Prologue - Bala
The Slavers came at night. Silent and swift, they poured through the rusted iron gates of our small convent, their torches and drawn blades flashing under the light of the full moon. By the time they raised the alarm, it was too late. Screams and the sounds of slaughter filled the air as Mother Calista burst into my room, the orange glow of the fire lighting her petrified face.
“Bala, get up! Now!” She hissed, ushering me out of bed and toward a back window, her long elven ears pinned back in abject fear.
“What’s going on?” I cried, my voice shaking with fright as she boosted me onto the cold stone windowsill. Mother Calista didn’t reply, but her gnarled hands shook as they gripped my waist, her long fingers slick with blood that smeared dark lines across my white nightdress. My throat seized at the stains. Her gaze flicked to mine, the fear in her usually calm eyes nearly sending me to my knees. She forced me off the sill and into the cold dark woods on stumbling bare feet.
“Mother!” I sobbed, turning back with tears in my eyes. She shushed me quickly, putting a bloody finger firmly to her lips. Biting down hard on my bottom lip, I swallowed my sobs and reached, trying to help her through the small window. Ignoring my efforts, she clutched my hands in a fierce grip, her piercing eyes boring into mine with shining intensity.
“Take the horse from the stables and head east, out the valley. Follow the river. There’s a mining town not far from here who can send for help. Now go!”
“What about you?” My voice cracked, becoming childlike and small as I gripped her fingers, her withered birdlike bones seeming far too fragile under my grip.
“I’ll be fine.” She croaked with a shaky smile, her palm reaching up to cup my face wiping away the tears with a careful thumb. Pulling me in quickly, Mother Calista planted a kiss on my forehead, murmured a prayer of guidance into my hair then shoved me away. “Go, Bala,” she begged. “Go!”
Staring at her one last time, I tried to memorise her soft wrinkled face and age-old eyes that gazed at me with a fierce love. A dreadful sense of finality rose in my gut. Please , I prayed, please let me see her again.
Wrenching myself around, I stumbled through the woods, my bare feet slipping on the thick layer of snow that had fallen earlier in the night, the harsh cold biting my toes. Through the darkness, I spotted the small stable that hunched at the edge of the tiny paddock. Merry, a stocky white mare, tossed her head and fussed at the smoke pouring from the burning buildings behind me.
My fingers shook with adrenaline and cold, fumbling over the slide bolt of the stable door. Merry huffed with agitation stamping her hooves, ears flicking back and forth at the cracking flames and distant screams. Murmuring gently through chattering teeth, I ran my hands down her broad neck while she snorted and swung her head, eyes wild.
The commotion from the convent grew worse. The fire consuming the thatched barn rooftop now blazed high above the trees. Flames jumped from roof to roof until an inferno engulfed the wooden spires atop the main temple, at the centre of the convent grounds. Gasping, I watched in horror as the highest spire groaned and creaked. The agonising scream of splintering wood was almost deafening as the structure listed perilously to one side. I screamed in horror as, with an almighty crack of shattering wood, the spire collapsed in a cloud of bright embers, a wave of burning heat hitting a second later. Voices howled and screamed in unison, heralding the destruction as smoke, ash, and embers fell through the trees like rain.
Tearing my streaming eyes away from the destruction, I leapt onto Merry’s back. I urged her out of the stables, steering her head east toward the lazy river. I hesitated. I hanever, in all my short life, left the convent grounds. Everything beyond the light of the fires was alien to me, and cold fear lanced down my spine, my heart squeezing painfully. I didn’t have a choice. I would follow the river east through the distant narrow gap in the mountain peaks that loomed above the dense forest and find help or… I didn’t want to think about the alternative.
Small animals scurried from their burrows and nests to escape the flames, panicking Merry into a rearing dance, knocking me out of my indecision. A familiar voice whimpered behind me. Whipping around, I squinted through the smoke as a small, willowy figure stumbled through the gloom from one of the boarding houses. Clothes torn and bloody, they tottered toward me on weak, wobbly legs. Calling out as loud as I dared, I waved my hands, catching their attention. No way was I leaving anyone else behind if I could help it.
“Hurry”, I called anxiously, trying to manoeuvre the stubborn mare around toward them.
As they lurched closer, I recognised Layla, one of our youngest noviciate. She was limping and bloody, her curly brown hair plastered to her head with gore, her skin ashen and covered in soot and burns. Her large terrified eyes met my own, hers flooding with recognition and relief, her pointed ears flicking forward in concentration. Smiling tightly, I leaned down to grab her dainty wrist wanting to haul her up into my arms, grateful not to be alone. Just as our hands clasped, a violent jolt ripped through Layla’s tiny body, a wet gasp punching from her cracked lips. Eyes still burning into mine, she coughed, blood splattering her chin and our joined hands. Knees buckling under her, Layla fell from my grip and crumpled to the ground with a wet gurgling sigh, a barbed arrow embedded deep in her skinny torso.
Shrieking, I scrambled off Merry’s back, eyes locked on Layla’s unmoving body as blood pooled around her, staining the snow cherry red. Heavy rattling thuds of armoured boots shut me in place as a handful of slavers jogged around the buildings into view. I stared frozen, gripping Merry’s mane as the infernos’ light reflected off their polished black plate armour, vicious hooks and spears shining wickedly. A shout ordered the archers to raise their crossbows, dropping to a knee, ready for a second volley.
Wielding Merry around, I snapped my knees into her flanks, launching into a mad gallop weaving through the trees. The distinct whistle of arrows rained down around us. The moon was full and bright, and the path clear. Any hope that gave vanished with the gut-wrenching howl of hunting dogs as they picked up the scent.
Squeezing my knees into her sides, I begged Merry to pick up the pace. Low hanging branches lashed at my skin from the dark, leaving lines of red in their wake, blood trickling down my cheeks and neck. Harsh, freezing winds whipped at my face tearing at my thin sleeping gown, drawing out any warmth. Ignoring it all, I pinned my ears back, listening hard. Not far behind us, the hounds were gaining and the faint noise of a dozen sets of hooves pounding through the snow in hot pursuit.
The mountains encircled impossibly high through the bare branches, trapping us like a jagged cage. The river to my left curved and twisted deeper and deeper into the woods, no sign of the pass in sight. The hounds were on us all too soon, snapping and snarling at Merry’s heels, corralling us further and further away from the river, pinning us against the steep mountainsides. Clinging to her back, I tried my best to guide Merry as she tossed her head, kicking out her back hooves in fear. Aiming for the tightest gaps, we wove in and out of trees, trying to knock the hounds off our flanks, the dogs snarling and jumping, their shining teeth snapping just shy of my ankles.
Gritting my teeth, I breathed, fighting the fear enough to think. The river was gone, lost somewhere in our mad dash to escape. Staring in vain at the jagged slope, a memory came to me; the trappers! Older men and women who knew these mountains better than anyone. They were always talking about the trails that led up over the peaks. All I had to do was reach one of them. Losing the hounds would be easy after that. The narrow, treacherous pathways and numerous streams and falls the trappers talked about would make the scent too hard to follow, or at least I hoped.
Adjusting my knees, I urged Merry into a tight turn up the mountain, the ground rising sharply around us as we hammered through the snow. Trees grew thinner as our altitude steadily climbed. Merry snorting and leaping foreword as the hounds bayed, their teeth flashing in my periphery, sensing their quarry was almost in their grasp. Snowfall had been heavy this winter, but Merry forced her way through, the knee-high drifts slowing down the dogs just enough for us to pull ahead. I spotted it against all the odds, a precarious rabbit trail zig-zagging up the steep slope before us, disappearing among the sharp cliffs and boulders. Whether it led to the mining town didn’t matter, anything will do as long as it got us away from this valley.
“Come on, Merry. Not far girl,” I whispered, petting her neck. Breathing deeply, I focused on scanning the mountainside intently, searching for anything I could use to my advantage, wracking my brain for ideas. High above our heads, I spotted what I was looking for; a vast deep snowdrift that clung precariously to the jagged grey cliffs above the path.
Reaching a tight switchback in the trail well out the way, I hauled Merry to a stop, the mare panting and shivering as I flung my hands to the sky. Concentrating, I grasped for the beat of arcane energy that flowed as naturally as blood through my veins. Raising my voice in a thundering prayer, I begged the goddess for help. I lashed my arms out, my fingers sparking and burning with power spearing the air with crackling energy. Holding my breath, I imagined great invisible claws raking the snow over the precipice sweeping everything away in a deadly white wave. Below shouts went up as the slavers reached the bottom of the slope and encouraged their dogs and horses on, prey in sight.
I yanked my hands back with a hoarse scream, releasing my hold on the power. The air snapped with charged energy like a miniature lightning storm, static racing down my limbs. Then, there was a beat of silence, the air tense with stillness. A heavy, creaking rumble boomed across the valley, the great bank of snow shifting foreword like a waking giant. I spun on Merry’s back, my heart leaping in triumph, watching with vengeful glee as the snow flowed down the slope with a thunderous roar. Men and horses screamed as the surge of rock, ice and snow engulfed them, dogs and all.
In the deafening silence, I scanned the slope, all signs of the slavers buried. I smiled grimly and sagged against Merry’s neck, feeling the immense drain on my energies from shifting so much weight. Exhausted and gripping Merry’s mane to keep me upright, I motioned her on.
A sharp gasp punched out my chest as something impacted my leg like a sledgehammer, nearly throwing me over Merry’s shoulder with its force. Looking down, dazed, I saw the dripping red point of a curved arrowhead protruding from my thigh. It jerked back, yanking me off Merry with a shriek, tearing skin and muscle as it wrenched me through the air.
I landed hard, the impact knocking my breath away. I scrabbled in the snow and dirt, searching for purchase with weak fingers. I could feel the shaft of the arrow twist and pull, tearing the muscle apart from bone as it jerked again, dragging me down the slope. Guttural animal noises tore up my throat, the pain so great my vision faded in and out. Grabbing the arrow on reflex as it towed me over rocks and debris, I felt a thin metal wire attached to the nock of the shaft like a fishing line.
Fighting the urge to curl into a ball and weep, I gripped the wire in both fists and wrenched back. Tears streamed down my face in heaving sobs as blood dripped between my fingers, hot and sticky, the wire slicing into my palms. Blind terror and pain weakened my already weak grip. The chain yanked back again. It whipped out my hands, flipping me over and leaving a stark bloody smear against the white earth behind me.
A maniacal wheezy chuckle caught my ears. Looking through weeping eyes, a Slaver appeared in the dark, bloody faced and gleeful as he glared at me. Crossbow at his feet, the Slaver wrapped the black wire deliberately around a gloved palm and whipped his hand violently downward. His movement sent an arc rippling down the metal cable to wrench the arrow buried in my leg. A scream exploded from my throat, my body convulsing, and my vision spotty. Slumping to the ground, I panted, sweat pouring down my neck and my entire frame shaking uncontrollably. I’m going to die , I thought with absolute certainty. After all Mother Calista’s efforts, I couldn’t even save myself. Sagging bonelessly to the ground, I stared unblinking at the stars that shone bright and high above, so cold and oh so distant, collecting into vast unending galaxies and glittering clusters. The puddle of red under me grew, wetting my torn nightgown as a tingling numbness overtook my limbs, my vision dimming. I didn’t want to die. Not like this. Not so alone.
I felt more than heard the Slaver kneel over me. The Slaver gripped my chin, brushing the hair from my face roughly, smearing more blood across my frozen cheek. Turning my face to the side, he inspected me with a sharp eye like he would a prize animal at the market.
The Slaver looked young for a Human, with dark greasy brown hair and yellowed teeth that flashed as he leered. Panting, I swiped at his pawing hands, my arms useless dead weights, trying to twist and wriggle out of his reach any way I could. The Human tutted and seized my jaw in a vice-like hold, pinning me in place with hateful ease. The long appreciative look that he swept up and down my body forced a new type of fear to curl in my stomach. Flinging my arms up, I shoved weakly at his chest, fingernails skittering over armour. He chuckled at my paltry efforts.
“You elves are so fucking pathetic.” He muttered, the words twisting around his imperial accent as he squeezed his fingers harder around my jaw, shaking my head violently in a warning. “Good thing you fuckers are worth such good coin.”
Curling my lip into a snarl, I clawed at his wrist, but he ignored it. Grabbing the neck of my shirt to pull me up, he blinked idiotically as the worn threadbare fabric tore open. He stared down at my exposed chest, fixated as the air froze in my lungs. No. No, no, no, no! Panic helped fight the spreading paralysis as I twisted and shouted, punching, kicking and clawing at anything to get away from him. An awful immovable weight of a gloved hand secured my throat as he leaned in, an alarming spark in his hard brown eyes. Shrieking, I wrenched my head away, but a squeeze of his hand silenced me with a choked gurgle. The Slaver lowered his face so close I could smell his foul breath and oily, bloody skin. Hissing, he grinned wide and foul, red spittle flying from his mouth.
“You might be worth a little more.”
I felt the sharp edges of a fist-sized rock catch on the tips of my groping fingers. I forced myself to relax, silently begging him not to notice, not to look as I prised up my weapon. The Slaver took my sigh and wilted expression as submission. His grin grew broad, showing off even more blunt yellow teeth, adjusting his grip on my neck as he licked his lips, transferring his weight the tiniest fraction off balance. Smiling weakly, I twisted fast, faster than any Human could react and smashed the rock into his temple. The Slaver went down, releasing his grip on me and slumped to the side with a surprised grunt. I fell on him like a drunkard, striking the stone into his thick skull over and over until all that was left was a bloody, boney mash of grey and red.
Staggering up on one leg to my feet, I wailed in pain, my senses swimming in and out of focus. Wheezing and spitting blood, the high from the adrenaline fading, leaving me weaker by the moment. Grabbing the wire, I snatched up the Slavers dagger. I levered the point into the tiny chainlink with thick, clumsy fingers, gingerly snapping it free from the arrow. Flinging the blade and wire down, snarling out the blackest curse on his bloodline I could think of, I swallowed the rising bile that surged up my throat and spat on the bloody remains of the Slaver.
Head spinning, I whistled for Merry, who came cantering down the now partly buried trail. Clambering on her back carefully with an agonised moan, I set her back on the destroyed pathway through the mountains as my vision tunnelled and darkness consumed me.