Chapter One: "Flight and Fight"
The fog creeps in with the coming of dawn, thick and heavy, treacherous and blinding. The air is cool, the ground is slick. The mountain that they stand beneath has never looked more deadly than it does in this moment.
“What should we do?” Shifting from foot to foot, trying to keep her toes warm against the encroaching chill, Kaethe Levitt looks to her brother for guidance, for help. A first for her. But she is in well over her head. She is traumatized, practically petrified after the dizzying happenings of the past week. She is losing her grounding, her footing. She needs help and he is the only one that can give it to her.
But she probably shouldn’t have; probably should have just kept everything to herself and continued the act of knowing just exactly what she is doing – even though she has absolutely no clue.
Her brother looks down at her, brows raised, silently asking if she is stupid. Maybe she is, she did ask for his guidance. “Uh, we go up?” he drawls, pointing at the looming rock before them. “Unless you want to chance it with them?” he jerks his thumb over his shoulder, to the tidal fog and the danger that lurks inside. “No? C’mon. We’ve gotta keep moving.”
She doesn’t nod. She doesn’t recognize that he has voiced anything. She silently pushes ahead, jogging into the trees and up the sloping incline. Leading the way, her brother casually falling behind, Kaethe keeps up a brisk pace. She ignores the ever-present burning in her legs, the straining of her knees as they keep moving with little reprieve. There is no stopping for her. Not now. Possibly not ever.
If she even once, for one singular, fleeting moment, considers quitting and being done with it all, she just thinks back to what has been lost because of her – for her – and she carries on. This is the least she can do for the sacrifice that has been made, when she should have done something instead of hiding like the coward she always proclaimed to never be.
“It’s not your fault,” her brother calls to her as the sun begins to pierce the canopy of leaves overhead. His voice is soft, a little breathless, but he is the first one to speak in hours and he comes off as booming in the quiet.
She jumps at the sudden and unexpectedness.
She disagrees more than anyone could possibly ever know.
Refusing to acknowledge that he has even spoken, she moves faster, legs rising and falling so fast along the steepening slope that she is practically running now. Running from her brother. Running from the threat of pursuers. Running from everything that she just wants to forget; to change. Running yet going nowhere. She doesn’t want to think about it; can’t think about it. Because if she does, then it is real and she will fall. She will fall and never get back up again.
I’m sorry, she thinks silently, resisting the sting of fresh tears. She cried enough the first day. The only reason she has made it this far is because of her brother; her stubborn brother who she doesn’t know how to act around after so long of his being estranged.
It’s funny, really. He is her older brother, one she hardly even knows, and yet he is all that she has left now.
Upward they climb, not speaking, just breathing in heavy pants, focused on plowing ahead. One foot in front of the other, hour after hour as the day wears down. Hunger is forgotten, stomach pains the last of their worries. The thirst is barely quenched, drinking the earthy droplets of dew that lingers on cupped leaves. Surviving but hardly, just moving on as there is nothing left for them to do.
“We need to stop,” her brother rasps as night falls and the temperature drops.
Her breath fogs over her lips. The chill dries out her throat even more than the exertion. She knows he is right, but her fear tells her to keep going, that they’re almost to the top.
“Kaethe,” he says quietly.
She glances forward, to the shadowed forest that lays beyond the touch of moonlight. It is dark, eerie. It is a place to hide, to get lost in, maybe to never be found again.
“Kae,” he pushes, appearing beside her with a clammy hand on her wrist. “We can’t keep going. We’ll end up falling and breaking our necks. It’s just for a few hours. Just until the sun starts to come up. Then we can keep moving.”
She’s not ready to give in just yet, leaning away from him and into the dim. “But . . . ,” her voices fades away as she doesn’t know what else to say. There isn’t anything else that can be spoken. All that needs said has already been, and it’s too late to take any of it back. Ever again. It’s too late.
“Kae,” he repeats, dipping his head so that they are nearly level, honey-eyes against honey-eyes.
They’re so similar in appearance, pale hair and sunned skin. It’s unmistakable that they are related, that they are siblings. But at the same time they are so very different. They always had been; always would be. So often at odds, they would need a mediator to—
She wrenches her arm free as she forces herself not to go down that path in her thoughts. She stalks away several feet, dropping down to lean against a stout oak. She winces at the rough touch between her shoulder blades, a localized ache that feels tight and unforgiving. Grateful for the darkness that allows her to keep this secret, Kaethe shifts more into one shoulder, her spine free from the weight of being pinned against the bark. “Fine,” she grumbles, unwilling to assent but giving in as unhappily as she can, her ire made more so by the reminder of what she now has and always will. “But only until first light, then we move.”
“Yep,” her brother agrees, dropping down wearily across from her.
The night stretches on. An owl hoots from nearby. A pack of coyotes scream from far off. The air grows colder and soon Kaethe finds herself shivering where she sits, teeth chattering and hands thrust up into the pits of her arms to try and keep them warm. It is the middle of autumn, still time for warmer weather, but so far up the mountain and she is unprepared for the changes in temperature. She is ill-suited for it after growing up along the coast where a light dusting of snow is a novelty.
A jacket is lobed at her face, catching her completely off guard.
“Ow! What on Thiy’vah is wrong with you?”
Her brother does not reply, and she can just barely make him out in the waning light hunkering down. He looks just as chilled as her. He also looks just that tiny bit smug over his successful attack.
“I don’t want your jacket,” she grumbles, throwing it back.
“You need it more than I do,” he answers, bundling his coat up and tossing it to her lap. “You’re skin and bones.”
She snorts, rolling her eyes for her own sanity and no one else’s benefit. “Like you’re any better.”
“Hey!” he gasps, sounding very offended. “I’ll have you know I have a very healthy physique.”
“So do I.”
“If you count being a midget as healthy.”
She growls, this time kicking his jacket over his face. “This, this is why you and I haven’t spoken in three years.”
“Hmm,” he murmurs contemplatively. “And here I thought it was because I’d moved out.”
She gives up on the argument then and there, knowing that there will be no winning with him. There never was before, and there definitely won’t be now. He is older, wiser, and he doesn’t have blood on his hands like her.
Not like her.
All he would need to do is bring the proverbial barge to the light and it would be over; she would be finished. Part of her wants him to, just so she can have it over and done with. She doesn’t want them to beat around the bush, acting like it doesn’t hurt when it is really tearing them apart inside, and then for the dam to cave in a blazing moment. She wants him to voice what they both know, just so she can get it out of the way, so she doesn’t end up tricking herself into thinking not everything is over – that there is still hope when that is a glaring lie.
“Shut up, Rett.”
“Oh, so you do remember my name,” he teases darkly. “And here I’d thought you had forgotten. After all, it has been three years.”
She chooses to not respond to the goading, to fall into the trap. She leans back into the tree, curling tighter. Not for the first time she wishes she were back home, where the smells could be overpowering – an acquired odor – and the people loud, but everything so familiar that it can be calming. She misses it all, even the things she never thought she would. Back there, back home, back who-knows-how-many leagues, she was happy, and even though she never gave much thought to it then, it is a constant, plaguing nightmare that she can’t escape.
Not until it is gone did she realize what she had, and Kaethe would give anything to have it all back.
Branches crackle and she startles again, squinting up to see her brother crossing stiffly over to her. He takes a seat to her right, pressed tight against her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she grumbles, playing at stupid because it is obvious what he is doing. Her real question is ‘why’.
“Keeping warm,” he returns just as happily, crossing his arms tightly and hunkering down in his jacket of worn leather and warm cotton lining. It smells like salt and the ocean, stale, fishy, but reminiscent of home that her chest aches just a little bit more. “Duh. Why else would I be over here? It’s not because I wanna be by my baby sister. You smell like a barge of fish, by the way.”
She sees his lip curl up in a grimace. Kaethe knows that he is making an attempt at easing the air between them in the only way he has ever known how; the only way he has ever tried. Humor. Sarcasm. An integral part to her older brother’s character that without it something would be missing.
Something is missing, she reminds testily. Someone is missing.
“Whatever. You’re not a bouquet of roses either,” she allows, willing to give him this.
Rett leans down and sniffs himself, gagging. “Yeah, yeah. Not my fault. If I had known we were going to be hunted by the pleasant aromas we are giving off then I would have been sure to buy that expensive bottle of perfume that creepy old lady was shoving at me. I think we would have smelled musky then.”
She snorts again, elbowing his side. “And that’s better? To smell like a man?”
“I would be fine,” he replies airily.
“And what do you mean ‘buy’? Don’t you mean ‘steal’?”
He waves his hand, dismissing her indignation. “They are synonymous, aren’t they?”
She has to agree with him there.
“Get some sleep. We’ve got a couple hours left,” he says quietly, already lowering down so that he is practically lying across the leaves that are carpeting the ground. “And then we’re going up. Again. Yay. I miss my ship,” he mutters, words stringing together now that he’s not putting in the effort to articulate them.
“You didn’t have to come,” she returns, not following his lead as she remains sitting upright.
“Eh, stealin’ away wit’ you seemed like more fun than waitin’ ‘round for the nex’ score,” Rett slurs.
She kicks his knee, more of a tap really, just to let him know she has heard him, she is grateful to him, but she doesn’t agree with him.
The hours drag on. Kaethe gets maybe an hour of dozing in, and then her brother is shaking her to complete wakefulness with the first rays of sunrise. He hands her a handful of berries that look poisonous but aren’t. They barely touch on the gurgling complaints in her belly, but the little it is, well, it’s better than nothing.
In silent agreement they carry on, climbing upwards over slick ground and unstable terrain. Their palms are shredded, toes stubbed, elbows bruised , knees creaking and exhaustion flooding in, but still they climb. Neither one speaks, the task of breathing too difficult already without the added struggle of voicing their thoughts.
She stumbles on loose pebbles, losing her footing and crashing to her hands and knees. Lungs heaving, Kaethe doesn’t rise, thinking over what the whole point is of getting to the top of the mountain. They’re damned either way, below are their own people, and above are a people of stories, ones that might not even exist, but if they do then their lives are over anyway. So what is the point of fighting the inevitable; of running to something just as horrific as what they are fleeing from?
“C’mon . . . Kae,” her brother gasps, grabbing her waist and hefting her back to her feet.
“Just a little . . . bit . . . further?” she replies with a sad smirk as she reads in his eyes the same thing she has just thought.
He nods. “We’ll . . . we’ll figure it . . . out . . . when we get . . . there.”
“‘kay,” she agrees because arguing would take too much breath and effort.
“‘kay,” he repeats, fingers wrapped in the sleeve of her shirt, keeping her close and at his side as they stagger on.
Garrett hears the approaching hoof beats long before he sees the riders. They are loud, thudding, at least a dozen pursuers which is twice the number he remembers counting when he and Kaethe had fled their hometown. The riders are closing in, shortening the distance with each hungered breath he takes. If they know where he and his sister are, then the two of them are so seriously screwed that . . . he honestly has no clue what to do. Weaponless, powerless, all they can do is run, and after a week straight of doing just that, both of them are literally functioning on fumes.
So close to the top. So close to the possible safety of the Barren Ranges.
And yet the quarter mile to the top has never seemed so infinite.
“Go!” he hisses to his sister, shoving her across the relatively flat outcropping they have found themselves crossing. “Go, go, go! Don’t stop!” Rett grabs tight to the back of her shirt, shoving her forward with little care for her footing. All that matters is getting her out of there – safe – and as far away from these crazed, controlling soldiers as possible. He chances a glance behind, seeing the first riders crest the rise, thundering down on them with the force of a tsunami.
“Look out!” his sister yells, shouldering into him and sending them both toppling to the side, off the overhang and down the steep decline that they had only just hiked. Head over heels they roll, collecting bruises and scrapes in their descent. Down, down, down they spin, dizzy and nauseous when their momentum finally stops at the base of a wide pine, lungs collapsed and sight still reeling.
“C’mon,” Kaethe wheezes to him, grabbing the collar of his jacket and yanking him twice to follow her. “Get up, get up, get up!” she begs, looking around them, eyes round and skin glacier-pale. “RETT!”
He lunges forward, clambering on his hands as he fights to get his feet under him. “‘m up,” he stammers, still whirling in a downward spiral even though he is on firm ground. “‘m up.”
“C’mon,” she says again, sliding beneath his arm and forcing him to stand, her strength surprising for one so small and so thoroughly overtaxed. “We’ve gotta move.”
“Yeah,” he says, falling in beside her, tottering on his feet but managing to remain upright. “Why aren’t you dizzy?”
She doesn’t answer. His little sister doesn’t even look at him. She just keeps dragging him along the mountain side, away from the encroaching riders and what will be the end for both of them if they are caught.
Taking a deep breath, forcing his sight to even out, he takes his arm back and carries on under his own willpower. They get only a few hundred yards before the riders begin to catch up, crashing through the trees. One rider tries to sever his head from his throat, narrowly missing – he thinks his hair is given a trim – as he drops down to his belly. Another rider goes for his sister, kicking her in the chest and sending her sprawling flat on her spine, rasping for air and rolling to her side.
Rett sees shadows after that, his vision tunneling as only one thought remains to him, and that is to protect his baby sister. He rolls beneath the horse of the rider that hit Kaethe, fingers making quick work of the girth as they undo the buckle. The rider and his saddle slide to the side, hitting the ground hard. Rett is on him in an unflinching second, two quick punches to the neck that collapse the throat and leave the rider suffocating. He relieves the man of his sword, hefting the unfamiliar weapon in his palm, finger remembering the feel and movements even after years of sporadic practice. He meets the second rider head on, parrying a swipe as he gets close enough to grab the saddle horn, vault himself up and drive a knee into the rider’s side. It is fast, painful; it knocks the man from his saddle where he folds hard into the ground. Rett follows him down, blade piercing the soldier’s chest, witnessing the bloody gurgle that comes seconds before death.
He staggers from the morbid scene, finding his sister already up though still obviously winded. She is relieving the first rider of the knives in his boots and placing them into the pockets in her own. When he comes forward she jumps, fingers twirling a stolen knife and preparing to throw, pausing at the last possible moment with recognition.
“You okay?” he wonders.
Kaethe nods. “You?” she returns, the question heavier this time around.
He looks away, spying movement a little ways off. “We need to move.”
They run but not fast or far enough.
“Oh, come on!” he cries, leaning his back into his sisters, shifting around as they are surrounded by the remainder of their pursuers. His earlier count is way off as sixteen riders in familiar leather and mail form pressing circle. “Seriously?” he grumbles, never one to keep quiet when the time calls for it. This is his fatal flaw, he has been told hundreds of times, from friends, family and strangers alike. “This is totally unfair. We’ve been on foot!”
His sister stabs him in the side with her bony elbow, trying to silence him.
It has never worked before, and now will be no different.
“I want a redo!” he calls while trying to figure out just who is in charge. Once he does then he knows who to hit first. Rett looks over to his sister. “We should’ve taken that horse. Why didn’t we take the horse? It makes so much more sense!”
“Shut up!” she hisses at him. “This is serious.”
“Yeah,” he mutters loud enough to echo. “Seriously wrong. They cheated. Cheating is wrong. I want a do over.”
A laugh comes from the rider to his left as a man, only a year older than him, comes forward. He is decked out in medals that he has not earned, placing him in a station that he is not worthy of. His leather is the most expensive, his mail shiny even after a week of wear. Rett knows this man to be the son of an over privileged Noble; knows that this man is the reason behind everything.
This man is the one that he will kill if that is the last thing he does.
“Who’re you?” Rett demands, feigning dumbness even though he knows exactly who this man is; could probably trace his lineage back to a time centuries gone, when war hadn’t ravaged the country and the people weren’t separated and torn. He knows who this man is beyond what heartache has been caused to his sister and their family, however small it has become. In fact, he has probably stolen from him before – he has always liked to take from those who think they are worth more than the rest. It makes Rett feel better.
The man opens his mouth to respond but he cuts him off. “Wait, I actually don’t care. So, redo? Yay or nay? I’d really like to know now rather than later. It’ll save me the effort of planning.”
“Planning?” the Noble asks, curiously tilting his head as the grin falls from his mouth.
“Yeah. I’m gonna kill you either way. I just want to know if it’s now or later.” He shrugs as though they’re simply discussing the weather.
“Rett, do you ever shut up?” his sister snaps.
“No,” he says evenly. “Why?”
“Well, you should.”
The Noble urges his horse forward until he is looming over Rett, shadowing him, forcing him to crane his neck back to see the older man’s face. “The thief is right,” he adds in. “You should listen to her.”
Rett narrows his eyes, tilting his head. “Was I talking to you?” he questions the Noble. To his sister he wonders, “Was I talking to him?”
His sister sighs, shoulders dripping in defeat. “No,” she admits with a heavy breath.
“That’s what I thought.” He turns back to the older rider, frowning, pursing his lips condescendingly. “See, I wasn’t talking to you, so why are you butting in? Didn’t your mama ever tell you it’s rude to jump into other people’s conversations? No? Well, it is. So if you wouldn’t mind backing off a hundred feet that would be great. We’ll finish up here and then we can get back to you. Sound good?”
It obviously does not because the Noble kicks his horse, the animal slamming into Rett and knocking him onto his rear, his stolen sword wheeling out of reach. His sister, seeing what is about to happen before he does jumps out of the way so that he doesn’t bring her down with him, instead landing on the tips of her toes. She stares at him, he stares up at her, and then they’re both glaring at the Noble who is leisurely sitting against his saddle horn, reigns dangling limply between his fingers. The man looks as though he has all the time in the world, never ending patience, which Rett knows to be a lie. If the man had stayed peacefully persistent in his pursuit of Kaethe, then none of them would be here.
He would be sleeping in his bed for the first time in months, not roughing it in the not-so-great outdoors as he has been this week.
“That was rude,” he says, cautiously getting upright, moving over to stand with his sister. He pushes her behind him, not approving of the way the Noble is staring at her. When she goes willingly, he knows that Kaethe likewise made nervous, latching onto the hem of his jacket and biting her bottom lip. “Hey, buddy!” he calls to the man, making an attempt at drawing attention away from her and onto himself. “Keep your eyes off her before I carve them out of your skull.”
Two riders on either side move forward, seeing his threat for what it truly is. The Noble, on the other hand, thinks it is just a joke, waving them back and smiling.
“Garrett Levitt,” the Noble says airily, tsking his tongue and shaking his head. “I am quite surprised by you. From what I have heard . . . well, it’s not much.”
“And . . . ?” he prompts, wanting to keep him talking until he can come up with a plan for escape.
“You were never painted as the family type.”
“I’ve actually never been painted at all,” Rett quips, pushing back as the riders begin to close in. “I don’t know where you’ve been getting your information from, but the fact that you’ve been looking into me, well, it’s kinda creepy. I’m flattered, I guess, but I’m a lady’s man so . . .”
Several moments pass as the Noble thinks over what Rett has said, and then he finally realizes that it is the dig that it was meant to be. The older man’s face purples, the vein in his forehead pulsing. He looks just about ready to lunge at Rett, and he hopes the Noble does just so he has a reason to break his neck – not that he really needs another reason, come to think of it, but it would be much easier if the Noble was off his horse.
The tense silence continues for a few seconds longer, and then the Noble is straightening, his features smoothing out as he changes to carefree laughing.
“You are quite the humorous one, Garrett.”
He pulls a face. “Aw, my full name? Now you sound like my mother. Am I in trouble? I swear I didn’t do anything.”
“You killed two of my men just over there,” the Noble answers evenly with a nod behind.
“Anything too bad,” he amends. “I didn’t feel comfortable with them following me, kinda like how you have for the past week. It’s not a good way to build a healthy relationship, you know. So how about we talk about this? Talking’s always good. It’s the perfect place to start, don’t you think? No? Oh . . . well, I’m out of anything to say.”
The Noble looks to his sister, his eyes a little too hooded, a little too thirsty, a little too needy. He feels his sister shiver behind him and he steps between the two, daring the older man to do something, anything – so long as he isn’t looking at his sister like she’s some whore to grovel at his feet.
“Kaethe, you never mentioned that your brother is quite the comedian.”
She keeps quiet.
“In fact, you never once mentioned Garrett to me. Why is that?” The Noble looms closer, pinning the two of them between the horses, giving them no room to move or run, flee or fight. Trapped, just like he always wanted.
“Please, just let us go,” Kae begs, her voice meek as so uncharacteristic of the little girl he watched grow up that Rett is given over to a sudden need to protect her, even with his life. She is his baby sister, his beautiful baby sister with a bossy attitude and a penchant for taking things she probably shouldn’t, but his sister all the same. He needs to protect her. He’s failed her once and . . . he can’t fail again.
“You know what you must do,” the Noble answers, haughtily sitting upright atop his horse. “Come with me and you will live.”
“Kae, don’t,” Rett snaps, grabbing onto her wrist and holding firm.
“What about my brother?” she wonders, ignoring him with intent.
The older man sighs, as though this is a tedious business transaction and not a bargaining for lives. “I suppose we could let him go free. So long as he swears to sail away and never return. How does that sound, Garrett?”
“No deal,” he answers quickly. He turns to his sister. “Don’t be stupid, Kae.”
She glowers at him, her lip quivering but her eyes firm. “You don’t be stupid.”
“You know what will happen if you go with him.”
“Yeah. You won’t get killed,” she retorts even as she becomes haunted.
“But you’ll be killing yourself,” he returns.
His sister shrugs, eyelids fluttering to stem off the tears that are suddenly swimming underneath. “Better me than you, right?”
“. . . No.” He spins to the Noble. “No deal. You can’t have her, you sick, twisted, disgusting—” Rett is cut off when the Noble plows forward, knocking him over once more but this time continuing on with the intent of trampling him. Darting beneath the horse’s legs he takes in the other riders moving forward, knowing that the time for talking is over – his time is up for putting together a plan. “Kaethe! RUN!” He rolls to safety, springing up and spanking the Noble’s horse on the rear, startling the animal – nearly getting his head crushed by a wayward hoof – and sending it flying off into the trees.
A hand grabs onto his hair, throwing him off balance and driving him into the dirt. He hits hard, choking on dust and leaves, coughing as he stumbles back upright.
He turns around, finds his sister swinging up behind one rider, dagger bloody and gleaming in her hand. She drives the knife twice into the rider’s back. The man cries out, loses his seat in the saddle, and then falls heavily to his chest where he does not rise. Kaethe takes the vacated seat, wheeling the horse around and charging into another rider while knifing an approaching soldier. She jumps from her acquired horse, tackling the man who hits the ground beneath her.
A yell behind alerts him to the impending threat. Dropping to his hands and knees, he rolls backwards, springing up alongside a rider who so very conveniently has a quiver of arrows dangling from the saddle. Rett grabs a handful on instinct, taking one in his left and driving it into the rider’s thigh. There is a pained scream, but he does not linger for the retaliation or to finish the job. He moves on, throwing aside an attempted stab at his stomach, spinning close and thrusting a second arrow into the soldier’s throat. Jumping across the body he keeps going, head butting a man that thought to catch him unawares. His third and fourth arrows snap deep in the soldier’s chest, and then he is shoving the remainder into his boot, picking up the bladed stave that was dropped.
“KAE!” he screams, searching her out without diverting his attention from the group that is bearing down upon him. He slashes at one, only missing by a finger’s width. Twirling the stave over his head he stabs at another, withdrawing after making contact to block at attempt at his unprotected spine. “KAE!” He twists the soldier’s sword from his grip, sidesteps behind him and then snaps the man’s neck.
The first comes at him again, and it takes all of Rett’s focus to stay away from the onslaught that is unleashed. He loses his place, backing across the leaves, sliding and staggering as he tries to gain the upper hand.
A hole in the ground catches his foot and he falls. His ankle turns harshly, a popping echoing up to his ears. “Gah,” he hisses, squeezing his eyes closed as he rides out the sudden pain. When he opens them again it is to find the tip of a sword pointed at his throat, the point biting into his skin.
Just as suddenly as the fighting begins, it is over.
He is on the ground, literally held at sword-point. Across the way he sees his sister held by her throat, choking but still struggling.
Rett glares up at the Noble, just barely resisting the urge to spit in his face. “Not as impressive as your hair,” he replies, smirking at the twigs and leaves that have been caught in the strands. “Did you get caught by a branch?”
A boot drives into his stomach, cracking a rib and wrenching the air from his lungs.
He coughs. Kaethe screams.
“. . . I’ll take that as a yes?” he croaks.
“You know,” the Noble says conversationally, nodding to one of his men who lifts his sword and stalks closer. “Your sister is right . . . You should learn to shut your mouth once in a while.”
“Eh. Maybe one day.”
“But perhaps it is too late.”
The soldier is over him now, and with one final nod from the Noble, the man strikes down.