Legend tells of a green man in the Wall-bound forests of the south. He carries a bow and plucks arrows out of the air, and whatever he sets his eyes on come moonrise he hunts until the sun comes up. Fey, they call him. Strange and feral as any beast. Speaks strange words, and the locals worship him like a god.

I met him.

He’s a hunter. One of us, you eastern idiots. You go into his forests and you learn how to run, run and run through an endless night, and you learn when to turn and hold your ground, and if you fail him…

Prey dies.

Maevanon d’Sala Mon Loss

 

It wouldn’t be easy. Outside, the moonlight was bright, and they’d never get Ionas over most of the rooftops, much less her da. They had to use the streets.

Somewhere, on the still air, Sarea could hear Instigators moving.

She went first, picking around the edge of the pit. The ground was little more than loose dirt, and every step sent a shower of earth into the pit. The sickly sweetness was stronger here. It rose off the empty marsh itself.

No point in looking. She knew what she’d see. Tufts of dead grass above black, muddy water than seemed to defy light. The empty, squelching mud banks winding into the distance. Into the centre, the place no one returned from.

After her came Mae, supporting her da. He walked, eyes on the ground. Every step had to hurt him, and yet he said nothing.

Ionas ended the group, with Amisine far above them. He’d limped heavily from the house, but wouldn’t look at her. And Amisine –

Sarea didn’t look up. Not once.

She came into the silent streets, a mess of ancient cobble, robbed out walls, and dried, dead earth winding between shacks barely tall enough for a person to stand in. Picking her way over a mass of old tree roots from a tree long since lost to rot and firewood, the alley wound around left and right, to the main street. She paused on the edge of it. They’d hung clothes between the rooftops here, on metal bound together by old rags, to wash in the rain.

Silence. Stillness. No hanging clothes or rainwater pots. Where were the sounds of the people, their stink? How had things gotten so much worse in seven years?

There wasn’t long to go, just across, a short way to go, just across into another winding alley. But she could hear Instigators, closer and closer. She gestured everyone back, around the corner, and joined them.

On the streets, the clanking separated itself out into terrifying footsteps. One-two-one-two, not slow but steady, so loud it filled her head. Ducking the patrols on the rooftops at night, two little girls pressed flat against the tiles, Amisine’s grin when they passed by, the one that said she’d grow up and hurt them –

No. She wasn’t going to think about that now.

The sickly sweetness intensified. Da twisted in Mae’s hold, crying out, something low and wordless. The clanking stopped.

Started again, coming down the alley.

She glanced back to Ionas, eyes wide. But he shook his head. Mae shrugged her da off her, going for her knife, but they didn’t know how many there were, and they had armour

“Hello,” Amisine sang out, drifting past Sarea. She flashed a grin at Sarea. “Hello, hello.”

Stopped again. Soft murmurs, echoing fear.

“Just that damned ghost, men,” someone said. “As you were.” More whispers. “As you were.”

Claws and teeth, Amisine said, “Oh, just little me,” and dove at them.

Shouts. Running. Someone shouting, “Damn you, cowards! She can’t touch you!” somewhere on the main street.

Sarea shook her head and turned to da, crouching down. He sat against the wall, face deathly pale where it wasn’t bruised. “What happened?” she said.

“He knows you’re here,” da said. “He knows.”

“Who knows?” Ionas. Solid, just to her right.

“Father,” Balint said. “Father knows. Run, ‘Rea, you have to run, you have to -”

She touched a finger to his lips. “You’ll be safe soon enough.” She looked back and up to Ionas. “How can grandfather know?”

Ionas curled the fingers on his left hand. “Of course they had to drive him mad,” he said. “I’ll explain everything later, Sarea. When we’re safe.”

“We have to get safe,” Mae muttered. “Out of the way.”

Ionas shifted back. Mae pushed past and hoisted da up again. “Listen to the little biter,” Mae said, “And come along, old man.”

Right and left, and twice more again, before they reached the narrow gap in the rooftops Sarea and Mae’d stepped over. There was still a wall, two bricks high, in the darkness. Sarea stepped over it, and Mae followed, hoisting da over, but Ionas stumbled and fell, hitting the ground with a soft thud and a sharp breath. Sarea went back for him, taking his left arm and pulling him up. Taller and heavier, he was, but she wouldn’t leave him.

He didn’t say a word, breathing hard. Neither did she.

May scrambled up the shack first, and hauled Sarea up after her. Between them, they pulled da up, little more than a limp weight. And Ionas pulled himself up, right arm curled against his body. On the roof he lay flat on his stomach, panting.

“Not long,” Sarea whispered to him. “Come on.”

Mae went ahead, guiding da. Sarea coaxed Ionas across the rooftop and into the sheltered shack, and Mae waited there to tug him through the smuggler’s way. Alone in the West Side, Sarea went up the ramp again and stood straight and tall on the roof.

“Home sweet home,” Amisine said, walking an inch above the stolen tiled rooftops. “Ain’t that what normal folks say?”

“Not my home.” Sarea spared her a glance. Her soft country burr mixed with west side twang, creating something strange and old. “Not now.”

Amisine shrugged. “It’s always home.”

Sarea turned back to the smuggler’s way.

From inside the hole, she dug into the gap between cover and hole, finding the deep grooves carved into it. She hauled it sideways. It came easy, and stopped sudden. That done, she backed out of the hole into bright moonlight and chilled air. Strains of music drifted on cold breezes, out from the city. From the courtyard in front of the palace, Sarea thought. The only space large enough for a dance.

The West Side gate still unguarded, they slipped back across the bridge unseen and disappeared into silent, empty streets. The music grew louder and softer unbidden, and Ionas leaned heavier and heavier on her. She’d told him to stay back, she had, she should have made him stay at Keyne’s…

They didn’t wind up at Keyne’s. Mae led them down a dark street to a house with three lit candles at the window. She knocked with her elbow, three hollow-sounding thuds, and a woman answered.

“In,” the woman hissed. “In!” She held the door open, and closed it firmly behind them, drawing the latch. Sarea let Ionas rest against the wall.

It wasn’t a bad little house. The woman let them have no more impression of her than grey hair, wrinkles, and speed, for once the door was latched she was off down the hall, and Mae after her.

Sarea said, “In the West Side -”

“You’re right,” he said. “I should have listened to you.”

What?

“And told you more,” he added, shifting. He winced. “Anything that breaks our focus makes us useless. Being startled or -”

“Pain,” she said.

“A good teacher tries not to bring up the negatives in the beginning,” he sighed.

She closed her eyes, leaning her head back. “Ionas Pachin,” she said. “You are not a good teacher.”

“I was fine with -” He stopped. Said, after a moment, “I can’t hear them.”

She exhaled, long and slow. “Probably another entrance to the tunnels,” she said. “Come on.”

He caught her wrist before she could move, but loosely. “They had people in cages by the gate,” he said. “For trying to escape. What is this place you’ve come from, Sarea?”

She shook her head, carefully pulling her wrist free. “The West Side,” she said. “Ionas, father said… who knew we were there?”

Ionas smiled, thin and tight. “Nothing I’d want to talk about above ground.”

“Come on,” she said, and offered her hand. “Not tonight. You need to rest.”

As he limped down the hallway, he said, “I didn’t have a proper apprenticeship, myself. I’m trying to teach you what you need to know now.”

“What’s that?” He got heavier, somehow, leaning against her. She caught sight of a half-open door and steered him towards it.

“Fire to fight with, the tricks that make good disguises. When you have water, you’ll have the skills to -”

“Stop,” she said, and he stopped. She shifted around to look at him. “Not stop walking,” she said. “Stop assuming.”

He cracked a smile. “Oh,” he said, and started walking again.

She pressed her lips together, going first through the door. “I’m not a fighter,” she said. “With Amisine, she fought. She got into trouble and I got her out of it. I think you’ve seen I… haven’t improved much.”

She was in a store room, one with half a dozen empty shelves and an open trapdoor. Sarea crouched down next to it.

“You didn’t do that badly,” Ionas said, “For your first.”

She shrugged. Three people – don’t think about it. “Either way, I’ve been an apprentice.”

“Under the mysterious Tineke.” Ionas lowered himself to the floor, feet dangling in the hole. “Well, if I’m to be a good teacher, what’s the comparison?”

He smiled at her. Not the constant fake grin, for once.

“We talked,” she said. “All the time. She…” Sarea sat down and looked away. “We’d be out on the farms and she’d have me come over and stare at a patch of hedgerow, and we wouldn’t move until I saw what she did. Sometimes it was a bird nest. Others…” She swallowed. A particularly rare plant, hiding in the cover, or an ant nest, or a spindly mantis. Tineke saw everything.

“Sarea?”

She shook herself. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll have lost them by now.”

 

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