Goddess of Ashtresh
The night did open as if the Seamstress were making a cut and she spilled forth, bringing the Moons tangled in her brow. But Man chose to forget her, and so the first Moon did Immolate.
Outpost of the Apines, World Gate.
The Gate shuddered, then jolted violently, spitting Hellä out of it like she was a piece of gristle stuck in a tooth.
She landed hard, sprawled across the sack of books she’d been carrying through the crossing, winded.
None of the post guards offered to help her up and she groaned as she rolled onto her back slowly, breathing through her teeth. “Someone should fix that,” she said as she threw an arm over her eyes to block out the oppressive sun.
The thud of military boots on the flagstones sounded as some of them broke from their position to inspect it. Not one of them paid her any mind. She was inconspicuous; a trader from the Apines wearing common garb and lugging her rucksack through a World Gate.
Once she’d sucked in enough breath, she half pulled herself up, tucking her knees to her chest. The Gate had thrown her at least five feet from the threshold and into a patch of grass near the tree line. Was it broken? Nobody else was coming through and the archway loomed still and silent—moss covered and engraved with runes from a long dead language. Hellä tried to remember what the journey had been like. Smooth . . . the dark between worlds had carried her gently.
Until the end.
She stood, trying to see past the guards, but all she could really make out was their backs as the large men talked between themselves, blocking her view of the shadow-like mist inside the stone bricks that seemed so out of place in the still glade. “Why is it doing that?” she croaked, her head still spinning.
No one answered her, so she left her books on the ground and wandered over to where they were searching for any signs it had been damaged. Hellä bit her lip, knowing she should be quiet and not draw attention to herself. Looking back at the road, she could see the line of people waiting to cross, necks craned and eyes wide as they tried to figure out why there was a delay.
Many, like her, carried with them wares to sell in Telantes. Others were crossing to emigrate. Whole families lined up in the hot sun, loaded with supplies and personal items. A guard in a brilliant green coat held the group back, trying to explain that it had stopped functioning properly and they would have to wait. His sword was left in its sheath, so things weren’t escalating yet.
But she wanted to get out of here before they did. Already, she could hear some outraged cries from the front of the crowd. “My children can’t wait much longer, we’ve already been here for hours, they’re tired.”
“It should be running soon, sir. You need to be patient while we look into it.”
At least this particular guard didn’t treat the people as if they were vermin to be crushed beneath his heel. She’d seen that happen before.
Hellä grabbed the rucksack again and threw it over her shoulder, clenching her jaw at the weight. The fall had bruised her, but she wouldn’t be able to inspect how badly until she was home. She left the sunlit place quickly, her head bent low as she ducked around the guard, hoping to avoid being questioned. She had been the last one through.
“Excuse me,” the young man said from just behind her, making a grab for her arm. She side-stepped, a subtle movement that could be mistaken for her not hearing him, and kept walking. Sweat beaded at the nape of her neck. She should have been quiet from the beginning. Should have tried harder to meld into the line, or disappear into the trees.
Hellä had her identification slip on her—something everyone in the kingdom was required to carry on their person—but even though hers might hold up to close inspection, she didn’t want to take that risk.
From her periphery, she could see the crowd watching her as she picked up her pace slightly. The man couldn’t leave his position for fear the crowd would swarm the Gate but Hellä knew he’d be frantically trying to signal his peers. She wanted some distance before she ran.
The line continued well into the forest, and the scent of animals and fire-roasted meat filled the air. She was glad for the shade of the giant trees above her. The leaves were as wide as her hand and they hissed against each other in a gentle percussion. Any moment now.
“Girl!” an authoritative voice called from back in the glade. Still far away, they were still far away. But her instinct was screaming at her to hall ass out of there.
“Stand down! You are required by members of the Royal Guard to stand down for questioning.”
And even though she could hear as their boots met the dirt road, she kept her pace. She had to time it right, or there would be no way of getting home safely.
Hellä scanned her surroundings. There were living wagons scattered along the edge of the road in the Midaby Forest, wooden enclosures that usually stayed until the colder months, when their owners had them pulled somewhere warm. They created a sense of livelihood at the Gate—which would have otherwise been a stark military operation. A transient market of colorful travelling homes and stalls. Hellä had never been able to sell the rocks here. She’d tried, once, but the people who oversaw the buying-and-selling of goods in the Midaby had scowled at her the entire time, until she’d relented, packing away her makeshift table. Hellä had a home at the edge of the Apines.
Whether she liked it or not.
She kicked up dirt as she wove through the market briskly, the hem of her dress brown from dust, and covered in grass stains from her tumble through the crossing. Her stomach was tight as she tried to find the familiar wagon, her gaze sliding past a food stall, a table set with handmade tools, a woman selling small caged animals. She felt sorry for the ferrets cramped in their tiny crate at the crones feet, but she had other things to worry about. There.
Brishan’s wagon was painted a lovely maroon, further back from the road than the rest. A small chimney in the iron roof let out a cloud of gray smoke. He looked up from his lazy perch on the tree stump beside his two gorgeous geldings, dark eyes wide as they took her in. As they slid behind her, to where the patrol was advancing. Her fear spiked at his expression but she only gave him a small, pleading grimace before she plunged into the trees.
Now that she was running, her rucksack had a mind of its own. It bounced across her back painfully, books digging into her flesh as sweat came in torrents down her face. She had to get rid of it or she’d never leave this place.
Branches whipped out at her, the forest a blur of green and gold as she passed. Her lungs were burning, and the air was stagnant. Hot.
Leaping over a fallen log, Hellä veered left, hoping to loop back around. But the guards were faster than she had anticipated and she could hear their weapons sing upon being drawn, heard as the captain hissed his order for them to fan out. She was going to have to climb.
She swung the sack to her front, clutching on to it as she ran. There was a good sized hollow in a hemlock up ahead, she could leave the books there and come back for them once it was safe. The thought pained her—if Naida knew what she was about to do she’d never trade with Hellä again, friends or not. But she had no choice. She could sense them now. Taking up space in the otherwise wild forest. Their presence clumsy, loud.
Her heart clattered against her chest as she stopped running, drawing in quick breaths to give her strength for the second part of her plan. She stuffed the rucksack inside the tree, throwing some dead leaves over it before her head whipped behind her, trying to get a sense for their direction.
They hadn’t found a trail yet, hoping that by breaking up their rank they could ambush her. Without the weight of the rucksack, though, Hellä was faster than the human guards.
She made good ground. Winding back through parts of the forest that had already seen her feet, she hoped to confuse them. When she could no longer hear them, Hellä swung herself up onto a sturdy branch and began to climb the ancient tree.
Her hair would be a giveaway if they were smart enough to look up. She hadn’t thought today would go so badly that she’d need a cloak, and the only weapon she had was a dagger sheathed in her boot. Arms quaking with the effort of her climb, she shuffled across the branch to rest her back against the tree truck, now a good thirty feet in the air. Her breaths were coming in rapidly, and she closed her eyes, throwing her head back and trying to silence her fear.
How could a single day go so wrong?
It had started off well, too. She’d traded a good cache of rocks to Naida in exchange for those books she’d had to leave somewhere in the forest. Telantes had been wonderful as always, and the library had been warm and inviting. And then the Gate had thrown her out. Had somehow stopped working.
There were six Gates that connected Ashtresh to the otherworlds. Hellä had only used the one linking them to Telantes, but she’d dreamed about the others countless times. To her they seemed almost unattainable. Osran didn’t approve of her entering even the Seraph city. She understood why, knew the risks, but she couldn’t spend her days rotting away at the sheep farm, hoping for life to happen to her.
She stilled her breathing as branches snapped below her. Two of them, moving slow, like they were trying to pick up a trail. Humans knew nothing of being still. Of sweeping through the wilds like they were simply a part of the forest. No, they had to disturb the underbrush, bend the leaves as they brushed past. Stomp footprints into the moss cover.
For a second, the forest went completely quiet. And she couldn’t bring herself to look down and see their faces staring up at her. Her fingers brushed the pommel at her ankle, shoulders tensed. If she’d had at least a few rocks in her pockets she could have used them as weapons, and how they would have been good weapons, too. She imagined the way they sailed through the air, connecting with their skulls and sending the guards to an endless sleep.
Too bad Naida had wanted them all.
The beauty of having the Gate was that precious commodities, particularly magical ones, were worth more to Telantes than they were here. But it also meant that anything that came from the Seraph’s and was brought back through the crossing to Ashtresh was at least tripled in value.
The books she brought back with her could fill the coffer of a king for a month. Not that she could ever sell them. They were specifically on loan, with the understanding that Hellä was to bring them back undamaged if she wanted to keep borrowing from the library.
To Naida, the geodes were almost holy. Hellä had no idea why she revered them so much, only that the Seraph histories were old and hard to decipher at times. She’d been lucky to find something as precious as those books to trade. Money was needed for her family, but information . . . it could set them free.
Then the footsteps resumed, and she could see their dark hair as they walked further east, swallowed up by the bright woodland.
The quiet lulled Hellä to sleep, resting against the tree, she dozed for a while. Until something hit the base of the trunk, nearly knocking her off. She drew her blade out in moments.
“Come on,” a familiar voice called up to her. “I’ll take you home.”
With a sigh of relief, Hellä climbed down, taking care to test her weight on the thinner looking branches before fully stepping on them. By the time her feet touched the ground at the bottom she learned what the young man had thrown at the tree.
“Brishan!” she said, diving for her rucksack. She untied the canvas, plunging a hand in to see if the books had survived.
“It was either that or coming up to get you, but I figured you would have gotten a fright and fallen to your death if I did. Then I would have had to bury you somewhere out here.”
She snorted, pulse slowing when she realized they all felt in-tact. “Thank you,” she said quickly. “For coming to get me.”
He gave her a terse nod. “Things are quiet now. Whatever you did to the Gate, it cleared out the road. There are still guards scanning the area but if we can get past them we should be fine to ride out of the valley.”
She hoisted the sack. “I didn’t do anything to it.”
He shrugged, dark tunic crinkling with the movement. “I figured you got in a fight with a Seraph and had to make a quick exit.”
She chuckled soundlessly, still wary of making too much noise, and followed him through the dense trees. “I’d never fight a Seraph. Do you even know how beautiful they are?”
He pulled a long tree branch across, giving her room to pass without disturbing the flora. She could hear the trickle of a brook somewhere close. “I know you don’t want to go through the Gate, but you should at least see the city at their end. The buildings are all fortified with marble. Marble, Brishan, can you imagine that here?”
He was only half listening as he scanned the woods for the best route back to his wagon. With that half-wild look on his face, she thought he might not be all that human. The idea startled her. She’d known Brishan for two years now, ever since she’d been on the lookout for a good meal one morning before crossing and had found his table amongst the rest.
Only now did he seem different. Like her.
“So their city is opulent, what makes them different from you and I?”
She let her gaze drift down. There were many distinctions between the different casts in Ashtresh, and with those differences came prejudices. She didn’t want to get into that, but she knew what Brishan meant.
All bleed the same. Though some more than others, she reminded herself.
“Their codes,” she said after a while. “They protect those beneath them.”
“They’re just laws, Hellä. We have laws here too. Be careful not to get too infatuated. I don’t trust anything that seems too good to be true.”
They broke from the tree line and Hellä tensed. But the road up ahead had been abandoned like Brishan said, and there were only a few wagons along the outskirts. It looked like they were getting ready to leave soon.
She swallowed back the thick feeling in the air. The Midaby had never looked so empty.
“Go inside,” he said, his jaw tight as he surveyed the area. “I’ll hitch the horses.”