Camette knew she was going to die.
The one-horn maqal stopped pulling the cart forward, and Camette leaned heavily against the side of it. Neither of them could take another step. Her knees buckled as she shook the leather water flask. Empty. It slid out of her hand and thumped softly on the ground.
After surviving wars and battles for a thousand years, a lack of water would finish her. Stupid. She heard faint footsteps seventy yards behind her. Men were tracking her. Coming fast. She couldn’t escape them.
It bothered her that no birds sang and no mril fluttered in the forest around her. She had seen only a few small animals in the last hour, and there were no norre trees. All of it made her feel the forest was dying too.
She peered ahead, east through the last hundred paces of woods. In the dim morning light farmers were working hard in their fields. Their sweat reeked, along with the strong scent of dirt which accompanied razed forest. Her throat was too dry to call to them. And the workers couldn’t see her in the shadowed forest with their weak human eyesight.
“I’m sorry, Sontay, my love,” she murmured. “I’ve failed you. Again.” She ached to see him one more time. She dreamed of him often. His strong body, his sweet voice, and his gentle touch. Those memories had kept her alive. It was all she had to live for.
Far beyond the farmers stood a large, shiny black fortress made of massive norre trees. Anyone who cut down norre didn’t respect the old ways, but it would be a strong keep. It had been a long time since she had visited the Wild Lands, and she was curious how long the citadel had been standing.
She slid her cheek a few inches off the smooth wood of the cart.
Eight men ran up to her and stopped. Cloth sacks covered their heads, with holes cut for their eyes and mouths. They all had dirty, sweat-stained waist tunics, blades in their belts, worn trousers, and muddy boots. Leather water flasks rested on their hips.
Knowing what they wanted, Camette shivered.
A tall, muscular man stepped closer to her, keeping his voice low so the field workers wouldn’t hear. “Well, what do we have here? Isn’t she the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen?”
Camette winced. Her long yellow hair was matted, her fair skin dirty, her white shift torn and stained, and her bare feet dusty. “Sontay would probably run from me,” she whispered.
“What are you mumbling, you idiot?” asked the man.
“Water.” Four days without it had turned her into a desert.
“Dying of thirst, are you?”
“Yes.” She had ignored opportunities to go off the path to get water. Some impulse had urged her to continue in this direction. Maybe the fortress. She would die for that mistake.
“Well, how about we trade not killing you for your cart, the box you have on it, and your yellow one-horn?” He laughed harshly, gesturing to the maqal. “You must have stolen the mare anyway. One-horns are rare and you don’t look rich to me.”
“I’m not a thief.” She didn’t have enough energy to sound indignant.
“Of course not. You’re a wealthy traveler who forgot to bathe.”
“I came from the Dead Lands.”
“You’re a liar. No one survives the Dead Lands.”
She gave up trying to talk to him and rested her tilted head against the cart. The man dismayed her. Everyone in the Wild Lands used to be civil and kind.
The big yellow maqal turned its head, staring at her with a questioning yellow eye. The massive mare had spurred hooves and a single, three-foot white spiral horn sticking out from the center of its forehead.
Camette didn’t have anything to say to her mare, so she focused on the man in front of her. “Water,” she mumbled again. “Please.”
One of the men motioned to her. “Let’s give her some.” He sounded young. A boy. “She’s dying. She’s just a girl.”
Camette wanted to smile at him, but her cracked lips wouldn’t cooperate. She knew she appeared about seventeen, but she was unsure of her age. She wondered what the boy looked like and if he would remind her of Sontay.
The tall man whirled on the boy. “You can give the fangor your water, loverboy.” Turning back to Camette, his eyes gleamed. “We’ll take her with us for some fun later.”
Stepping forward, he lifted his boot, put it against Camette’s ribs, and shoved her.
She cried out and slid off the wagon to the ground, landing on her back. Her side ached from his boot.
Four men scrambled atop the wagon, cursing as they tried to open the long metal chest. The key for the box hung from a leather necklace around Camette’s neck, hidden beneath her dress. She knew they would find it soon enough.
When they couldn’t open the chest, two more men jumped onto the wagon and all six tried lifting it, grunting and swearing, but not raising it an inch. The tall man cursed at the one-horn to move, but the mare wouldn’t budge.
The mare wouldn’t do anything for anyone, except Camette. She hoped they wouldn’t hurt the maqal.
Leaves crunched near her head. She clutched the coarse fabric of her shift and pressed it against her thighs. Not wanting to see the man, she closed her eyes.
“It’s all right, miss. I won’t hurt you.” A gentle hand lifted her head off the ground.
Camette blinked and opened her yellow eyes. It was the boy, still wearing his hood and kneeling beside her. His kindness brought tears to her eyes.
He lifted a flask to her lips. She smelled water and opened her mouth. The dribbling liquid stung her aching tongue and slid down her parched throat to her burning stomach. She could barely swallow.
And then the flow stopped.
“More,” she whispered.
“Easy now, you don’t want to drink too fast.”
“More.” Her body screamed for water.
A tiny splash of it filled her mouth, and she suddenly had enough strength to lift a clumsy hand and find the water flask in his grip. Upending it, she poured the liquid past her lips.
Cool water soothed her throat and partially doused the heat in her stomach. But the flow quickly stopped again. Shaking the bag a few times, she was disappointed when nothing more dripped out.
“I’m sorry, miss. That’s all I have.”
Camette’s hand flopped against his slender arm. “Blessings.” She hadn’t used that word after leaving the Wild Lands, but no one had acted kindly toward her since then either.
The tall man punched the yellow mare’s shoulder, speaking in a quiet hiss. “Come on, you stupid maqal. Move!” He hit the mare again.
The one-horn turned her drooping head to stare at him, too worn out to fight.
“Idiot.” Camette’s stomach boiled. Rolling over, she feebly pushed up to all fours. When she tried to stand, her limbs shook. The boy put an arm beneath hers, partially lifting her. When she regained her feet, she wobbled.
Wrapping an arm around her waist, the boy steadied her. Camette found it so comforting she didn’t want to move, and instead slumped against him, resting her cheek on his shoulder. A little taller than her, she thought they were a perfect fit. Like Sontay.
“They’ll hurt you, miss,” the boy whispered. “I can’t protect you.”
“I know,” she murmured. “Blessings.” His words tugged at her emotions again. No one had cared about her during all her years of roaming the Dead Lands.
Slowly, she pulled out of his grasp and stumbled on weak legs along the wagon, draping one arm over its side rail for support. The men in the cart were still trying to open the chest.
“Don’t, miss,” pleaded the boy.
The tall man spat, “Damn you!” at the mare, and stepped to the rear of the maqal. He glanced at Camette. “This mount is as stupid as you are.”
“Don’t hurt her,” whispered Camette.
The one-horn twisted its head farther, staring at Camette as if to say, Well?
“I’m trying,” she mumbled. A bit of her strength returned, the water slowly feeding it.
When the man cocked his fist to punch the mare’s hindquarters, Camette grabbed his thick arm just above his elbow. Jerking his head around, he glared at her. He tried to yank his limb free of her grip, but only moved it an inch, with her still holding on.
Sliding her other arm off the cart, Camette placed her palm on his chest and gave a weak push.
His eyes widened as he stumbled back a few feet. “You mad fangor.” He stepped forward and swung at her.
She blocked his arm with hers, the blow hurting, and slapped him with her free hand, immediately backhanding him with the same hand. Pushing him again, she sent him back several steps this time.
Wide-eyed, the man hastily touched his face. Cursing, he drew his blade. Coated with dried norre tree sap, it glittered with sahr. Camette was surprised to see sahr on his weapon. She knew it would make the blade lighter and stronger, and wondered what else humans were doing with norre sap.
The man smirked. “We’re going to have some fun, me and you.”
“Please. Just leave me alone.”
“We will, when we’re finished.”
His eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”
“Idiot. Stupid. Coward. Hitting a tired mare and an unarmed woman.” Camette shuffled along the side of the one-horn. Her legs shook and she didn’t want to fall, so she leaned against the mare’s middle for support.
The men in the wagon stopped what they were doing to watch.
Stepping closer to Camette, the boy flicked her shoulder as if he didn’t care. “She’s worried about her one-horn. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Sontay’s image filled Camette’s mind. Sensitive like the boy, he always helped anyone in need. She bit her lip and focused on the man in front of her.
“She’s mad,” said the young man, “and not thinking straight.”
“Too bad for her then, loverboy.” The man stepped forward, pointing his blade at Camette.
“She doesn’t mean any harm.” The boy shuffled away from Camette. “Please, don’t hurt her.”
“Shut up, boy, or you’re next.” Taking another step, the man pushed the tip of his blade against Camette’s upper chest.
Camette gasped as he twisted the point, giving her a small cut. Blood dribbled down her skin. She almost fainted, but then her stomach boiled and she wanted to kill him.
Both of her hands shifted to large yellow claws. She reached out with her right claw and clutched the man’s neck. With her left, she knocked his blade aside, and grabbed and twisted his wrist until he cried out in pain and dropped the weapon. Squeezing his throat, she lifted him off the ground, his feet dangling.
One of the men in the wagon jumped at her, blade in hand.
Using her free claw, she clutched his tunic in midair, grunting with his weight. Turning to the side, she tossed him a dozen yards past the rear of the wagon, where he landed hard.
Another man ran at her from the other side, stabbing his blade at her stomach.
She twisted and he missed. She kicked his ankle, and when he doubled over she kneed him in the face. He fell, groaning.
The rest of the men in the wagon gaped and climbed off, backing away.
Her throat parched again, Camette tightened her hold on the tall man’s neck. His pulse slowed against her palm as he kicked and gagged, his eyes bulging. She felt no pity for him. He had two warnings. Besides, he deserved to die for hitting the maqal and cutting her.
“Don’t kill him, miss.”
Hesitating, she peeked at the boy, her heat cooling a little. She owed the boy a life-debt and thus couldn’t refuse his request. Her honor required that. Sontay would agree.
“You’ll live a little longer, stupid idiot coward, because of the nice boy.” Flicking her wrist, she tossed the man, sending him tumbling and rolling through leaves and brush until he thumped into a tree trunk. He lay there, groaning.
“You better leave now,” she spat to the others. “Or I’ll tear off your arms and legs.” She was bluffing. She couldn’t fight anymore. Weariness made her shake.
The men kept their eyes on her while they helped their fallen friends to their feet. Then they fled into the forest, half-carrying their wounded.
Spent, Camette sagged against the mare. Whatever strength the water had given her had vanished. Her claws melted away with her anger.
After a few moments, she turned to the wide-eyed boy, surprised to see him still standing there. “Come with me to the keep. It has to be a better life than what you have here.”
The boy took a step back. “Wh…what are you?”
She gave a weary shrug. “A mystery.” Faint noises trickled through the forest, but she was too tired to pay attention to them.
The young man took off his hood. About fifteen, he had freckles and shaggy brown hair. Slender, with a narrow chin, his honest eyes were blue. “Hope Citadel’s not safe, miss.”
His youthful face made her wonder what Sontay might look like. Sontay would be stronger and his eyes bright red. Suddenly she wanted the boy to hold her, kiss her, and whisper to her. Her chest heaved. He was too young. And after all this time she still loved Sontay. Mad as that was. “Why not?”
The boy bit his lip. “Northerners live there and they’re at war with the wyshea. I don’t want to die fighting a stupid war.”
His words brought a crease to her brow. She had assumed she left war behind in the Dead Lands. It was one of the reasons she had returned to the Wild Lands. “I don’t blame you. All war is stupid. I’m sick of it too.” She scrutinized the fortress again. “How long has the fighting been going on?”
“Some say a hundred years. As long as the sky’s been overcast. But the Northerners have only been here a score or so.” He shuffled another step back from her, glancing at her hands. “If their enemies don’t kill them, Basture will.”
“Finance Minister Basture rules the city of Prosperus in the south. They say he wants everything. All the Wild Lands. He’ll kill the Northerners too, even if they are his allies.”
“F’ahbay,” she whispered. Fury swept her just thinking of him, and her claws returned. Basture had to be allied with F’ahbay. After so many centuries of hunting him, she had finally found her enemy.
Her pulse raced. She might be able to find and free Sontay from F’ahbay’s imprisonment. But why hadn’t she sensed F’ahbay or Sontay here?
She turned to the boy, gesturing to the citadel. “Anything is a better life than what you have with those idiots, isn’t it?”
Gaping at her claws, he took another step back and swallowed. “They’re all I’ve got, miss. At least it’s something.”
“Family.” She understood, and the reminder brought a pang to her chest.
He straightened, as if proud. “We’re called scavengers. There are different groups. We’re the Westerners.”
“You have to go back with a wound.”
His eyes widened.
“If you return unharmed they’ll hate you. Maybe kill you. If you have a scratch, you’re a hero.”
“I’ll be gentle. Come here.” She put some force into the command and saw his resistance melt.
He shuffled to her and she grabbed his wrist, lifting his arm with one claw.
“Miss…” His lips trembled.
“Shh.” She put a single claw across his mouth to quiet him. When his jaw clenched, she lightly dragged her sharp yellow nail along his forearm, drawing blood. “Pull your blade.”
“But I…please don’t…” His blue eyes misted.
“You have to have some blood on your blade to make it look real.”
He shuddered and slowly drew his blade, letting it hang near his thigh.
“Hold it level.” When he obeyed, she wiped her nail across the metal, smearing red on it. “That should do it. When you run back to them, carry your blade in your hand and act like you’ve been fighting. Tear your tunic. Mess up your hair.”
“What are you?” he whispered.
“Just a tired, worn out, mad girl.” She smiled crookedly. “Now back to your family. Go.”
“Blessings, miss.” He stumbled backward, and then whirled and ran.
“Tell a good story,” she called after him. Her claws changed to hands again. Belatedly, she regretted not asking his name. She felt ashamed. Someone who saved your life should never remain nameless.
Dizziness made her sway. The amount of water the boy had given her felt like a drop when she needed a river, and the fighting had burned it up. Swinging an arm over the mare’s back, they shuffled together through the forest. Rustling leaves and footsteps filtered through the trees to her, but she was too tired to look.
In a few minutes she reached the edge of the field. They were harvesting root vegetables. Small orchards of fruit trees and rows of berry bushes were visible in the distance. She hoped they had meat.
“Help.” She barely raised a limp hand to one of the workers.
He gave her a hard stare, and then bent over, trading his hoe for a blade he picked up off the ground. Others did the same.
Arrows hissed into the soil near her feet.
“Not another step or you’ll be next.” An older man spoke to her from the side.
Too tired to look at him, the threat made her angry. Her claws didn’t appear because she didn’t have enough energy left to make the change.
A dozen men and women stepped from behind trees, aiming bows and blades at her. She wondered how much they had seen or heard. If they were allied with Basture, they might also be allies of F’ahbay. The boy was right to run.
“On the ground!” snapped the man.
“Water,” she murmured. She collapsed face-first into the dirt. She hoped they wouldn’t kill her while she was unconscious.