A torch against the nigh.., p.8
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.8
 

         Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir

  "Kill him, Shikaat," says a third Tribesman standing near my knees. "If he wakes up, we're dead."

  "He's not going to wake up," the man they call Shikaat says. "Look at him--he's got an arm and a leg in the grave already."

  Laia slowly eases her body over my head. I feel glass between my lips. Liquid dribbles out--liquid that tastes of iron and herbs. Tellis extract. A second later the glass is gone, shoved back to where Laia must be hiding it.

  "Shikaat, listen--" she begins, but the raider shoves her back.

  "That's the second time you've leaned forward like that, girl. What are you up to?"

  Time's up, Veturius.

  "Nothing!" Laia says. "I want the bounty as much as you do!"

  One: I imagine the attack first--where I will strike, how I will move.

  "Why did you lean forward?" Shikaat roars at Laia. "And don't lie to me."

  Two: I flex the muscles of my left arm to prepare it, as the right is trapped beneath me. I inhale silently to get breath to every part of my body.

  "Where's the Tellis extract?" Shikaat hisses, suddenly remembering. "Give it to me!"

  Three: Before Laia can respond to the Tribesman, I shove my right foot against the ground for leverage and spin backward on my hip, away from Shikaat's blade, taking out the Tribesman at my feet with my bound legs and rolling up as he slams to the ground. I lunge for the Tribesman at my knees next, head butting him before he can lift his blade. He drops it, and I turn to catch it, thankful that he at least kept it sharp. With two saws, I'm through the ropes on my wrists, and with two more, the one on my ankles. The first Tribesman I knocked over scrambles up and bolts out of the cave--no doubt to get backup.

  "Stop!"

  I wheel toward the last Tribesman--Shikaat--who holds Laia against his chest. He has her wrists squeezed in one hand, a blade to her throat, and murder in his eyes.

  "Drop the blade. Put your hands in the air. Or I kill her."

  "Go on then," I say in perfect Sadhese. His jaw tightens, but he doesn't move. A man not easily surprised. I consider my words carefully. "A second after you kill her, I'll kill you. Then you'll be dead, and I'll be free."

  "Try me." He digs the blade into Laia's neck, drawing blood. Her eyes dart around as she tries to spot something--anything--she can use against him. "I have a hundred men outside this cave--"

  "If you had a hundred men outside"--I keep my attention on Shikaat--"you'd have called them in alre--"

  I fly forward mid-word, one of Grandfather's favorite tricks. Fools pay attention to words in a fight, he said once. Warriors take advantage of them. I wrench the Tribesman's right hand away from Laia while shoving her out of the way with my body.

  Which, at that exact moment, turns traitor on me.

  The adrenaline rush of the attack drains out of me like water down a sewer, and I stagger back, my vision doubling. Laia grabs something off the ground and spins round to the Tribesman, who grins at her nastily.

  "Your hero still has poison running through him, girl," he hisses. "He can't help you now."

  He lunges at her, lashing out with the knife, aiming to kill her. Laia flings dirt into his eyes, and he roars, turning his face away. But he cannot stop the momentum of his body. Laia lifts her blade, and with a sickening squelch, the Tribesman impales himself upon it.

  Laia gasps and releases the blade, backing away. Shikaat reaches out, grabbing her by the hair, and her mouth opens in a silent scream, her eyes fixed on the blade in the raider's chest. She finds my face, terror in her own as with his last bit of life, Shikaat seeks to kill her.

  Strength finally returns to my body, and I shove him away from her. He releases her, looking at his suddenly weak hand curiously, as if it doesn't belong to him. Then he thuds to the ground, dead.

  "Laia?" I call to her, but she stares at the body as if in a trance. Her first kill. My stomach twists in remembrance of my own first kill--a Barbarian boy. I recall his blue-painted face, the deep gash in his stomach. I know what Laia feels in this moment all too well. Disgust. Horror. Fear.

  My energy comes back to me now. Everything is pain--my chest, my arms, my legs. But I am not seizing, I am not hallucinating. I call to Laia again, and this time she looks up.

  "I didn't want to do it," she says. "He--he just came at me. And the knife--"

  "I know," I say gently. She won't want to discuss it. Her mind is in survival mode--it won't let her. "Tell me what happened in the Roost." I can distract her, at least for a bit. "Tell me how you got the Tellis."

  She relates the tale swiftly, helping me bind the unconscious Tribesman as she does so. As I listen, I'm half in disbelief and half bursting with pride at her sheer nerve.

  Outside the cave, I hear the hoot of an owl, a bird that has no business being out in weather like this. I edge to the entrance.

  Nothing moves in the rocks beyond, but a gust of wind blows the stink of sweat and horse toward me. Apparently Shikaat wasn't lying about having a hundred men waiting beyond the cave.

  To the south, at our backs, is solid rock. Serra lies to the west. The cave faces north, opening out onto a narrow trail that winds down into the desert and toward the passes that would take us safely through the Serran Range. To the east, the trail plunges into the Jutts, a half mile of sheer fingers of rock that are death in the best of weather, let alone when it's pissing rain. The eastern wall of the Serran Range rises beyond the Jutts. No trails, no passes, just wild mountains that eventually drop away into the Tribal desert.

  Ten hells.

  "Elias." Laia is a nervous presence beside me. "We should get out of here. Before the Tribesman wakes up."

  "One problem." I nod out to the darkness. "We're surrounded."

  Five minutes later, I've roped Laia to me and moved Shikaat's lackey, still bound, to the entrance of the cave. I secure Shikaat's body to the horse, removing his cloak so his men will recognize him. Laia pointedly doesn't look at the body.

  "Goodbye, nag." Laia rubs the horse between his ears. "Thank you for carrying me. I'm sad to lose you."

  "I'll steal you another," I say dryly. "Ready?"

  She nods, and I move to the back of the cave, laying flint to tinder. I nurse a flame, feeding it the few pieces of brush and wood I could find, much of it wet. Thick white smoke billows up, filling the cave quickly.

  "Now, Laia."

  Laia slaps the horse's rump with all her might, sending him and Shikaat thundering out of the cave and toward the Tribesmen waiting to the north. The men hiding behind the freestanding rocks to the west emerge, bellowing at the sight of the smoke, at their dead leader.

  Which means they're not looking at Laia and me. We slip out of the cave, hoods pulled low, masked by smoke and rain and darkness. I pull Laia onto my back, check the rope I've tied to an unobtrusive and half-hidden finger of rock, and then swing down into the Jutts silently, going hand below hand until I've reached a rain-slicked rock ten feet below. Laia hops down from my back with a slight scrape that I hope the Tribesmen won't hear. I tug on the rope to release it.

  Above, the Tribesmen cough as they enter the smoky cave. I hear them curse as they pull their friend free.

  Follow, I mouth to Laia. We move slowly, the sounds of our passage covered by the thudding boots and shouts of the Tribesmen. The rocks of the Jutts are sharp and slippery, the jagged edges digging into our boots, catching on our clothes.

  My mind goes back six years, to when Helene and I camped out at the Roost for a season.

  All Fivers come to the Roost to spy on the Raiders for a couple of months. The Raiders hated it; getting caught by them meant a long, slow death--one of the reasons the Commandant sent students here in the first place.

  Helene and I were stationed together--the bastard and the girl, the two outcasts. The Commandant must have gloated at a pairing she thought would get one of us killed. But friendship made Hel and me stronger, not weaker.

  We skipped over the Jutts as a game, light as gazelles, daring each other to make crazier a
nd crazier jumps. She matched my leaps with such ease that you'd never guess she feared heights. Ten hells, we were stupid. So certain we wouldn't fall. So sure death couldn't find us.

  Now I know better.

  You're dead. You just don't know it yet.

  The rain thins as we move across the rock field. Laia remains silent, her lips pressed together. She's troubled. I feel it. Thinking of Shikaat, no doubt. Still, she keeps up with me, hesitating only once, when I leap across a gap five feet wide, with a two-hundred-foot chasm beneath.

  I make the jump first, clearing the gap easily. When I look back, her face is blanched.

  "I'll catch you," I say.

  She stares at me with her gold eyes, fear and determination warring. Without warning, she leaps, and the force of her body knocks me back. My hands are filled with her--waist, hips, that cloud of sugar-scented hair. Her full lips part like she's going to say something. Not that I'll respond intelligently. Not with so much of her pressing against so much of me.

  I push her away. She stumbles, hurt flickering across her face. I don't even know why I do it, except that getting close to her feels wrong somehow. Unfair.

  "Almost there," I say to distract her. "Stay with me now."

  As we get closer to the mountains and farther from the Roost, the rain thins out, replaced by thick mist.

  The rock field levels and flattens into uneven terraces, the shelves interspersed with trees and scrub. I stop Laia and listen for sounds of pursuit. Nothing. The mist lays thick on the Jutts like a blanket, drifting through the trees around us and lending them an eeriness that makes Laia draw closer.

  "Elias," she whispers. "Will we turn north from here? Or circle back to the foothills?"

  "We don't have the gear to climb the mountains north of us," I say. "And Shikaat's men are probably crawling all over the foothills. They'll be looking for us."

  Laia's face pales. "Then how do we get to Kauf? If we take a ship from the south, the delay--"

  "We go east," I say. "Into the Tribal lands."

  Before she protests, I kneel and draw a rough map of the mountains and their surrounds in the dirt. "It's about two weeks to the Tribal lands. A bit longer if we're delayed. In three weeks, the Fall Gathering begins in Nur. Every Tribe will be there--buying, selling, trading, arranging marriages, celebrating births. When it's over, more than two hundred caravans will make their way out of the city. And each caravan is made up of hundreds of people."

  Understanding dawns in Laia's eyes. "We leave with them."

  I nod. "Thousands of horses, wagons, and Tribesmen head out at once. In case anyone does track us to Nur, they'll lose our trail. Some of those caravans will head north. We find one willing to shelter us. We hide among them and make our way to Kauf before the winter snows. A Tribal trader and his sister."

  "Sister?" She crosses her arms. "We look nothing alike."

  "Or wife, if you prefer." I raise an eyebrow at her, unable to resist. A blush rises in her cheeks and blooms down her neck. I wonder if it goes any lower. Stop, Elias.

  "How will we convince a Tribe not to turn us in for the bounty?"

  I finger the wooden coin in my pocket, the favor owed me by a clever Tribeswoman named Afya Ara-Nur. "Leave that to me."

  Laia considers what I've said and finally nods her agreement. I stand and listen, feeling out the land around us. It's too dark to continue on--we need a place to camp for the night. We pick our way up the terraces and into the dark forest beyond until I find a good spot: a clearing beneath a rock overhang, bordered by old-growth pines, their pitted trunks overgrown with moss. As I clear the rock and twigs from the dry earth beneath the overhang, I feel Laia's hand on my shoulder.

  "I need to tell you something," she says, and when I look into her face I lose my breath for a second. "When I went into the Roost," she goes on, "I was afraid that the poison would . . ." She shakes her head, and her words rush out. "I'm glad you're all right. And I know you're risking so much to do this for me. Thank you."

  "Laia--" You kept me alive. You kept yourself alive. You're as brave as your mother. Don't ever let anyone tell you different.

  Perhaps I'd follow the words by easing her toward me, running a finger along the golden line of her collarbone and up her long neck. Gathering her hair into a knot and pulling her close slowly, so, so slowly--

  Pain lances through my arm. A reminder. You destroy all those who get close to you.

  I could hide the truth from Laia. Finish the mission before my time is up and disappear. But the Resistance kept secrets from her. Her brother kept his work with Spiro from her. The identity of her parents' killer was hidden from her.

  Her life has been nothing but secrets. She deserves the truth.

  "You should sit down." I pull away from her. "I have to tell you something too." She is quiet as I speak, as I lay bare what the Commandant has done, as I tell her about the Waiting Place and the Soul Catcher.

  When I finish, Laia's hands shake, and I can barely hear her voice.

  "You--you're going to die? No. No." She wipes her face and takes a deep breath. "There must be something, some cure, some way--"

  "There isn't." I keep my voice matter-of-fact. "I'm certain. I have a few months, though. As many as six, I hope."

  "I have never hated anyone the way I hate the Commandant. Never." She bites her lip. "You said she let us go. Is this why? She wanted you to die slowly?"

  "I think she wanted to guarantee my death," I say. "But for now, I'm more useful to her alive than dead. No idea why."

  "Elias." Laia huddles into her cloak. After considering for a moment, I move closer to her, and we lean into each other's warmth. "I can't ask you to spend the last few months of your life on a mad dash to Kauf Prison. You should find your Tribal family. . . ."

  You hurt people, the Soul Catcher said. So many people: the men who died in the Third Trial either by my hand or because of my orders; Helene, left to Marcus's predations; Grandfather, fleeing from his home and into exile because of me; even Laia, forced to face the butchering block in the Fourth Trial.

  "I can't help the people I've hurt," I say. "I can't change what I did to them." I lean toward her. I need her to understand that I mean every word of what I say. "Your brother is the only Scholar on this continent who knows how to make Serric steel. I don't know if Spiro Teluman will meet Darin in the Free Lands. I don't even know if Teluman is alive. But I do know that if I can get Darin out of prison, if saving his life means that he can give the Empire's foes a chance to fight for their freedom, then perhaps I'll make up for some of the evil I've brought into the world. His life--and all the lives he could save--to make up for those that I've taken."

  "What if he's dead, Elias?"

  "You said you heard men in the Roost talking about him? About his connection to Teluman?" She tells me again what they said, and I consider. "The Martials will need to make sure Darin hasn't shared his blacksmithing knowledge and that if he has, that knowledge doesn't spread. They'll keep him alive for questioning." Though I don't know if he'll survive the interrogations. Especially when I consider the Warden of Kauf and the twisted ways he gets answers out of his prisoners.

  Laia turns her face to mine. "How sure are you?"

  "If I wasn't sure, but you knew there was a chance--the slightest chance--that he still lived, would you try to save him?" I see the answer in her eyes. "It doesn't matter if I'm sure, Laia," I say. "As long as you want to save him, then I will help you. I made a vow. I'm not going to break it."

  I take Laia's hands in mine. Cool. Strong. I would keep them here, kiss every callus on her palms, nibble the inside of her wrist so she gasped. I would pull her closer and see if she too wished to give in to the fire that burns between us.

  But for what? So that she can grieve when I'm dead? It's wrong. It's selfish.

  I pull away from her slowly, holding her eyes as I do it, so she knows it's the last thing I want. Hurt washes across her eyes. Confusion.

  Acceptance.


  I am glad she understands. I can't get close to her--not in that way. I can't let her get close to me. Doing so will only bring grief and pain.

  And she's had enough of that.

  XI: Helene

  "Leave her be, Nightbringer." I feel a strong hand beneath my arm, forcing me away from the wall and upright. Cain?

  Pale wisps of hair snake out of the Augur's hood. His wasted features are shadowed by his black robes, and his blood-red eyes are grave as he regards the creature. Nightbringer, he called it, like the old stories Mamie Rila used to tell.

  The Nightbringer hisses softly, and Cain's eyes narrow.

  "Leave her, I say." The Augur steps in front of me. "She does not walk in the darkness."

  "Doesn't she?" The Nightbringer chuckles before disappearing in a whirl of his cloak, leaving the scent of fire trailing. Cain turns to me.

  "Well met, Blood Shrike."

  "Well met? Well met?"

  "Come. We do not wish for the Commandant or her lackeys to overhear us."

  My body still shakes from what I saw in the Nightbringer's eyes. As Cain and I leave Villa Veturia, I get hold of myself. The second we clear the gates, I wheel on the Augur. Only a lifetime of veneration keeps me from grabbing desperately at his robes.

  "You promised." The Augur knows my every thought, so I don't hide the crack in my voice or fight the tears in my eyes. It is a relief not to, in a way. "You swore he would be all right if I kept my vow."

  "No, Blood Shrike." Cain leads me away from the villa and down a wide avenue of Illustrian homes. We approach one that must have once been beautiful but is now a burned-out shell--destroyed days ago during the worst of the Scholar revolution. Cain wanders into the smoking debris. "We promised that if you held the oath, Elias would survive the Trials. And he did."

  "What was the point of him surviving the Trials if he's just going to die a few weeks from now by my hand anyway? I can't refuse Marcus's order, Cain. I swore fealty. You made me swear fealty."

  "Do you know who lived in this house, Helene Aquilla?"

 
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