* * *
There are children holding hands in a circle. In the middle, a single child stands. The child wears a blindfold but there are painted eyes on the blindfold. The eyes are black and staring, edged with red. The child in the middle turns in a circle, hands outstretched. All the other children dance in a wider circle around her. They sing a song.
‘As long as the circle holds
The futures can be foretold.
You must be hard of heart
To tear the circle apart.’
It looks like a merry game. Each child in the outer circle shouts a sentence or a phrase. I cannot hear what they are saying, but the blinded child can. She begins to shout back at them, her words torn by a slowly rising wind. ‘Burn it all.’ ‘The dragons fall’. ‘The sea will rise.’ ‘The jewel strewn skies.’ ‘One comes as two’. ‘The four shall rue.’ ‘Two come as one.’ ‘Your reign is done!’ ‘Forfeit all lives.’ ‘No one survives!’
At that last shout, a wind bursts from the child in the middle. Bits of her fly in all directions and the wind picks up the screaming children and scatters them far and wide. All becomes black save for one circle of white. In the centre of the circle is the blindfold with its black eyes staring, staring.
Bee Farseer’s dream journal
* * *
The map-room at Aslevjal displayed a territory that included much of the Six Duchies, part of the Mountain Kingdom, a large section of Chalced and lands along both sides of the Rain Wild River. I suspect that it defines for us the boundaries of the ancient Elderlings territory at the time the maps were created. I have been unable to inspect the map-room of the abandoned Elderling city now known as Kelsingra personally, but I believe it would be very similar.
On the Aslevjal map were marked points that correspond to standing stones within the Six Duchies. I think it fair to assume that the identical markings in locations in the Mountains, Rain Wilds and even Chalced indicate standing stones that are Skill-portals. The conditions of those foreign portals are largely unknown, and some Skill-users caution against attempting to employ them until we have physically journeyed there and witnessed that they are in excellent condition. For the Skill-portal stones within the Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom, it seems prudent not only to send Skilled couriers to visit every site, but to require every duke to see that any such standing stones are maintained upright. The couriers who visit each stone should document the content and condition of the runes on each face of the stone as well.
In a few instances, we have found standing stones that do not correspond to a marking on the Aslevjal map. We do not know if they were raised after the map was created, or if they are stones that no longer function. We must continue to regard them with caution, as we do all use of Elderling magic. We cannot consider ourselves to be masters of it until we can duplicate their artefacts.
Skill-portals, Chade Fallstar
I ran. I hiked up the heavy white fur coat I wore and ran. I was already too warm and it dragged and snagged on every twig or trunk I passed. Behind me, Dwalia was shouting for someone to ‘Catch her, catch her!’ I could hear the Chalcedean making mooing noises. He galloped wildly about, once passing so close to me that I had to dodge him.
My thoughts raced faster than my feet. I remembered being dragged by my captors into a Skill-pillar. I even recalled how I had bitten the Chalcedean, hoping to make him release Shun. And he had, but he’d held onto me and followed us into the darkness of the Skill-pillar. No Shun had I seen, nor that Servant who had been last in our chain of folk. Perhaps both she and Shun had been left behind. I hoped Shun would escape her. Or perhaps had escaped her? I remembered the cold of a Buck winter clutching at us when we fled. But now we were somewhere else, and instead of deep cold I felt only chill. The snow had retreated into narrow fingers of dirty white in the deeper shade of the trees. The forest smelled of early spring, but no branches had yet leafed out. How did one leap from winter in one place to spring in another? Something was very wrong but I had no time to consider it. I had a more pressing concern. How did one hide in a leafless forest? I knew I could not outrun them. I had to hide.
I hated the coat fiercely. I could not pause to wriggle out the bottom of it, for my hands felt as clumsy as fish flippers and I could not possibly hide from my pursuers in a huge white fur coat. So I fled, knowing I could not escape but too frightened to let them reclaim me.
Choose a place to take a stand. Not where they can corner you but not where they can surround you either. Find a weapon, a stick, a rock, anything. If you cannot escape, make them pay as dearly as you can for capturing you. Fight them all the way.
Yes, Wolf Father. I spoke his name in my mind to give me courage. I reminded myself that I was the child of a wolf, even if my teeth and claws were pathetic things. I would fight.
But I was already so tired. How could I fight?
I could not understand what the passage through the stone had done to me. Why was I so weak and so tired? I wanted to fall where I was and be still. I longed to let sleep claim me, but I dared not. I could hear them calling to one another, shouting and pointing at me. Time to stop running, time to make my stand. I chose my spot. A cluster of three trees, their trunks so close together that I could dodge between them but none of my pursuers could easily follow me. I could hear at least three people crashing through the bushes behind me. How many might there be? I tried to calm myself enough to think. Dwalia, their leader: the woman who had smiled so warmly as she stole me from my home. She had dragged me through the Skill-pillar. And Vindeliar, the boy-man who could make people forget what they had experienced, he had come through the stone. Kerf was the Chalcedean sell-sword but his mind was so scrambled from our Skill-journey that either he was no danger to anyone or he might kill any of us. Who else? Alaria, who would unquestioningly do whatever Dwalia told her, as would Reppin, who had so harshly crushed my hand as we came through the pillar. It was a much smaller force than she had started with, but they still outnumbered me five to one.
I crouched behind one of the trees, pulled my arms in from the sleeves of the heavy fur robe and at last wriggled and lifted until I could slide out of it. I picked it up and threw it as far as I could, which was not far. Should I run on? I knew I could not. My stomach was doubling and twisting uneasily and I had a stitch in my side. This was as far as I could go.
A weapon. There was nothing. Only a fallen branch. The thick end was no bigger around than my wrist and diverged into three limbs at the end. A poor weapon, more rake than staff. I took it up. Then I pressed my back to one of the trees, hoping against hope that my pursuers would see the coat and pass me by, so I could double back and find a better hiding spot.
They were coming. Dwalia shouted in gasps. ‘I know you are frightened. But don’t run. You will starve and die without us. A bear will eat you. You need us to survive. Come back, Bee. No one will be angry at you.’ Then I heard the lie as she turned her fury on her followers. ‘Oh, where is she? Alaria, you fool, get up! None of us feel well, but without her we cannot go home!’ Then, letting her anger win, ‘Bee! Stop being foolish! Come here right now! Vindeliar, hurry! If I can run, so can you! Find her, fog her!’
As I stood behind the tree, trying to make my terrified breathing as quiet as I could, I felt Vindeliar reaching for me. I pushed hard to make my thought-walls strong, as my father had shown me. I gritted my teeth and bit hard on my lip to keep him out. He was making memories of sweet, warm foods and hot soup and fragrant, fresh bread at me. All those things I wanted so much, but if I let him make me think about them he could find a way in. No. Raw meat. Meat frozen onto bones, gnawing it off with my back teeth. Mice with their fur on, and their little crunc
Wolf food. Strange, how delicious it sounded. I gripped my stick with both hands and waited. Should I stay hidden and hope they would run past me? Or step out and strike the first blow?
I did not get a choice. I saw Alaria go stumbling past my hiding-place, several trees away. She halted, looked stupidly at the white fur on the ground and then as she turned to call back to the others, she saw me. ‘She’s here! I found her!’ She pointed at me with a shaking hand. I set my feet a shoulder’s width apart as if I were going to play at knife-fighting with my father and waited. She stared at me and then sank down in a crumpled heap, her own white coat folding around her and made no effort to rise. ‘I found her,’ she called in a weaker voice. She flapped a limp hand at me.
I heard footsteps to my left. ‘Look out!’ Alaria gasped, but she was too late. I swung my branch as hard as I could, connected with Dwalia’s face, and then danced back to the right between the trees. I set my back to one trunk and took up my stance again, branch at the ready. Dwalia was shouting but I refused to look and see if I’d hurt her. Perhaps I’d been lucky enough to put one of her eyes out. But Vindeliar was lumbering toward me, his doltish smile beaming. ‘Brother! There you are! You are safe. We found you.’
‘Stay back or I’ll hurt you!’ I threatened him. I found I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a tool of my enemy, but left to himself I doubted he had any malice. Not that a lack of malice would prevent him from hurting me.
‘Brothe-er,’ he said, drawing the word out sadly. It was a rebuke but a gentle one. I realized he was radiating gentleness and fondness at me. Friendship and comfort.
No. He was not truly any of those things. ‘Stay back!’ I commanded him.
The Chalcedean lolloped past us, ululating as he went, and I could not tell if he deliberately or accidentally jostled against the little man. Vindeliar tried to avoid him, but stumbled and fell flat with a mournful cry just as Dwalia rounded the tree trunks. Her hands were extended toward me like claws, her lips pulled back from her bloodied teeth as if she would seize me in her jaws. Two-handed I swung my branch at her, willing it to knock her head from her shoulders. Instead, it broke and the jagged end dragged across her reddened face, trailing a line of blood. She flung herself at me, and I felt her nails dig into my flesh right through my worn clothing. I literally tore myself free of her grip. She kept part of my sleeve as I squeezed between the tree trunks.
Reppin was waiting there. Her fish-grey eyes met mine. Hatred gave way to a mindless glee as she leapt toward me. I dodged sideways, leaving her to embrace the tree face-first. She hit, but she was spryer than I thought. One of her feet hooked mine. I jumped high, cleared it, but stumbled on the uneven ground. Alaria had regained her feet. She wailed wildly as she threw herself against me. Her weight carried me to the ground and, before I could wriggle out, I felt someone step hard on my ankle. I grunted then cried out as the pressure increased. It felt as if my bones were bending, as if they would snap at any instant. I shoved Alaria off me but the moment she was clear, Reppin kicked me in the side, hard, without getting off my ankle.
Her foot slammed all the air out of me. Tears I hated swelled in my eyes. I thrashed for a moment, then wrapped myself around her legs and struggled to get her off my ankle but she grabbed my hair and shook my head wildly. Hair ripped from my scalp and I could not focus my vision.
‘Beat her.’ I heard Dwalia’s voice. It shook with some strong emotion. Anger? Pain? ‘With this.’
I made the mistake of looking up. Reppin’s first blow with my broken stick caught my cheek, the hinge of my jaw and my ear, mashing it into the side of my head. I heard a high ringing and my own shriek. I was shocked, outraged, offended and in a disabling amount of pain. I scrabbled to get away but she still had a thick handful of my hair. The stick fell again, across my shoulder blades as I struggled to break free. There was not enough meat on my bones and my blouse was no protection: the pain of the blow was followed by the instant burn of broken skin. I cried out wildly and twisted, reaching up to grip her wrist and try to wrest her hand free of my hair. She put more weight on my ankle and only the cushion of forest humus kept it from breaking. I shrieked and tried to push her off.
The stick fell again, lower on my back, and I suddenly knew how my ribs joined my spine and the twin columns of muscle that ran alongside my spine, for all of it screeched with wrong.
All of it happened so fast and yet each individual blow was a single event in my life, one to be always remembered. I’d never been treated harshly by my father and the very few times my mother had disciplined me it had been little more than a cuff or a light slap. Always to warn me of danger, to caution me not to touch the firescreen, or to reach over my head for the kettle on the hob. I’d had a very few tussles with children at Withywoods. I’d been pelted with pinecones and small stones, and once I’d been in a serious fight that left me bloodied. But I had never been beaten by an adult. I’d never been held in a painful way while a grown-up tried to deliver as much pain as she could, regardless of how it might injure me. I suddenly knew that if she knocked out my teeth or struck an eye from its socket, no one would care except me.
Stop being afraid. Stop feeling the pain. Fight! Wolf Father was suddenly with me, his teeth bared and every hackle standing up.
I can’t! Reppin is going to kill me!
Hurt her back. Bite her, scratch her, kick her! Make her pay for giving you pain. She is going to beat you anyway, so take what you can of her flesh. Try to kill her.
I stopped trying to wrest her grip from my hair. Instead, as my stick fell again on my back, I lunged toward her instead of away, caught the wrist of her stick-hand and pulled it to my mouth. I opened my jaws as wide as I could and then closed them. I bit her not to hurt her, not to leave toothmarks or make her shout with pain. I bit her to drive my teeth down to her bone to gain a mouthful of flesh and sinew and try to tear it free of her body. I set my teeth as she shrieked and flailed at me with the stick, and then I worried the meat of her wrist, shaking my head fiercely. She let go of my hair, dropped the stick and danced about, yelling in pain and fear, but I kept my grip on her wrist, with both my hands and my teeth, and kicked at her shins and feet and knees as she dragged me about with her. I tried to make my molars meet as I clenched my jaws and hung my weight from her arm.
Reppin roared and thrashed. She’d dropped the stick and thought only to pry herself free. She was not a large person; she was slight of build and I had a good chunk of the stringy meat and flabby muscle of her forearm in my teeth. I worked my jaw together. She was shrieking. ‘Get her off me! Get her off me!’ She set the palm of her hand to my forehead and tried to push me away. I let her and she screamed as she helped me tear meat from her bones. She slapped at me but weakly. Jaws and hands, I gripped her tighter. She sank to the earth with me still locked to her arm.
Beware! Father Wolf warned me. Spring away!
But I was a cub and I did not see the danger, only that my enemy had collapsed before me. Then Dwalia kicked me so hard that my mouth flew open. It knocked me free of Reppin onto the damp earth. With no air in me all I could do was roll feebly instead of getting to my feet and running away. She kicked me repeatedly. My belly, my back. I saw her booted foot coming toward my face.
When I woke up, it was dark, and cold. They had managed a fire but its light barely touched me. I was lying on my side, facing away from the fire, bound hand and foot. My mouth was salty with blood, both thick and fresh. I had wet myself, and the fabric of my trousers was cold against me. I wondered if they had hurt me so bad that I peed or if I had been that frightened. I could not remember. I woke up crying, or perhaps I realized I was crying after I woke up. Everything hurt. My face was swollen on one side from where Reppin had hit me with the stick. My face might have bled, for dead leaves were stuck to my skin. My back hurt and my ribs caged my painful breaths.
Can you move your fingers? Can you feel your toes?
Does your belly hurt like a bruise or does it hurt like things are broken inside?
I don’t know. I never hurt like this before. I drew in a deeper breath and the pain forced it out as a sob.
Hush. Don’t make a sound or they will know you are awake. Can you get your hands to your mouth?
They had tied my feet together and bound my hands at the wrist in front of me. I brought them up to my face. They were tied together with strips torn from my shirt. That was part of why I felt so cold. Although spring had visited here during the day, winter reclaimed this forest at night.
Chew your hands free.
I can’t. My lips were smashed and bloody. My teeth felt loose and sore in my gums.
You can. Because you must. Chew your hands free and untie your feet, and we will go. I will show you where to go. There is someone kin to us not far from here. If I can wake him he will protect you. If not, I will teach you to hunt. Once, your father and I lived in these mountains. Perhaps the den he built for us is still tight. We will go there.
I didn’t know we were in the mountains! You lived in the mountains with my father?
I did. I have been here before. Enough. Start chewing.
It hurt to bend my neck to reach the bindings on my hands. It hurt to press my teeth in hard enough to bite the fabric. It had been a nice shirt the morning I had put it on to go to my lessons with Scribe Lant. One of the maids, Caution, had helped me to dress. She’d chosen this pale-yellow blouse and over it she had tugged a green tunic. The colours of my house, I realized suddenly. She’d dressed me in Withywood colours, even if the tunic had been too big for me and hung on me like a dress, nearly to my knees. I’d worn leggings that day, not the padded trousers my captors had given me to wear. The wet trousers. Another sob rose in me. Before I could choke it back, I made a sound.
‘… awake?’ someone asked by the fire. Alaria, I thought.
‘Leave her as she is!’ Dwalia commanded harshly.
‘But my brother is hurt! I can feel his pain!’ This from Vindeliar in a low and woeful voice.