by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 6: Cold Stars
The stars are cold tonight. I’ve counted six moons since the night of the fire when I left my old life in ashes. Take away a title and there is little difference between a prince and a slave. I thank the Goddess I have skills I can barter for my life: reading and herb lore and the circlet of a seer. Funny how my father’s last gift to me buys my bread when men say I killed his children.
The scavengers — or hills people, as I learn to call them — pay little heed to tales of princes and kings. What they find they keep. They shelter me because I’m worth nothing dead and may be useful if I live. Such is the contract between us that was sealed when I lay helpless at their mercy.
Luc, their leader, was all for killing me then, but his elder brother Matthias stayed his hand. I could heal, then I could work, he said. Fortunately I earn my keep but I know I’m on borrowed time.
I didn’t know that the sands would run through the glass so quickly. Four moons later and I’m making a name and a place for myself: healing the sick, tending wounds, interpreting dreams and telling stories. Master Fadil at the temple might be proud of me. One day I’m strong enough to make my halting way into the woods and gather my own herbs. They trust me, knowing I can’t go far.
Then I see the smoke rising from the next valley and find a corpse lying broken at the foot of a tree. They cut him down and cut out his tongue, leaving a scrap of parchment clasped in his hand as a message. A proclamation under my brother Majvaz’ seal: all the lands held by the hills people are forfeit to the king for harbouring the king’s enemies.
But I don’t read that part to them. Johannes, their priest, is looking at me strangely, and I pray the scavengers are all as illiterate as my father’s people say they are. I know the rituals of the old religion.
Luc listens to me, and again I bargain for my life, claiming I can lead them to safety. They follow, leaving no one behind as their settlement burns behind them. The old, the infirm, the children travel together protected by the hunters, who ride out for food daily so we can all eat.
I read the stars, plan our route though the hills to the great plain and dream of a life beyond my father’s kingdom. For two moons we travel and I begin to think that one day they might set me free. No one dies of grief or guilt. Men may call me a murderer, but I want to live.
Tonight the leaves are tattered rags that drift in shoals around our feet. Briars snatch at our cloaks. A new moon lights up the sky with a pale beam.
We hug the shelter beneath the trees and take the long way round the forest clearings. Our progress is slow. I bite my lip with frustration as the leaves shift restlessly beneath our feet, betraying our presence.
The children are tiring and the elders who carry them are bone-weary and feel their straw-light burdens break their backs. I lead our straggling party, and every now and then I wait for the others to catch up with me. They are grateful for the rest, and I don’t tell them that I am feeling my way in the dark.
I can see in the glint of their moonlit eyes that they know, and they’re afraid. The wood is very different at night, and in the shadows something moves, tracking us like prey. There are wolves and more out there; monsters that linger in old tales.
Finally, we come to the border of the forest and stare out at the plain, dotted with campfires. Out there are traders’ camps and beyond the plains are the roads that lead to the empire.
Voices carry clearly at night. The smell of roasting meat drifts to us on the breeze. Anah’s baby whimpers with hunger. Her mother stifles the child’s face against her breast and bids her ‘hush’ in a sibilant whisper. Another life I traded for mine by delivering her child safely when the cord was wound around her neck.
I make an angry gesture, and we all freeze as a dog begins to bark. In the breathless silence, a man stirs in his sleep. We hear a muffled blow, and his dog whines and grows quiet.
It seems like madness to lead these fugitives out onto the plain, but with my father’s kingdom closed to us, there is nowhere else to go. My task is nearly done. With the luck of the Goddess, today I can slip away before the hunters return. I must leave soon while I have the chance.
It has taken longer than I hoped to cross the wood. We need to find shelter before the day is upon us. They crowd around me, each looking at me without words, expecting me to tell them what we should do next.
I stare out at the fires on the plain and, for a moment, I wish I could run. Lame as I am, I could travel so much further and faster without them.
Maybe I could even cross the border and seek refuge in the empire. I have skills I could use. I would not starve as we are all likely to do here in the wild lands. Already I know that they blame me. I have led them from danger to danger. I am lucky they have let me live this long.
That being so, there is nothing left for me to lose. Already I can hear the muttering. I have led them miles from their homes, and they are afraid.
I turn to face them, holding up my hand. Their eyes go to the silver circlet I wear like a charm.
‘Thinking of going somewhere, Kyran?’ The hunters are back sooner than I thought, and they have killed nothing. It is Johannes who questions me. He is the one I fear most, knowing that he’d gladly sacrifice me to his gods.
The Goddess rules over all but the old gods are jealous, they say. They will have blood for the stone altars they ceded long ago when the first king seized the lands from the hills people, terming them scavengers, and brought in the new worship. Akane Kidaria, mother of us all. In her red aspect she is vengeance. Pray she will protect us.
I can smell fear and the smouldering embers of their anger like the fires that destroyed their homes. Majvaz’s raiders are long gone, but I am here, and soon, if I say nothing, they will sate their fury on me.
I hold my hands out and the silver catches the light. ‘I did what you asked. I brought you to the plains. Now I ask that you let me go.’
They will not, I know. They close in, muttering.
Luc raises his knife and holds it level with my eyes. They lay heavy hands on my shoulders and force me to kneel. I feel their hands in my hair, drawing my head back.
‘Wait!’ a voice from the crowd. Old Matthias, who was kind to me that first night and let me live. ‘Would you butcher the boy here and draw the kites and crows to us? Do you want to send up a beacon to show where we are?’
There is laughter. ‘We know you, Matthias. Your heart is tender for this boy.’ There is a spin to the words that makes them sound obscene. Matthias raises his head. He is old, but there is strength in his voice. He led them once. When he speaks, all men listen. I drained the pus from the old wound in his leg that cost him his leadership.
‘I will forgive the insult this once, Luc, but I do not stay to bandy words with a fool. The boy has kept his word. He brought us to the plain.’
‘The boy brought the king’s raiders to us. He is unlucky.’ There is a murmur of agreement.
‘What do you expect when we left the altars of our gods cold and did not sacrifice this boy to them?’ Johannes, pushes forward, bringing a sour reek like the lees of rotten wine. They loose me, and he grips my chin. I try not to gag.
‘There is another use for this boy. The traders are always looking for slaves. He would fetch a good price and maybe buy us passage. His death brings no profit.’ The hunters nod at Matthias’ wisdom. I should be grateful he has saved me again but I wasn’t born for slavery.
I shiver and tense, ready to make a break for freedom. Luc shoves out his foot, and I crash to the ground like a sapling ripped up from the ground. The pain is sharp. Luc pulls me to my feet and I stumble.
‘You can’t run, boy.’
They loop rope around my hands, binding them behind me and strip the silver circlet from my wrist. After so long it is like losing a limb.
‘Please,’ I whisper. ‘It is no use to you.’
‘It will fetch a pretty price, and you can work without it.’
They prod me to my feet and I go with them, unresisting now. The part that is left of me is dark like an empty room. The vision of the circlet — the flame that burns within it — is all that has kept me alive these past six moons. I fumble for my healer’s knife, but they take it from me.
Later, much later, they bring me to the traders’ camp. Fire flickers on the edge of my vision but everything is shadowy and grey. I’m limping again, weaker than I was before, and now they will sell me.
Foolish to think they might have been grateful to me for saving them. After all, I planned to leave them too.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts