Tail looked over her shoulder at Raian as she walked away, left him staring at nothing with a thousand thoughts swimming in his eyes. The worried furrow on his brow set an alarm bell ringing through her head.
She hiked up to the shrine to pray to the god Ashta for guidance.
Flowering vines curled up the broadsword her god’s stone likeness held before him, where Tail sat cross-legged, hands together in her lap. Small chunks of bark littered the area, no doubt the leavings of squirrels from high in the pines above.
The crashing of the nearby waterfall drowned out her muttered prayers. But if she couldn’t hear herself, no one else could.
“Raian’s going to run away,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the first time he thought of it since his mum died, but I always talked him out of it. Now he has a reason. A real reason.” She dragged her braid through her hands and sighed. “He’s my best friend. I picked him. I can’t let him go off by himself. We both know he’d be dead by full moons! Ashta, if you know anything about the shadow bear, or the rogue god, anything at all, send me a sign. Anything….”
The god looked imposing as ever as the sun ducked behind the clouds.
“I know how far I’m willing to go,” Tail went on. “I will be his guardian, wherever the path takes us. I’ll raise my hatchets to his defense at a word, because I know he’d do the same for me. This is my oath. Gods strike me down should I fail. But, still…”
She pursed her lips, bowing her head down. Her fingers played with a roundish piece of bark by her feet, and warmth flooded her cheeks to even admit, “I am… afraid. Just a little. I’ve never thought of leaving home before. So, a little luck and a little strength my way would be appreciated.”
When she glanced up, the sun had come out and was creating sharp shadows around Ashta’s sculpted face. It gave him a disapproving sort of expression.
She twisted her face up in irritation. “Well that was rude.” She got up and left the shrine, still holding onto the roundish piece of bark. It was about the size of Raian’s charm. If she remembered right, the necklace was still hanging in the gatehouse. Smirking, she turned back to the shrine. “Thank you, Ashta.”
She took the longer path to the gatehouse, sweeping down narrow lanes between houses and cutting through gardens and yards. The main road was a hub of excitement and bustle, the forges burning overtime to meet weapon quotas, the butcher’s apprentices running errands, the carpenters sawing away to make sure everything was ready for the festival.
Someone bumped into her where the road was busiest.
The young man had a sheen of sweat on his bare, heaving chest and a wooden practice sword in his hand. A dark bruise adorned his right bicep, a couple more on his abdomen.
He gave her a rakish smile. “Tail, sweet flower, you’ve been avoiding me.”
“Who beat the piss out of you?” Tail asked, jabbing her finger into one of the bruises on his muscular middle.
“Taro, who d’ya think? Asshole was irritated about something, so I offered him a spar. The man brought it, but I got him back.” His voice went up a touch too high then, too embarrassed to admit he probably hadn’t landed a single hit.
During practice fighting, Ashtians weren’t supposed to fight hard enough to leave marks, but Master Emiri always turned a blind eye to more violent sparring, even though people had been severely hurt in the past. But where the boys were good and violent, the girls were vicious.
“Summer solstice is tomorrow night,” he said. “We could, ah, start the festivities early, hike up past the shrine, to the falls.”
Tail rolled her eyes and took a step toward the gatehouse. He kept beside her with a long stride, effectively blocking her path.
“So, you and the cursed cock now?”
“Watch what you say or I’ll cut yours off.” She shoved past him, ignored his rushed apologies, and reached the gatehouse.
By Kentan’s rules, only marked villagers were permitted to hunt, and always in pairs. Raian and Tail had demonstrated their abilities and proved themselves to be proficient hunters, impressing the Master Ranger, who granted them a special hunting privilege. So, instead of a mark, Raian would leave his charm on the wall when they went outside.
The small wooden pendant still hung on the wall, alone, behind the watcher’s table.
Two steps toward it, and an approaching voice gave Tail pause. She spun back, pressing into the only empty corner as Kentan and Emiri strolled into the small room.
“Took away his hunting privilege, did you?” Emiri asked, rather amused with herself as she followed her general with her hands folded casually behind her back. “Don’t think you overreacted, sir?”
“That’s grand, coming from you,” Kentan said. The great General Kentan. The first male chieftain in four hundred years. He and Raian’s mother, Tya, led their few people out of a desolate city almost thirty summers ago. They’d founded New Ashta and established trade with the Paloven outsiders. The people flourished under Kentan’s leadership and Tya’s council. Even after Tya’s death, Kentan put the needs of the people above himself, or Emiri would have been first in line to take him down.
Kentan flicked his hand toward the far wall, various bows mounted on wooden knobs. “So, long distance shots?”
“Just three. Also the shorter bow for the speed challenges.” Emiri grabbed the recurve bows while Kentan reached up for the longbows. “I make it no secret, sir,” Emiri said. “I have no love for your son. But the best way to keep him out of trouble, I think, is to let the boy outside.”
“One might think you were afraid of him,” Kentan said.
“Magic,” Emiri stressed, “is not supposed to exist anymore.”
“And Tya? There wouldn’t be a New Ashta if it weren’t for her. We’d still be starving in a crumbling mountain fortress.”
Emiri sighed. “Your woman was different. Her abilities were in her head, with the… farsighted episodes she had. She couldn’t summon physical energy like Raian does. Don’t tell me it isn’t unnerving, not knowing what he’s truly capable of.” Kentan didn’t disagree with that.
Her steps light as feathers, Tail walked behind them to the empty watcher’s table. She plucked Raian’s charm off the wall while Kentan piled unstrung bows into his arm.
“I pray to Ashta that Tail doesn’t consider Raian a worthy mate,” Emiri said. “With fewer girls being born each generation, only the strongest bloodlines—”
“I’m well aware,” Kentan muttered, cutting into Emiri’s rambling and rubbing the back of his neck.
Worthy? Tail thought. Emiri hated Raian because he had magic, because, even though he’d never use it, he was more powerful than her. Tail had seen his power, and no, she could never look at Raian as a mate. She never looked at anyone that way. Still, Raian was more than worthy, and Emiri was jealous, and afraid.
“He’s a grown young man now, can’t even fight with a sword,” the woman said, lips pinched.
Surprisingly, Kentan jumped to Raian’s defense. “Perhaps not, but he’s a masterful bowman. He speaks four languages. He’s… frustratingly independent, like his mother.”
Tail decided she’d heard enough. She reached for the cold lantern sitting at the edge of the watcher’s table and knocked it to the ground.
Emiri spun around, but Kentan took his time, as if he’d expected it.
The lantern’s oil soaked into the packed dirt floor.
“Whoops.” Tail stretched open the cord of Raian’s necklace and dropped it over her own head. She tossed her braid back and strolled for the gatehouse doorway, fixing both the general and the swordswoman with a pointed look before she stepped through.
“That poor, broken girl,” Emiri said after Tail was around the corner. “She’s never been right since her dad’s death.”
Tail frowned at her bare feet, took a deep breath, and broke into a run.
The General’s lodge, no different than any other, was partially hidden by pines, with moss growing over the stone path that wound between the trees.
Never in her life had Tail stepped through that front door.
The first time she crawled in through Raian’s window wasn’t long after they met, and she had entered that way ever since. With a running start, she clambered up the roof and poked her head into the single window of his small sleeping room.
Raian was filling his quiver with arrows and storing his collection of steel broadheads in a leather satchel. He’d piled two sets of clothes beside a fully-stocked traveling pack.
“Whatcha doing?” Tail asked as she crossed her arms on the windowsill.
Raian yelped and dropped his quiver. The arrows inside clacked together and slid out. “Tail!” he said through his teeth and dropped to his knees on the other side of the window from her. “I could have shot you!”
“Right,” she snickered. “Here.” She pulled off his necklace and offered it by the cord. “Can’t have you running away without your charm.”
His blue eyes widened. He snatched it and dropped it over his head. “What? I’m not… not doing that. I’m getting my things ready for our next hunting trip.”
“Your arm has been torn to shreds and Kentan took back our hunting permission.”
Raian glanced at his bandaged arm and heaved a sigh of defeat.
“Please don’t,” Tail said, her voice dropping. If she could just talk him out of it…
“You saw the bear, Tail.” He put his elbows on the windowsill with hers.
“We’re safe in the village.”
“For now,” he said, “but I don’t want to be confined here like I’m scared of those shadowy creature… things.”
Tail narrowed her eyes. “Shadowlings?”
“Shadow— sure, whatever. They’re after me for some reason, whether the rogue goddess Dyata is trying to come back or not.”
“So you’ll run away?” she asked, hardening her voice but never raising it.
Pulling his brow down, Raian matched her tone. “Draw them away from the village.”
“Call it what you want. I’ll have to get my hatchets and refill my traveling pack. Meet me at my lodge, where someone is much less likely to find out.”
His eyes brightened. “I figured we’d head west, toward Shirana, maybe. I can teach you some of the language on the way. All the sentence structure is the same so it’s just memorizing vocabulary. Easy really.” His voice lifted, a smile trying to pull at his lips.
“Whatever you want,” Tail replied, trying not to smile back. She slid down the roof and jumped to the grass.
She took the shortcut to her lodge, slinking through private gardens and cutting across paths.
Her vegetable garden hadn’t improved much all those years, but the herbs were thriving.
The lodge door swung wide with a squeal on rusty hinges. Dust floated in the rays of sunlight splitting through the window shutters, coating everything but the table by the hearth, which was covered instead with knife marks and scratches. Tail looked last at the bear rug between the narrow entrance and the hearth room.
It was Raian’s first bear, shot down when he was fifteen, and he gave it to Tail to cover the blood stain in the floorboards.
Even then, she stepped around the rug when she entered the hearth room.
Her hatchets lay side by side on the table, the weapons that had taken her moons to craft and many summers to master. The holsters hung beside the hearth, where she stored all her daggers and knives. The rig wrapped around her hips like a belt, ran down the outsides of her thighs, and secured with a strap above each knee to hold the twin steel weapons.
“I’m not broken,” she said, but she shivered with a sudden chill. All Tail could think about was blood, sticky and dark. Steeling herself, she backed off, all the way to the steep stairs to the bedrooms above.
Pulling her knees into her chest, she stared at the bear rug, but could only see her father’s body, his own sword sticking out of him. She couldn’t get past him to the door, and she’d been too small to climb out of the windows.
She sat on the same step for two days, until the door opened for someone to save her. Only then had she cried, and it had been Tya, Raian’s mother, who carried her out of the musty lodge, reeking of death.
Her chest stifled her heart’s beating, as the weight of the dark room pressed down from all sides.
The door opened, and Raian stepped inside. When he walked over the bear rug, Tail finally met his gaze.
Raian eased his pack off his good shoulder. “The sun is going down. How long have you been sitting there?”
“The sun’s going down?” she repeated as he came to stand in front of her. She hadn’t noticed the hours passing when it felt like she’d relived years of her life in a moment.
He set his longbow on the table beside her hatchets. “I’d have burned this lodge to the ground a long time ago if you wanted me to.”
He shifted uneasily from foot to foot, one hand crawling to his neck to fiddle with the charm.
Tail eyed the piece of wood, a diamond carved inside a sun. “Don’t talk about my attachments, no matter how ridiculous, when you still cling to that thing.”
With a sigh, Raian squeezed onto the step beside her. “You know, I never told you something.” He twisted the leather cord around his finger the same way Tail played with her hair. “When Taro earned his mark, I followed him to the shrine.”
Tail sat up straighter, frowning at his thoughtful profile.
“I knew it was forbidden, but I had to know how it worked.” Raian shook his head. “I memorized Taro’s words, and I went back that night, and tried to bind myself to this.”
She took a shallow breath, her gaze flicking from his blue eyes to the pendant between his fingers. “Did it actually work?”
“I repeated the chant, all the words, but they never came out right.” Raian grinned and stuffed the charm under his collar. “I shoulda known, right?”
“Isn’t it time we left?” Tail whispered. “The festivities will be starting.”
He eyed her for a moment, tapping his fingers on his knees. “Are you sure you don’t want to burn this place down before we leave?”