grew that Ilanna would come back for me. If she knew I was dead, she’d be able to move on. My survival meant her death. Not a bargain I wanted to make.
I had to trust that Rochte saw this, and would keep her from getting them both killed. He had to have seen what she didn’t when they ran.
Now that I was on my knees, Avelle stood from her couch of furs. She towered over me, with Gorodok at her side. I was still bleeding not only from my arm, but also from the slice he’d placed across my chest, now hours later. Every breath stretched the skin around the wound, reminding me anew of the agony.
I didn’t look up at Avelle as she approached. Slowly – easily – her feet came into my line of sight. “Do you remember what I told you?” Avelle asked. “When you interrupted me last? The day I gave Ilanna over to that traitor.” Khythim, she could only mean.
I searched my memory in spite of myself. It was almost a month ago, but I have a good memory for words. That’s part of why I became a teacher, and had penned several academic novels. Before all of this.
I recalled the scene – the drizzle, standing outside the mote while Avelle paced around the warriors within, my protests before she froze my feet to the ground. Her response.
I’d cut out that tongue if I didn’t have a use for it.
“You do remember.” I could hear the smile in Avelle’s words, though I still refused to look up to her. “Tell me,” she put a single finger under my chin, lifting my gaze. She had changed her outfit since her battle with Khythim. “How do you translate a scream?”
You don’t. My teacher’s mind answered her question before I fully understood the weight of what she was implying.
Ilanna was gone. My usefulness as an interpreter had run dry. Avelle planned to meet Ilanna again, but not as master and slave. Not anymore. They’d be equals, heading up armies with the sole purpose of killing each other. By that point, there would be no use for words.
Or a translator.
I’d cut out that tongue if I didn’t have a use for it.
She didn’t. Not anymore.
I looked – really looked – at Avelle this time. My eyes narrowed to a defiant glare. We both knew the other understood the situation plainly. I was nothing more than a plaything, to be used and disposed of accordingly.
“Do it,” I encouraged. Maybe if she did, then I’d bleed out. There was remarkably little blood left in me, and what existed still oozed out the wound in my chest.
Gorodok paused from wiping my blood off his favorite weapon. “He’s too pale.” He offered a small grin to himself, as if he had found some other joke amusing, before continuing his work. “You’d kill him.”
As if to emphasize his point to only me, dizziness washed over me. For a moment I had trouble staying upright, even with my knees in the dirt.
Avelle’s finger finally left my chin. She turned to her brother, suddenly ignoring me entirely. “Where did the whelp go?”
I knew. I had sent them there, to Jath’s cabin. But I hoped to die long before they extracted that information from me.
“I’ll start tracking as soon as the morning light strikes.” Seemingly satisfied with his weapon, Gorodok slid it back into its home again.
Avelle turned back to glance at me. “Will they come for him?”
No! I wanted to beg – not just Avelle and Gorodok, but Ilanna and Rochte too – to just let me die here. I kept my silence, swallowing my words and emotions.
“Probably not for a couple of days.”
Avelle turned to fully face me again, taking her time to kneel uncomfortably close to me. “You know where they are, don’t you, cavedweller?”
Even in front of the gathered clan, I had given the order to Ilanna in tribal, so the secret was safe.
Dizziness found me again, this time accompanied by nausea. It was all I could do just to maintain my defiant posture.
“Tell me.” Her order was almost affectionate.
I couldn’t help my laughter at her words. “Or what?” I asked. “You’ll kill me?” I tilted my head back as far as it would go, so her sneer would be level with the tender parts of my throat. “Go ahead.” There was a weird kind of comfort with my head like that, so I left it. Not particularly interested in her tent’s architecture anymore, I just closed my eyes.
I heard her shuffle to a standing position before she orbited around me. She stopped directly behind me, where her frozen slab that had made me kneel had turned the ground to mud. One hand clapped over my right ear, then my left. She twisted my head back farther than it wanted to go, so that my chest stretched in order to keep my skull attached at the awkward angle.
I couldn’t help – didn’t try to stop – the tiny roar that issued from my throat as I felt the skin on my chest reopen, a fresh wave of warmth spilling down across my gut.
Avelle’s next words were tender, almost like she was telling me a secret. “No, cavedweller. I won’t kill you.” She leaned in close and twisted my head back again, but I could still hear her through her hand. “But you’ll wish I had.”
That was the last thing I remember from that moment in her tent. I have to assume I lost too much blood, and whatever survival systems my body had cherished took over.
I later calculated that I was down for about a week, but I had no idea at the time. My world was a disturbed dream. Sometimes I was cozy by the fire, other times I was near drowning. I was shivering and sweating at once. Food was brought – stale and hard but tasting like strawberries. I thought I was outside, exposed to the elements as it snowed, but I rolled over and I was back in my room at the school, blankets over me and pillow under me. I know not everything I remember during those days was real, but even now I cannot tell you which of my memories actually occurred.
The first memory I’m certain of put me in an unfamiliar tent when I woke up. To my surprise, I was elevated off the ground about a foot. In a cot.
I had never seen so much clutter in a clansman’s tent before. Some of it had been stolen from the tribes – I recognized the handiwork – but most of it was in cloth pouches, dangling from the ceiling as if it were raining inside. My next thought was that I had been gifted to the Falcon clan for some reason. They were the ones who used rope this way. But my cot was on the ground, not in the treetops or embedded in some cliff side, as they tended to make their homes.
The next thing I noticed was myself. I had been tucked in, with a blanket covering most of me, starting just below the wound in my chest. It had healed some, but the gash had some kind of white paste filling it in. Memory served the clans used maggots to eat the dead flesh from a wound, then mashed the critters when they were done to form a salve. This could be the same stuff.
I put my head back to the hard wooden edge of the cot. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Panic slid over me for a moment as I remembered Avelle’s threat. I rolled my tongue across my teeth. It was still there. They were all still there. She was waiting for something before choking me in my own blood.
Realization washed over me: Avelle was keeping me alive. Not just ambivalence, as she had before, but actively trying to heal me. The clan was wasting valuable resources to bring a slave back from the brink of death. She knew war was coming, and yet here they were, using precious herbs on me. Why?
Almost an hour passed in utter stillness. I lied there, pondering my circumstances as thirst grew in the back of my throat. The air wasn’t cold, but it was bitter. The fire likely smoldered for some time, but it was an herb – burned and waved around the room, probably – that I was smelling. People moved about on the other side of the skins insulating me from the outside world. I could hear them crunch through the snow, which must have been deep and followed by at least one clear day of melting then refreezing for that kind of sound.
When my temporary loneliness finally ended, I was visited by not one, but two people. The elder was about my age, but already stooped over and female. The younger was maybe twelve, trotting behind the elder with her arms full. An apprentice following her master, learning the healing trade. And practicing on me, it would seem.
The younger noticed me first as she was putting her burden down. “Look, ma! He’s awake.” The clansman word ma here translates to any matriarchal figure, not just the birthgiver. The age difference was more like grandmother-grandchild.
“What did I tell you?” the elder asked rhetorically without looking away from her own task. “Ah.” She swept up the jar she was looking for and met the student at my side. She handed it to the younger before instructing her. “Go on. What’s next?”
I got the impression the younger knew the answer, but was pausing to think through it a second time before giving it aloud. “We rinse out the old wound, then apply this in its place.”
“Go on,” the elder repeated, turning her back on us.
So the younger set the jar down, gathered some coarsely woven cloth, and started to clear up the white goop in my chest. Though she was gentle, her every touch sent fires splashing across my skin, as if it were a particularly spicy food, and my wound was a tongue.
It was all I could do to simply regulate my breathing and not offend her kindness, despite my distaste for the act itself. “Thank you,” I managed as she switched tasks.
The girl glanced at me, quietly startled, before continuing her work. “You don’t seem thankful.”
It was true. “You’re quite perceptive.” My hope to be free of Avelle’s grasp by dying had been waylaid by this girl’s talents, and that of her teacher. I swallowed before amending my earlier statement. “I appreciate your work. It is not your fault that I wish you didn’t have to do it.” I didn’t know how to be any more polite than that.
“Avelle says you’re going to help make the clan whole again.” She leveled two full fingers in the air before continuing. “Is it true?”
The sorceress was not being shy about her plan, then. Not if she was sharing it with a young girl. “I hope the clan is made whole again, and soon,” I answered. In truth, I had no idea what my part in that would be, whether for good or evil. Ilanna or Avelle.
She was a sharp girl. “You didn’t answer my –”
“Are you done yet?”
The girl quickly filled the remaining cavity in my chest. “Yes, ma.”
The elder swept around the cluttered tent to inspect over her apprentice’s shoulder. “Good. Hurry and tell Avelle he’s awake.” Great.
The girl did as she was bidden, allowing a fresh gasp of frigid air into the tent in her wake.
“You can sit up, if you like.” The comment was polite, and came across as a sincere offer, not an order. The master had returned to sorting what her apprentice had brought in.
I pushed myself up, letting the furs slide down into my lap as I did. I could feel a cloth wrapped around the lower portion of my left arm, where Gorodok had slashed me. “Your skills did not work on Khythim, I take it?” If he had survived Avelle’s skewering, he’d be bedridden for months.
“No. They burned him before I got there.” She was sliding things from one pile to another, examining each as she went.
“Did you mourn him?”
Her hands paused at my question, then continued. “He was a traitor to this clan. An oath breaker.” Those were Avelle’s words, merely echoed by the woman in front of me. The clan’s healer did mourn him, but in secret. I imagine a lot of the clan was in the same boat.
The woman didn’t respond, but instead found what she was looking for in a wide strip of cloth. “Lift up your arms,” she ordered as she turned to me.
I obeyed, feeling the stretch of the wound in my chest as well as a collection of other sorenesses from my beating.
The woman wrapped the cloth around my core twice, tightly securing it in place before continuing over one shoulder, parallel to and covering the gash entirely. Her hands were agile, if wrinkled, and her work was quick. She was plastering a fresh layer of a different goo across the end of the material when Avelle came in.
Avelle said nothing, but instead walked into the center, tallest part of the tent, ignoring the satchels that bounced against her hair as she went. “Where is she?”
“Who?” I asked, though we all knew the sorceress was talking about Ilanna.
The woman released water at my gut, which turned and trickled upward. At the last moment, it froze in place, so that a shard of ice touched just under my chin. Exactly where Khythim’s fatal blow had been struck, and with the same weapon. “You know who.”
I looked the woman dead in the eye, defiant. “Far, far away.” I secretly hoped that was true, at least. I put my chin on the ice as if it were a shelf, inviting Avelle to go through with her threat.
It sank a little, though I wasn’t sure if it was my touch or Avelle’s indecision. “No,” she searched my eyes. “She’ll come for you. She likes you.”
“She wouldn’t trade herself for me.” I hoped. “Her work is too important.” If Rochte had any loyalty to me whatsoever, he’d make sure of that.
“Her work?” Avelle asked.
I inwardly cursed my slip, but outwardly matched Avelle glare for glare.
The ice slid from my chin to my throat, coming to rest behind my windpipe, as if it was trying to feel my pulse.
I leaned forward. It was almost a child’s game, like a staring competition: a contest of sheer will.
Avelle broke first. “Fine.” The sickle of ice dropped to my lap with a splash. “You had your chance, cavedweller. I was trying to be nice. You chose the hard way.” At that, she dropped her wrist, as if sliding a blade hidden up her sleeve. Except she didn’t have sleeves, so it slid from under her skin into her palm, and it wasn’t a blade. It was a heavy, solid club of ice.
I didn’t even try to stop her when she slammed it against my temple.