The Seekers: Soul Ties

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The Seekers: Soul Ties

Copyright © Anton Anderson, 2021

Cover art: Anton Anderson

Illustrations: Anton Anderson

Proofreading: Judi Weiss (find her at reedsy.com)



First of all, I want to thank all of you for reading my book. I put a lot of time and effort into it, so I definitely hope that you’ll enjoy it.

But if you do find errors, please send me an email at mistakes@anton-anderson.com

Secondly, my book wouldn’t be half as good without some special people. Please let me give them a shout-out in no particular order.

Will Nuessle was one of the first people reading my early drafts. Following his advice I rewrote a huge chunk of the book. And he was absolutely right, so I’m sincerely grateful to him. He also pointed out some insufficient explanations and exposition. I was honored to read the draft of his upcoming book, so I know that his opinion is not just empty words.

Anton D. Morris was another very instrumental person who helped me with my book. His advice about pacing, author’s intent, chapter structure and wastefulness — I tried to address all of his points. I was lucky enough to have read the draft of his new book «Exposed: Humanity Craves Power.» It’s a very good read, so do check it out, as well as his earlier book «MEN DJINN & ANGELS: Awakening»

And last but not least — a person J. Unlike previous two gentlemen who concentrated on the global scale, J was extremely helpful in getting right the small, but numerous things. J’s comments about insufficient explanations, unconvincing character behaviour, or just punctuation and grammar — all of it was extremely helpful for the book’s health. I was delighted to read the draft of J’s great upcoming book, but it hasn’t yet been published.

But enough with the pleasantries, let’s read! And if you want to find more of my books, do visit anton-anderson.com

White Bow-Knot

«In the pursuit of greatness, it’s easy to forget your boundaries.

I fear it may happen to you one day, and you know why.

Will I be able to help? Will you listen? I don’t know.»

— from a letter of Star to Jaesa.


The sky was a rich shade of purple today, just like those big, juicy fruits hanging from the trees near the road. In fact, the fruits were so ripe that they kept and kept on dropping bright-yellow juice on the ground. The fruits looked incredibly tasty and grew low enough to grab them easily. So why did no one in the caravan, heading down the road, pay them any notice? Maybe the reason was the nasty odor, radiating from the fruits? Maybe it was the way those drops of juice were melting their way into the sea of dark-red grass below, just like pure acid?

A caravan was a common sight in these parts of the Lands. Just a simple wooden cart, creaking through the bumps of the pressed dirt, loaded with goods, and moved by a mount. Any mount. This caravan was the igni’s, and their mounts of choice were the equi.

Those beautiful black beasts were slim, just a layer of skin on their skeletons. Constantly emitting a faint turquoise glow, the equi were the living lights at night. They walked on all fours, and their legs ended with hooves. Their long tail was constantly on the move, indicating the beast’s current mood. Big, oily-black eyes sat on both sides of their skull, looking both sad and mindful. Their long and sharp teeth were ideal for grinding meat. Each time they opened their mouths to hiss or bark, one could see a bright turquoise glow inside. What exactly was glowing and why — nobody ever knew.

A pair of igni were leading the beast forward, while the third one was walking behind the cart. Their glowing eyes kept searching nearby bushes and woods. Clutching a long spear in one hand, and a big shield in the other, they were always ready to repel attacking animals from every angle. Each also had a sword, a quiver full of arrows, and a bow.

«Hey, Iskrila, what are we transporting, exactly?» asked Haileen, one of the leaders of the procession.

Iskrila widened her dark-blue eyes in surprise. «Sabiri didn’t tell you?»

Haileen shrugged. «Star sent me, not Sabiri. I expected it to be something usual, not a single big crate, so I did not ask.»

Iskrila opened her mouth to say something, showing off her long, sharp teeth, but the words got lost somewhere along the way, making her look stupid and funny.

«Whatever.» Iskrila shook her head frantically. «It kinda makes sense you went straight to us, without seeing Sabiri. Here, take a peek.» She handed Haileen a complex-looking big key.

Haileen threw a quick glance around, and only after making sure they were safe, she left Iskrila to lead the procession alone.

While Haileen is busy opening the crate, I think I should mention what kind of species those igni were. They had two legs ending with hooves, two arms, but also a tail. Unlike animals who walk on all fours, the igni, as any sapient species of the Lands, preferred to walk upright, meaning on two legs. Each igni was two meters tall, wide and muscular, making them the second strongest and biggest sapient species. You could always spot an igni by their unique hoofprints, pressed quite deep into the dirt by all that mass. But no matter how heavy they and their armor were, the igni were also one of the fastest and most agile species, as their bodies seemed to find the perfect balance between the strength, the weight, and the agility.

Since they didn’t grow any fur on their skin, the igni had to wear clothes or armor. The trio of guards was wearing metal plates to protect their chests and backs. They also wore metal greaves and bracers. Thick, leather straps and underlayers were both holding the metal together, protecting the seams and the joints between them, and keeping the warmth. And, of course, each wore a metal helmet, for the head was the most important part to protect.

As with any species, each igni was quite unique. Every one of them had different placement, shape, and size of their horns. Each had a distinct skin color, varying from the clearest white, all the way to the night-black, but most were some shade of red, purple, or orange. Their glowing eyes could also be of every hue, but usually a bright and vibrant one. And each had a slightly different tip on their tail: some a bit wider, some a bit longer, but all were harder than steel, making the tail into a weapon as much as it was a third arm, a rope, or a mood indicator.

«Amazing!» a metallic voice exclaimed.

Haileen returned, wearing a new, immaculate metal helmet that had a removable face protection attached to it — their newest achievement!

«This face-shielding plate should be so useful!» More cramped words managed to escape the metal trap, leaving visible only her glowing blue eyes, and a bit of dark-yellow face. «When did you have the time to make them?»

Iskrila smiled back. «I’ve apprentices, Haileen. We got to work as soon as Sabiri and Star approved the design.»

She tried to make the helmets look nice, but since they were generic, the openings for horns had to be quite large, otherwise not every igni would be able to wear them. And even though Iskrila loved dark green, after the color of her own skin, the helmets were black so they wouldn’t cause any infighting over style.

«The saxum use helmets like these,» Haileen said. «Did you get the idea from them?»

Iskrila raised her eyebrows. «Yeah. Last time we were at the Market, their gear got me intrigued. How did you know they had these? You hardly ever take part in the caravans, so where could you see them?»

Haileen took another glance at the forest, but all looked safe.

«It is true, I only read some books about them. But some time ago I started to wonder: how do other species live? The saxum’s culture seems to be quite interesting, just like their gear! And I am also curious what is it like to have both females and males? The authors of our books are mostly igni, so they could not really explain.»

«Huh!» Iskrila took a second to think. «Can’t say I’m that curious, but since you are — just go ask them! Take a vacation and find out!»

«Well, no…» Haileen snickered. «I cannot leave Sabiri to do everything on her own. So, where are we moving these helmets? And why? And do we have any left for our own use?»

«To Drowners. They also need to learn how to make these. They’ll take the samples farther to the other villages.»

«That is a great idea!» Haileen went to put the helmet back into the crate. «Do you think we could also start selling them soon? Each time we visit Imbrergoso, Jaesa complains we do not make enough money to expand.»

«Well, she’s their chief — of course she wants as much money for Drowners as possible. If they can secure the materials and find the buyers, then sure…»

Before Iskrila could finish the sentence, an irresistible force jerked her body down. An arrow flew by, barely missing her head.

«Group up!» Haileen’s command pierced the air.

Trying to ignore the invisible hammer smashing something deep inside her chest, Iskrila raised her shield, tried to look around… But there was no one to carry out the order. With the corner of her eye, Iskrila saw how Aip, the third guard, fell down on the ground with a few arrows sticking from her shoulder and neck. Where are they hiding? So many bushes all around her — the enemy could be anywhere!

Run! There was no other thought in Iskrila’s mind. She had to! Was it her own thought? Or was it the artifact’s that was hanging under her clothes, inflaming her every nerve with its heartbeat and horror? What would Sabiri do? The road looked clear, if she only could…

A sharp, piercing pain suddenly ripped into her leg. Trying not to fall, Iskrila glanced at Haileen, hoping she could see the attackers. That calm face looked so out of place right then. An arrow landed in the wooden cart right near Haileen’s head, but still it failed to make her flinch.

What was the plan? How could they get away? Why was Haileen dropping her spear on the ground? Why was she doing the same with her shield? Suddenly, Iskrila’s wounded leg gave up, forcing her to kneel.


She knew it was hopeless the moment it happened, but she just had to try! Iskrila dropped her own weapon and shield, then turned around to finally see the attackers.

The igni, a whole bunch of them. Good armor and weapons. Some of them were still hiding in the bushes, but the rest were already creeping towards them. Keeping the defeated foe under a constant aim of bows, they surrounded the caravan. Now Iskrila could see the sigil on their armor.

That can’t be right! Iskrila blinked, then looked again, squinting her eyes to better see the pattern. What?

«Who the fuck are you?» escaped from her mouth.

It was so hard to speak under the artifact’s toll, that she had to spit out each word in rhythm with its magical heartbeat.

«Why the damn do you wear Drowners’ sigil?»

Those words made the attackers pause. After exchanging confused looks, they decided to not say anything. Instead, two of them aimed their bows directly at her face.

Looking death in the eye was sadly familiar. The sudden weight of horror, pinning her down to the ground. The way she remembered Sabiri and every other person dear to her, completely unable to focus on any of them, unable to say goodbye. The way her heart was pumping blood through her veins, in sync with that fucking artifact that had failed to warn her in time. The pain in her leg, echoing with every beat. The helplessness, watching another enemy coming close to her, kneeling down, putting her hand on the arrow in her wounded leg. Her face was so close to Iskrila, and on that face… Was it pain she saw on it? Guilt? Shame? Disgust? The igni pulled…


Today was a good day, by any definition. Frolicking birds were filling the air with their songs. They made their nests on a Land crumb — a piece of a rock and dirt, slowly floating hundreds of meters into the sky. Safe from land predators, the Land crumbs were a nearly perfect place to be safe and to raise offspring.

When such rocks flew above her head, they always reminded Sabiri about the good old times when her own children were home. Now they’d all left in search of something new and exciting. Yes, that meant she was living alone with Iskrila for a few years now. The house seemed too big and too empty. But it was okay. Sabiri was proud of her children, and she did everything to enable them to go wherever they wanted.

Warm, gentle wind was stroking her skin. No one bothered her. The breakfast Iskrila made this morning was amazing. Yet, she felt no joy. No joy at all.

Sabiri was sitting on a wide bench near her house, trying to get some work done. Dark-orange skin on her palm was muddy with black ink — she was too lazy to wait for it to dry when she wrote. Her red eyes were staring at a single point without moving. To one of her big horns, twisted like a spiral staircase and narrowing at the top, was pinned a small piece of paper. It was quietly rustling in the wind, making sure she wouldn’t forget to read it. Her thick leather jacket could stop a knife, like the one she was carrying in a holster on her shorts. But the main weapon was a sword, attached to Sabiri’s belt.

A big table in front of her was used for meals about as often as for work. She wished the work was as enjoyable as a meal with good company, but it was still nicer to read and write under the bright sun than with a lamp. A pile of scrolls in front of her seemed endless and useless: maps, duty rosters, schedules, supply inventories… The smell of old paper was teasing her long nose, but today there was no joy in it. Smaller, unrolled pieces of paper were laying all around, even on the blue grass under her hooves — that was mail. A beautiful quill was sitting in a bottle of ink, waiting to be used.

The more she looked at the map, the more frustrated she got. There it was, the Great Lake. Four igni villages were dispersed evenly over its bank.

Imbralestan, named after the beautiful vapor that rises in the air when it rains upon the lava lakes. The name has transformed greatly over the years, and now people of Imbralestan were usually called just the Vapors.

Poinistan, marking their chief’s love for the scarlet color. The Scarlets, in fact, all seemed to like red.

Imbrergoso, or Drowners in casual speech.

And, finally, Coracastan — her home. Sabiri still hadn’t asked Star about the name’s origin. As she recalled, Star didn’t really like to dance, but maybe she used to? It was almost three hundred years ago, after all.

Sabiri was born much later, but just in time to take part in building the road that encircled all the villages. Later, the igni and other species all around the Lands connected their own paths to the road, ending the villages’ seclusion. Star had so many hopes of becoming a transport or a trade hub in these parts, but it never happened. All major places of trading and crafts were eventually interconnected by straighter and wider roads, leaving the villages with few visitors.

She needed a distraction, to stretch her legs. There were still a few hours before lunch so almost everyone was working, leaving the streets empty. Sabiri always liked to look around when she walked. Their village was considered rather large, with about three and a half hundred population and about a hundred buildings. But those numbers were still low enough for everyone to know each other. Every road was familiar, every building. Sometimes Sabiri found this boring, but every year kept bringing her something cool.

The wonderful smell of soup grabbed her attention, as she was making her way towards the market. Through an open window, Sabiri saw a cooking lesson in action. Two girls looked focused, listening to an adult igni who was standing in front of a big, steaming pot with a ladle in her hand. Sabiri grabbed the note from her horn, refreshed its contents in her memory, then pinned it back on. Today she wouldn’t forget to buy what she needed!

«Hey, Sabiri!» She heard a familiar voice.

Instead of using the road, Star was making her way between the houses, which was often faster. Her favorite white sweater and shorts looked great on her skin, which was such a deep purple it was almost black. White eyes were even more unusual, matching a pair of simple, smooth, white horns. Beside her golden earrings and rings, nothing else conveyed Star’s high status.

«Hello to you too.» Sabiri smiled and shook her hand. «Where are you heading?»

«To you, actually. I was hoping to talk.»

Sabiri snickered. «And what are we doing? Can we walk at the same time?»

Star led the way. Seconds passed, yet she was keeping silent. At first, Sabiri didn’t mind, but then decided that a conversation could help her out. Yet, what should she talk about?

«See how the paint’s flaking from those door frames and windows? I do like to put little details onto my own home, and some paint is an obvious way to do it. But is there really no way to make it stick better? Or to last longer? I mean, the paint hasn’t improved in ages!»

Star scratched her head. «I don’t know, really. I’ll ask around, but there were always more important things to do.»

«Speaking of important — you wanted to talk.»

«Yes. I was thinking whether we need so much military. How many years ago did we repel the last raider attack? There’ve been no slavers in the area for quite a while now. I really think we’ve finally reached the peaceful times.»

That was almost the very question that bothered Sabiri. Still, what was the answer? Walking past the home of one of their butchers, Sabiri noticed a little stone path in front of the door. She wondered whether it was just a decoration, or to better hear the hoofsteps of the visitors?

«And we won’t hear or see them coming without the scouts and lookouts,» Sabiri said. «Those we cannot disband. But we can disband the soldiers.»

Star’s mouth curved in a wide smile. «Cut the crap, please. Just tell me what’s bothering you. There’s always something — I know you well enough.»

«Yeah, you’re onto me.» Sabiri shook her head, regretting ever agreeing to this conversation.

«I always am, and you’re always dodging questions! You need to work on yourself. Every day you need to make yourself do what’s right, what’s good for you and for all of us!»

Star was right. Shit, of course she was right! But… Sabiri cursed herself for the thousandth time today. She hated it! Keeping it all in her head already felt hardly bearable, but now when Star mentioned it out loud! That foul feeling at the bottom of her stomach… That feeling of helplessness… She hated it!

Sabiri sighed heavily. «That’s so stupid! Even if we leave the numbers of scouts intact, there are quite a few roads leading to us! Who knows if and when a new trouble would arise? Who knows exactly what would happen? How can I possibly risk getting us killed if I reduce our military numbers? But how can I keep spending so much when it’s peaceful? Even you showed up to complain about our expenses.»

«Sabiri.» Star smiled. «Don’t worry. We’ll sit down and discuss this. I know you can do it. Do you really think I’d make you my war mistress without having faith in you?»

Sabiri shook her head. «Screw that «faith’! There are facts, there’s information, and there’s crap! I do know that if we let ourselves relax, if our soldiers forget how to fight — we’re screwed when the danger comes! I don’t have «faith’ in that — I know it for a fact.»

Sabiri was about to snap but managed to control herself. She felt pathetic. And then she felt remorse. Star wasn’t at fault here. She didn’t have to listen to her yelling.

«So, should the danger come?» Star was trying a different approach. «Wouldn’t we see it coming? Couldn’t we face it together with our allies?»

«Grrr!» Sabiri let the anger out and stopped.

Could we? Would we have time? Certainly not, if the enemy is good. We shouldn’t hope to face amateurs, but we also must be realistic! Everybody is demanding me to know the future!

They stopped near the house of one of the tailors. Standing near the door was a wooden statue of an igni. It was either guarding the home, or welcoming guests. While it was as tall as a real igni, the sculpture was lacking the detail and life, especially that tail made of simple rope. Flaking paint wasn’t improving the looks, but it still was a piece of great work.

Sabiri pointed at the statue. «If we set up a bunch of them on the walls, then the enemy would overestimate our numbers greatly. Should I count on that? How can I count on anything when so many lives are at stake? How can I choose anything even remotely dangerous? But how can I keep spending more than absolutely necessary?»

Star came closer and put her hand on Sabiri’s shoulder. «Sabiri, calm down. We’ll figure it out. I’m definitely helping you with this.»

Sabiri sighed heavily. «Isn’t the final call still my responsibility?»

Star, no doubt, wanted to say something else, something encouraging perhaps. But her attention was taken by a scout, rushing as fast as the wind towards them. There was a piece of paper in her hand, and it didn’t look like good news.

A solution

She could not believe it! She just couldn’t! When they started moving towards Imbrergoso, she thought it was just a coincidence. When they entered the village, she thought that some sort of misunderstanding had occurred. When they were locked in the dungeon, she was expecting them to be released in a matter of minutes. But no! She was sitting on this wooden, hard bench for hours now!

«What the fuck is going on?» Iskrila asked Haileen.

Haileen was making her thousandth round of their cell, looking strangely thin and small without her armor. The ceiling was almost low enough to be scratched by her horns, making Iskrila think they were in a big container of sorts, not in the basement of a building. Loud clacking of Haileen’s hooves on the stone floor was both annoying and reassuring. That sound was enough to remind Iskrila that she wasn’t alone.

But no matter how much she was worried about herself, about Haileen, another thought was much more terrifying. Sabiri can’t bury yet another person she loved! The very thought of it made her blood chill. Iskrila tried to perish the thought, but it kept appearing in her brain. Even now Sabiri was probably dead worried about her, blaming herself for not providing more security with the caravan, cursing herself for not foreseeing the future. No! I must get out of here! I can’t leave Sabiri all alone in this world!

Not alone. Well, all the thoughts in her head wouldn’t leave her alone anyway. The longer she thought about the Drowners she knew, the ones she considered friends, the ones she knew for ages, the hotter her blood boiled. How could they? Why? For what? What was the reason, the point?

She wanted to beat the answer out of them. She wanted to pummel her fist into their fucking faces! She wanted to mutilate them with her claws! The claws that refused to retreat back into her fingertips because she was so on edge! She needed to get out of here. Oh, Sabiri, please don’t worry too much! It’ll be okay. The moment I get out of this freaking dungeon!

The sun was barely shining through a few small windows, indicating that it was already evening. Oh, those naughty windows, baiting her so with the freedom they promised! Not only were they too small for the igni to squeeze through, but those thick metal bars made her question their size. Made her feel that it was possible to escape that way! And the glass in the window was totally cutting off their ability to hear what was going on! Many little birds loved to sing at this hour, but today she wouldn’t hear a thing.

Screw these windows! First, the inmates would have to breach even thicker metal bars of the cells. She remembered coming here all those hundreds of years ago just to see how those bars were made. Lots of work and lots of metal, but she did make the same bars for her own village. She was so proud of her work!

Needing to cool off, Iskrila looked at her wounded leg. She’d removed the bandage an hour ago. There was quite a lot of dry blood, red against her dark-green skin, but the wound had already closed. Iskrila carefully tried to get up. It was a bit painful, but manageable. She took a step. Then another.

«I’ll heal in an hour or two,» she said. «Should we even think of escaping?»

Haileen stopped strolling around and looked at her. Same calm expression, Iskrila noted, if a bit preoccupied.

«You asked what was going on — I think I know the answer,» Haileen finally said. «But I don’t know why it happened. Nor do I know what would happen next.»

«Eh?» Iskrila started measuring the cell back and forth. «So, what is happening exactly?»

«Judging by the time we’ve been here — it was no coincidence, no mistake. Drowners do intend to keep us here, at least for a while. But that ambush was strange, indeed. It did not feel like they were oblivious as to who they were attacking, more like they were not prepared to face us. Were not willing to kill us, perhaps. And maybe that is the reason your amulet failed to warn you in time?»

Iskrila had no idea why her artifact had failed so miserably, but those words made her remember Aip. The way she fell on the ground, pierced by the arrows. The way the Drowners surrounded her body, arguing in whispers whether they should pull the arrows out. Iskrila’s hands clenched into fists, digging her claws deep into her skin. She felt how blood started seeping through her fingers, heard it drop onto the floor, but she didn’t care. She wanted blood. She needed it. Drowners must pay for what they’ve done!

The sudden clang of the lock finally brought the wait to an end. Both igni came closer to the bars, intending to see and hear their captors better. The door creaked, letting some fresh air inside. Two guards stayed at the door, and the third person entered.

Iskrila knew that skinny, red face very well. Recognized the harsh look of those bright green eyes. Remembered those long, twisted horns. Familiar silver earrings flashed in the light as Jaesa alone stepped inside.

She waited for the lock to close; only then did she start talking. «I’d say „good evening,“ but it wasn’t particularly good for you.»

Iskrila used to like Jaesa’s hoarse voice, but now it sounded like she was mocking her!

«Cut the crap!» Iskrila yelled. «What the actual fuck? Why did you attack us? Why didn’t you finish us off? And where the heck is Aip? If you killed her, Demon Lord’s the witness — I’ll rip your throat apart and drink your fucking blood. All of it!»

Jaesa just snickered, then looked at Haileen, expecting her to talk as well. But Haileen was silent.

«Sure.» Jaesa found a stool and sat in front of the cell. «I won’t say that I’ve killed Aip. Especially because I didn’t know her name.»

Bam! Iskrila bashed the metal bars, desperate to get her hands on Jaesa’s throat. Her heart was beating so hard and so fast, fueled by the uncontrollable rage. Doesn’t even know her name! I must get my claws on that face! She has to suffer! She has to freaking die!

«Haileen.» Jaesa turned her head. «You probably noticed something strange during the attack. I’ve no idea what happened exactly, but my people have apparently mistaken you for a foreign caravan. It’s Star’s fault, really. I told her many times about the importance of wearing a sigil.»

Star’s fault? Star’s fault? Iskrila couldn’t believe her ears. How does she dare to even mention her!

«I see.» Haileen’s ever-calm voice answered. «But since you have not offered an apology for attacking us, I believe the outcome was still desirable for you.»

Jaesa looked away and sighed. «I didn’t want to kill any of Star’s people. Or any people of the tribes. I am sorry, but apologizing is the only thing I can do, really. I didn’t even want to rob any of the tribes. After all, we’ve settled here to cooperate, to help each other. We started from nothing, the four of us. We grew, we expanded. I wouldn’t be where I am now without the rest.»

Iskrila interjected. «Didn’t want to rob — then where’s my amulet?»

With a smile, Jaesa pulled a chain from her pocket. And on the chain dangled a metallic object. It looked like a flat, round amulet almost the size of a person’s hand. Shiny, silvery surface flashed in the light, revealing complex carvings on the surface. It looked like a sun fused with a many pointed star. A part of the design looked rectangular and sharp, a part was smooth and curvy, and the rim of the amulet was covered with a pattern of incredibly tiny details. The whole thing was constantly radiating bright blue light that looked especially spectacular against Jaesa’s red skin.

«I said exactly what I meant.» Jaesa was clearly mesmerized by the artifact. «I’ll give it back the moment you’re out of here, despite it being magical and immensely valuable. Where did you get it?»

Iskrila would answer this question, but even though she doubted that Jaesa would keep her word, she was also relieved to see the artifact intact.

«So, you did want to rob, but only if the caravan was foreign?» Haileen asked. «I guess you finally gave up on the idea of convincing the chiefs and decided to do it alone?»

Jaesa smiled and snickered. «Yes, you’ve always been quick with your brain, Haileen. Your capture can illustrate how serious I am much better than any words. Don’t overstep your boundaries — and you’ll be fine.»

«What point?» Iskrila spat, too enraged to speak properly. «What boundaries? What the fuck are you up to? You think we would let you get away with this?»

Once again, Jaesa sighed and looked away. While her eyes were searching the cell for the answer, her fingers kept playing with the artifact’s chain.

«No, you probably won’t,» she finally found the words. «Whatever Star decides to do, you’d carry on her orders to the letter.»

Jaesa stood up and went towards the exit. In the doorway, she stopped and added, «I won’t risk my throat and let you go, but neither do I intend to make enemies with you. So don’t hesitate to ask the guards for whatever you like. I’ve sent the word. Star should come for you tomorrow.»


From the distance, Imbrergoso looked exactly like any other igni settlement. Dozens upon dozens of one- or two-story wooden homes, rounded up behind a circular, wooden wall. The wall wasn’t exactly circular, as it cut off in the lake, allowing easy and safe access to water. Several layers of massive logs were dug deep into the ground, making the wall thick enough to walk on top of it. The defenders had a superb view from their ten-meter elevation. Coated with thick layers of dirt and dust, baked for hundreds of years under the hot sun, the wall was now black, making the lit torches on top of it look especially bright in contrast.

Two massive banners were hanging on the wall from both sides of the giant gates. The symbol on them — Sabiri never used to think about it. It was just a crude picture of a fish, facing to the left. The mouth was open, showing long, sharp teeth. What was the key? Those teeth? The reason they chose this symbol? Sabiri wondered, if it was their way to say, «If you mess with us — you’ll feed the fish!» No, shit, of course it wasn’t. Drowners really were good people. They still are, but Jaesa… Would Drowners let her do that, or would they dethrone her and try to make amends?

It seemed like they were standing there forever. The Drowners up on the wall kept looking down on them. With their bows and arrows ready, they were pacing back and forth, watching every move of their unwelcome guests. And the guests were looking up at them, having gathered outside the arrows’ range, yet still too close for comfort. Even at their numbers, even fully armed and armored, they still looked small and insignificant compared to the village. Yet, they didn’t come to fight today. No whispers, no commands — everyone kept quiet, waiting for what was to come, listening to the giant banners on the wall flapping in the wind.

«Why didn’t her amulet warn her?» Sabiri asked.

The only head in a masked helmet turned to her.

«Maybe it did, just too late?» Star’s voice said, muffled by the mask. «Maybe it’s the only reason Iskrila is still alive? Whatever the reason, I doubt we would ever know. Aside from Demon Lord, who else could tell us how the artifact works? Sadly, he answers only when he wants.»

The letter from Jaesa was clear, but Sabiri couldn’t stop feeling anxious. What if Jaesa changes her mind? What if Iskrila did something stupid? Oh, Iskrila! As Sabiri thought of her, she once again felt that weird jerk in her diaphragm, like the ground under her hooves was suddenly gone. She’ll be alright. I’ll see her again soon, just need to wait.

Like in the old times, Star was leading the procession today. Standing in front of her seventy soldiers, her seventy people, she would be the first to receive the blow from the enemy. She would be the first to discover a trap hidden under the grass and the leaves. Sabiri wanted to convince her to back off, to not be on the very front. Yet, seeing those milk-white eyes under the mask killed any resolve Sabiri had.

«Remember the days when we were in it together? Fighting off raiders and slavers, all while barely armored and with crappy, fragile weapons?»

The shape of Star’s eyes changed as she smiled. «Seems like yesterday. We weren’t exactly together, though. We built our villages apart to increase the chance to find resources. To keep the others safe in case one village got raided. But you’re right: we’ve always had each other’s backs.»

Star caught the tip of her tail and was now playing with her fingers on its smooth, hard surface, as was her habit. No Drowners’ entourage popped off from the gates. Are you alright there, Iskrila? Sabiri asked herself. Looking at Star, who was now most likely deep in her memories, Sabiri remembered her own habit and crossed her arms.

«None of us was ready, none had experience, or knew what to do. I remember what it was like trying to sleep, not knowing if I was going to wake up.» Sabiri felt a shiver, awoken by the memories.

«I remember how terrified I was going into battle. But not you. We’re alive, we’ve had peace for ages now, and it’s only because of you! You never seemed afraid, or nervous. Even when we had to retreat, you’d always put yourself between us and the enemy. You led us even injured, all the way through.»

Star shook her head. «The only thing I was afraid of was losing any of you. Sadly, sometimes I did. And we will never see those people ever again. But don’t worry. We won’t lose Iskrila or Haileen today. Jaesa’s word is solid.»

«Solid my ass!» Sabiri wanted to let her rage out, but the distant gates finally started to open.

They didn’t open fully, but wide enough to let out quite a procession. Even before she saw Iskrila, Sabiri’s heart began to race in anticipation. There she is! A warm, sweet feeling of lightness filled Sabiri from top to bottom. Iskrila was alive and well! Sabiri’s brain didn’t even notice the heavy chains Iskrila was wearing. Oh, she noticed me! Iskrila tried to wave her hand, but the chain wouldn’t let her. Only now did Sabiri realize that Haileen was alive as well, chained to the same tie as Iskrila.

Behind them, a few Drowners were leading an equi they captured yesterday. Their equi was pushing their cart, hopefully still with its contents. And on top of it was laid Aip’s body. Sabiri’s soul ached when she was it, even though she was used to seeing death. Your death will be avenged, Sabiri thought, switching her attention to the leader of the procession.

Fucking Jaesa! Anger overwhelmed Sabiri’s heart the second she saw that red face and recognized those horns. She won’t get away with this shit! The low buzzing of whispers that filled the air told Sabiri that she wasn’t alone in her hatred. Alas, Star was right. If they killed, hurt, or captured Jaesa, the whole Imbrergoso would retaliate. They were not prepared for a real war, there was no certainty who would win, and the losses would be enormous. Our time will come!

It took about a minute for the procession to cross the field of grass between the main road and the village. The whole time Jaesa paid no attention to the soldiers behind Star and Sabiri’s backs. Her only audience was her equal, another’s tribe chief, Star, her old friend. But Star didn’t answer in kind, noting that Iskrila and Haileen looked unharmed, trying to ease Sabiri’s mind.

At first, Sabiri thought Jaesa would stop a few steps before the group. That she would let her hostages go at least some distance. But apparently, she had nothing to fear or hide from a bunch of armed and armored igni who were extremely angry with her. Sabiri looked around, made sure no one was aiming their bows at Jaesa or her people. A few soldiers were clearly gritting their teeth, struggling not to let the primal roar go. They were very close to Aip, and Sabiri understood their feelings all too well. All the fear, helplessness, and anger she felt yesterday after hearing the news about Iskrila — what would haunt her for days.

No! Sabiri pulled herself back to reality. They were not there to fight, so she needed to act accordingly, to think accordingly. So, she just stood there, hoping to reunite with Iskrila very soon. Oh, praise Demon Lord! Without saying a word, without wasting any time, Jaesa turned around and put her key inside Iskrila’s shackles. A second later, a heavy body crashed into Sabiri, almost knocking her over, almost crushing her ribs in an air-squeezing hug.

«I’m so glad you’re okay,» Sabiri wheezed, returning Iskrila’s embrace.

Smiling, Haileen came closer. «Let her breathe, please.»

Iskrila stepped back, allowing Sabiri to look at her beautiful face up close. The expression of joy and happiness she saw perfectly reflected what Sabiri was feeling herself. She almost forgot Jaesa was just a few steps in front of her. But she didn’t forget to give Haileen a proper hug before the reality intervened.

«Nice helmet! But is it nice to talk when I can’t see your face properly?»

Sabiri used to like Jaesa’s way with words, but now she sounded mocking. Sabiri forced herself to remain silent. Star’s horns made her struggle to take off the helmet, which she handed to Sabiri.

«That’s better. I just wanted to apologize personally. I never wanted to attack your people, Star. I regret that my people failed to recognize them. They’ve already forgotten how it felt to be ambushed, but actually performing one — they weren’t ready, they were too stressed. I’ll do my best to train them properly.»

Star squinted her eyes, trying to see something in Jaesa’s.

«Properly? Really? Is this what you worry about?» Star asked. «How can you bring yourself to do such things? Robbing random caravans, killing random people — that’s disgraceful! I wouldn’t believe that was your letter if I didn’t know your handwriting so well.»

Jaesa sighed heavily. «Really, Star? Really? You «couldn’t believe’? Come on! Even Haileen got it. Even she remembered that I wanted to do it for years. I can’t bear it anymore! This way I can quickly get enough coin to move out of this dump. With this much coin I can finally join the Union!»

The variety of feelings quickly changed Star’s expression a few times. She looked at Jaesa from top to bottom, like she was seeing her for the first time. It took a few seconds to find the right words.

«Frankly, I never thought you were serious. The Union is… Fuck, no! How can it be worth the killing and robbing? How can you, a kind and caring person I know, how can you even consider it? I always thought you were saying that just to push me, to make me agree on more than I was comfortable with! You really think we wouldn’t stop you?»

Jaesa snickered. «Well, thanks for having considered me a kind and decent person. I don’t mind the past tense here; it’s still a nice feeling. Sadly, I see no other way. Losing your support, and the support of the other tribes, would be difficult at first. But I focus on the long run.»

«There won’t be a long run!» Star snapped. «The scarce trade you were complaining about — your raids would destroy it entirely! Not me, not any of our tribes could survive without that trade. We’re stopping you before we are ruined, at all costs!»

Jaesa’s grin sank into a smile. «Glad to hear that I would finally push you into action. Yet, something tells me that you would prefer to sit on your hands. Such is your tradition, after all. Let’s hope that I can move soon enough and leave you in peace.»

Without saying anything else, Jaesa raised her hand, holding Iskrila’s artifact. She waited until Star took it, then turned around and went back to the village. Her people followed her slow and steady gait. Sabiri looked at Iskrila, at Haileen. They all silently watched Jaesa go, probably thinking exactly what was on Sabiri’s mind.

«What will she do next?» Sabiri asked out loud. «Whatever it is, it won’t end well for us.»

«Come on.» Star handed Iskrila her amulet. «Let’s try to mitigate the damage.»

No, we all made this decision

Iskrila always hated bad news. No matter how hard she tried to stay positive, or at least neutral, it was impossible for her. She was sitting at her small desk in her small room in the attic of one of her smithies. There were no windows, almost no furniture. Just a few steps behind her chair was a trapdoor that led down to the first and only proper floor.

She paused for a moment just to listen to the sounds coming from down below: the clanking of metal, the sounds of a bellows, the creaking of fire. Usually it helped, but not today. Her people were doing work, providing for the village. But for how much longer would those sounds last?

The entire desk was covered with letters that almost buried a jar with green burning bugs, whose glow was enough to light the small room. The bugs weren’t really burning, that was just their name. But their glow was bright and vibrant. Small jars of ink sat safely on a shelf, alongside some quivers.

«We can’t risk it…» «Our concern is…» «We have to stop dealing in your region…» «Unless you can guarantee the safety…»

None of those letters gave her any hope. No, Iskrila, focus! Take it slow…

As hard as it was to read these, Iskrila made herself reread every single letter, making sure she didn’t miss any. She neatly packed the ones she’d reread, slowly but surely freeing up more and more space on the table. Nothing. Not a single piece of mail that was good! Hopeless, Iskrila dropped her head into her hands. Stressed out, her long claws once again refused to retreat back into her fingertips, accidentally making a few light scratches into her skin. Staring at the brown wood of her table, Iskrila didn’t really mind the pain.

What shall we do? Over the past weeks, the Drowners had made a few more successful attacks, each being bigger, bolder, and more remote. They attacked a few caravans and robbed an outpost. Who knew what they would do next?

But every single business partner of Iskrila — every tribe, every trader, every crafter — had refused to work with her! The village wouldn’t stop needing tools, weapons, armor, or clothes. They could make good leather on their own, although it would take much longer than to buy it. They should have enough metals for a while, along with the rest of smithing supplies. But what about the future? There was no way to obtain metal ores in these parts, or whetstone, or molding sand, or flux. They could launch expeditions to find what they needed, but it would be so much harder and more expensive to produce it than to buy it. Should they move? Should they abandon the Lake, so full of food and water? The forests their huntresses knew so well? Or should they go for the insane expenses of securing the trade routes from Drowners, who could come from each and every direction?

Iskrila needed some air. On her way down, she glanced once again at the smithy. As always, it was crowded in there. The apprentices were doing simple things, like furnishing the bellows, moving raw materials, loading the hearth with more logs, or simply standing and observing what the others were doing. More experienced workers were doing the advanced stuff, working in pairs with the real masters. Iskrila had taught most of now-masters herself, and they all loved their craft, too focused to notice her walking around. She knew she must do what she could for them. But what?

What she couldn’t do alone, they could do as a tribe, Iskrila thought. So, she ventured to Star’s place. It was always hard to find her, for she was constantly on the move, attending to absolutely everything going on in the village. Iskrila used to find this annoying, but not anymore. Now she knew the advantages, and even strove to do the same.

When someone couldn’t perform their duties, Star could do them herself. She knew exactly how much time and resources every single job would take, so she could plan the village’s expansion and growth. She couldn’t be fooled by any foreign trader or crafter about the cost of their products, or about the labor of their services. And she could teach. Every young igni had the whole world ahead of her, and Star was equipped to show and tell about everything there was.

Luckily, Star was home when Iskrila knocked.

«Ha! I won’t have to go fetch you.» Sabiri let her in. «Star and I have been discussing what to do.»

Star, being a chief, had the biggest home in the village, not counting the inn. And she used every last bit of it. Brightly lit by four big windows, the interior looked like a wild mishmash of old and new, small and big, functional and entertaining.

The entire floor was covered with dozens of thick hides, muting the hoofsteps. A big stove in the far corner, black from centuries of use, hosted a variety of kitchen stuff on its top. The cabinets in every other corner were filled with food, books, tools, and games. On the floor sat half a dozen trunks filled with more books and scrolls, clothes, bedding, and puzzles. Iskrila loved those puzzles and visited Star sometimes just to solve a few. In the other corner stood a guest bed that often bore signs of recent use.

The walls were occupied by the weaponry that Star had collected over the centuries, and she used all of them in turn during her regular training. Iskrila was always fond to come here just to look at those ancient and modern blades. Among her favorites was a spear with a wide double-edged tip with a hook. She liked a slightly curved, single-edged sword with green and red gems on the handle. A double-handed half-axe, half-hammer was teasing her imagination. And she still had no idea what animal she had to find to replicate that huge and beautiful bow, carved from a single bone.

At each of the four big windows stood heavy tables. One was littered with pieces of paper, scrolls, books, and bottles of ink. That table was mostly used by Edweena, Star’s lover, who was very fond of writing poetry and plays. Iskrila never really liked acting in them, but she enjoyed watching. She loved Edweena’s talent and treasured being able to witness her constantly maturing and improving.

«You don’t sound like you’ve made progress.» Iskrila locked the door.

«We did, but neither of us like it.» Sabiri’s hooves were already clattering on the staircase.

Iskrila followed her to the second floor, which contained two separate guest rooms, then to the third and final floor. The interior here was almost the same as on the first floor but with no stove and a much larger bed.

«What do you have in mind?» Iskrila greeted Star with a fist bump.

Star gave Iskrila some space at the table. «Sit and look at the map!»

Iskrila immediately recognized Imbrergoso, the grounds around it, the road. Little black lines surrounded the walls and the woods around the village. Towards them led a few arrows with little numbers written nearby. Small rectangles were afloat in Drowners’ waters, cutting off the rest of the Lake.

With each passing moment, both realization and fear grew in Iskrila’s mind. Suddenly, a jolt of dread shook her.

«Seriously?» Iskrila exhaled, staring at Star and Sabiri. «Are you suggesting attacking them? Or is it just a blockade?»

Star sighed heavily, fidgeted in her chair, but didn’t speak. Sabiri was silently staring at the far window.

«How is it a good idea if you’re so uncomfortable with it?» Iskrila stood up and looked Sabiri in the eye. «What Drowners are doing is evil, but I don’t think I would retaliate that far!»

Sabiri met her gaze but said nothing. Her eyes kept searching for something, her crossed hands kept squeezing her arms, her facial expression kept on shifting slightly, but she couldn’t say a word.

«I don’t want any blood,» Star finally answered. «But first of all, I need to secure our future. You know we cannot just pack up and leave. A population this size needs much more food and protection that we can secure fast enough. And we cannot stay in this seclusion. Jaesa refused all the options I’ve offered lately, so all we have left is force.»

«So, is it a blockade or a siege?»

«Siege,» Sabiri answered. «Blockading them would take too much time and would be too dangerous. If too many soldiers would take part, our villages would be unprotected. And if too few soldiers were to surround Drowners, they would try to counterattack.»

Her words made sense, but Iskrila didn’t feel any better about it. In fact, she felt even worse, for her imagination started painting the most unfortunate turns of events.

«Wait,» Iskrila asked, «what «villages’?»

«All of them.» Star joined them at the window. «Vapors and Scarlets really want this to end.»

«And you think Drowners would attack such an armada?»

«I don’t care.» Sabiri shook her head. «The possibility is there, so I cannot risk it. Besides, just a few of them need to escape. With the amount of money they could’ve gathered in their raids, they could afford mercenaries. What would they attack then? Our flanks? Our homes? Why would I risk it? It’s way safer to gather as many soldiers as possible from all the villages, quickly beat Drowners into submission, then return to guard our own walls ASAP.»

Iskrila tried to remember those numbers on the map. That would be about half a thousand soldiers on the field. She knew for a fact that it would be nothing, that the attackers needed three times as many people than the defenders. But Sabiri must’ve known that as well!

«We still won’t have enough people for a siege,» Iskrila voiced her concern. «We would need at least twice as many soldiers as you’ve scribed on the map!»

«Only if we were to climb the walls.»

«But you said siege!»

«We believe it’s possible to destroy the wall. Without it, Drowners would be at a disadvantage. Hopefully, they would realize that and just surrender.»

«And how would we destroy it?»

«This is where you come in.» Sabiri smiled. «Flaming arrows are certainly beautiful during festivities, but they are also destructive.»

Iskrila’s jaw dropped when she heard that. Sabiri was joking, she thought. No, not joking, but mistaken. That would never work! The logs that built the wall were too thick to set aflame with pesky little arrows!

Star smiled too, seeing Iskrila’s confused face. «We know what you’re thinking. It could work. A hundred thousand arrows, raining at the wall constantly, should be enough to heat it up. Even if it doesn’t catch ablaze, there would still be smoke. We could manage to scare Drowners enough to evacuate, especially if enough smoke appeared.»

More and more questions popped up in Iskrila’s head, but most of them she immediately answered herself. It didn’t bring her any closure or comfort, but what other option should she offer? What was safer? What was faster? What was at least as good? A minute passed, and Iskrila still didn’t have the answer.

«It’ll take a while to get ready, and a lot of work. Drowners could see something, could hear something,» Iskrila said.

Star reassured her. «The moment Drowners learn it, we would also know. It’s not ideal, and it is hard to pull off, but it wouldn’t be the first time we fought with a quill and some ink.»

Iskrila made another heavy sigh, but she didn’t have a better plan.

«Alright,» Iskrila said. «Let’s do it.»

Vigilance and prudence

Ouch! Why do those stupid bushes have thorns on them? Sabiri licked a drop of blood from her finger. Paranoid, she checked once again that her horns were nicely hidden behind the bush, then carefully moved the branches just enough to see through. Today should be their last reconnaissance mission before the attack, so she’d better be careful.

«Two guards in front of the gates, four are patrolling on the wall…» Sabiri counted. «All as usual. I hardly ever see their people patrolling outside.»

Greta, Poinistan’s war mistress, pushed her aside to take a look. «Well, it’s easier for us, then! No surprises mean minimal casualties. Hopefully.»

Sabiri made another opening for herself. The distance to the village was considerable. Aside from a few bushes scattered around, there was no cover.

«I can’t hear them. So, hopefully our arrival should come unnoticed,» Sabiri said.

Shai, Imbralestan’s war mistress, sat down nearby and examined the view. «I’m a bit worried about our boats. Once they come close enough to the pier, the wall would hide them from sight. We wouldn’t see the situation there.»

Greta sighed. «Yeah, that sucks, but it should also be the easiest part of the assault.»

Shai answered something, but Sabiri wasn’t listening. A wagon appeared from the forest ahead of them. Instead of going straight, it turned on the crossroad towards Imbrergoso. Then it stopped. Did they miss their turn? Apparently so, for the wagon turned back and went around the village.

«Greta, you think that wagon aimed to reach your tribe?» Sabiri asked.

«Fucking idiots!» Greta shook her fist at the wagon. «No way they haven’t heard the news! Why did we dispatch additional warnings everywhere we could? So everyone ignored them? Look at those Drowners!»

The Drowners guarding the wall had already gathered together and were now watching the wagon slowly leaving their lands, creaking without enough oil on its axis.

Shai whispered, «It’s almost teasing them! I guess we should be glad they don’t constantly seek prey and sometimes just relax behind their walls.»

Sabiri wrinkled her long nose in a grimace. «Don’t you remind me about that shit! Those… those… Well, at least this will be over soon.»

Shai stood up and looked around, though she couldn’t see much in the middle of all these plants and vegetation.

«Where will the command be located? I can barely see what’s twenty meters ahead of me,» she asked.

«There’s a place; it’s almost an elevation…» Sabiri started to speak.

Shai interrupted her. «Almost? Well, great!»

«At least it’s right in front of the gates! We’ll manage,» Sabiri finished.

Greta laughed. «We can climb a tree or something. Come on, it’ll be a good enough view if it’s in front of the gates.»

Trying not to leave too many hoofprints on the soft soil, the group returned to the scouts who were standing back as lookouts.

«I heard you saw some animal traps nearby?» Sabiri asked one of them.

«Yes, mistress, I can show you,» said an Imbralestan scout.

The procession followed her. There was a little opening between the trees. Too many fallen leaves in that spot, and they definitely weren’t from the trees nearby. The scout came closer and carefully revealed the trap beneath its disguise. It was definitely intended for someone big.

«You’ve marked the spots on the map, I trust?» Sabiri asked as she knelt down to take a better look.

«Of course she did!» Shai said. «She’s one of our best scouts!»

«Have you found out when Drowners usually check their traps?» Greta asked. «It would suck to meet them before the attack.»

«I can wait for them, mistress,» the scout answered.

Sabiri nodded. «Please do. Take one of mine, and one of Scarlet’s scouts with you. I’m sure there are more than one such trap.»

The procession headed towards several streams that had been found by the scouts earlier. Those streams were quite old, having eroded deep channels for themselves, yet they ran almost noiselessly. Many animals had made their home near them, or at least their usual bathing place. Jumping around, flying up and landing back again, pecking and pushing each other, little birds were cleaning their feathers and quenching their thirst. Their lively songs and banter made Sabiri smile, distracting her from the thoughts of the upcoming battle. She cherished such distractions, for constantly thinking about death and destruction was most unpleasant.

«I see a few more such streams nearby,» Greta said. «Close enough to the field. It’s perfect!»

«Yeah, nice to have.» Shai scooped up some water and had a taste. She winced and started rubbing her hands like crazy. «Why is stream water always so cold?»

«Sometimes it’s handy, Shai. Shall we depart? We know for sure they do have some scouts,» Sabiri suggested.

They’d already finished deciding which scouts should stay back and wait for Drowners when one of them snapped her fingers twice. Everyone shut up and froze. Sabiri couldn’t see the scout, but apparently Shai could, as she showed everyone two fingers, then added another one. Great, three of them? Who? Were they Drowners? Unable to move without the signal, Sabiri felt cheated somehow. Would all their preparations be undone by some Drowners scouts?

Shai showed her thumb. Everyone crouched to hide behind the bushes and grabbed their weapons.

«Three igni, armed and poorly armored. Who knows who they are, but we can’t risk it,» the scout said. «Let’s just sneak up on them — we have bows.»

«Agreed,» Sabiri said.

There were no objections. They followed the scout, trying to stay as low and as quiet as possible. Shai was right behind her, then followed Greta and two scouts; Sabiri and the rest of the scouts were at the back. It wasn’t easy to move through all that vegetation, but at least the sounds of the wildlife would disguise the noise the igni were making.

They kept moving away from the village, but that could mean many things. They came across one more stream, then climbed up a small hill. There was an old camp near the base of the cliff; nothing but burnt logs. Time and time again they had to stop, waiting for their target to resume moving and stop looking in their direction. But this stop was different somehow.

«Everyone. We need to vote,» Sabiri heard Shai whispering.

When Sabiri came closer, she immediately saw what Shai wanted to vote about. There was a fast river ahead of them, and the igni were crossing it using a bridge. A light bridge. It looked almost like a stone bridge: there were railings on the sides, beautiful carvings on the surface — except it was made entirely of pure light. This one was white, not as bright as some others, and Sabiri could see right through it with ease.

«They look confident using that thing,» Shai whispered. «I see no quick way to cross the river. Do we abandon the pursuit or try the bridge?»

Greta said, «They don’t look like they’ve seen us, but they might be just pretending. Anyway, if those are Drowners, then what are they doing here? I think we need to know.»

Sabiri shook her head. «You understand what you’re saying? If we „need to know,“ then we need to take at least one of them alive.»

«Time’s up,» the scout whispered. «We’ll lose them.»

«We’ll probably survive if the bridge will trick us. What can it do, vanish? Or worse?» Shai said. «Let’s risk it. I’m really curious as to who they are.»

Everyone nodded. They ran to the bridge, then probed it carefully. It was solid, but for how long? Were there any empty spots? Was it going to burn them? To enchant or teleport them? What else could this thing do or not do to them?

The procession moved in a single line, trying to step where the other stepped. It was so weird to be walking on this hardened light, to see the running water right below their hooves. Just a few more meters, a little bit more. Finally, the other side. One by one, the igni stepped on the solid ground again. Safe…

With a quiet splash, the last scout fell into the water right through the bridge. The other scout managed to catch her arm last second. Shai rushed to help; she seized the scout’s free elbow. But they didn’t pull her back. Instead, they moved her through the bridge, away from it. Only now, when she wasn’t inside the bridge anymore, did they pull her out from the water. She was wet and a bit startled, but otherwise fine.

There was no time to waste. The lead scout ran ahead to track the targets. When the others caught up with her, they saw that their target had finally stopped. There was a cozy opening between the trees; the ground was covered with a thick and soft layer of moss. Two igni were sitting on the violet grass, rummaging through their bags. Another had gone, probably to find some fuel. Sabiri pointed at that lone igni, then at herself. Greta and Shai signaled that they were going with her.

Trying not to be seen, they moved around the opening. Vegetation was very dense in these parts — it took them a while to find their prey. The igni had already collected a pile of wood but was still searching the ground for more.

In two swift leaps Sabiri got to her, grabbing her from behind and covering her mouth. The igni jerked her head backwards, trying to get Sabiri’s face. Their horns clashed. The igni threw her wood on the ground, freeing her hands and making clatter. She clawed at Sabiri’s helmet, trying to reach her face. Their tails had already tied up each other’s legs, so running wasn’t an option. Grunting heavily, the igni tried to shake Sabiri off once again. She kept twisting and jerking her body with insane persistence, trying to get free. Her elbow hit Sabiri’s torso. Then again. And again.

But Shai and Greta had finally caught up. Seeing the arrows pointed at her caused the igni to stop struggling. Shai retrieved a piece of rope from her bag and quickly tied the igni’s arms, legs, and tail. Then she grabbed her sword and put the edge to their prisoner’s throat, pressing just hard enough to release a single bead of blood.

«Be silent, or it’ll be a very slow and painful death for you. Nod twice if you’ll be quiet,» Shai whispered.

The igni’s face, twisted in a grimace of hatred, didn’t show a hint of fear or pain. Even when Shai pressed her blade harder in her neck, shedding more blood. Finally, their prisoner nodded twice. Sabiri took a gag and shoved it into the igni’s mouth, then secured it with a piece of jute. Only then did Shai release the igni’s throat, but Greta never stopped aiming right at the igni’s face. Sabiri checked her limbs and torso for any damage, but those were only bruises. She grabbed the rope, tying their prisoner’s hands, and pushed her forward.

They followed Shai back to their spot. The scouts looked very pleased to see a prisoner. Now they needed to do something about the rest of the trespassers.

«What shall we do? Shout out for them? Should we try to hit them in the legs before that?» Sabiri whispered as quietly as she could right into Shai’s ear.

Shai did the same to Greta. After a few seconds Greta answered in kind.

«I wouldn’t risk it. It’s quite a distance, and they are wearing greaves. If we miss, they would run.»

«Call them out, then.»

They found a good place to hide from potential arrows, made sure their hostage was neatly hidden behind the trees. Then Shai started yelling.

«Hey, you two! We got your friend. Drop your weapons far away, stay where you are and she’ll be unharmed!»

Sabiri couldn’t see what was going on. A second passed without any noise, then anoth — Two scouts let their arrows loose!

«Keep an eye on her!» Sabiri left the igni to the scouts.

Shai and Greta were already in pursuit, yet their targets were smart enough to split up. Sabiri decided to follow Greta, while one of the scouts joined Shai.

Rushing through spiked branches and dense leaves, Sabiri tried to catch up with Greta. She leapt across a thin stream, almost fell down tripping over some branch, climbed up a hill just to run down from it a few seconds later. The forest was getting less and less dense now, so Sabiri could finally see her target. At times Greta seemed to be catching up to the igni, but then she’d veer onto a different trajectory time and again! It was hard to guess if she really knew where she was running, but she never looked around, and never second guessed her next move.

They were running along the edge of a river now. Sabiri was sure that sooner or later the igni would return to the forest, so she needed to get there first. She re-entered the woods just deep enough to be able to watch Greta chase the igni. Would the igni run towards her after all? Or did Sabiri just fool herself? Greta quickly turned her head to spot Sabiri but she couldn’t see her anymore. Sabiri was sure that Greta understood what was going on.

There! The igni made a hard turn left towards the forest. Sabiri changed her course to get even deeper into the woods. It looked like the igni still hadn’t noticed her as she made yet another turn out of Greta’s reach. Now she was running right into Sabiri’s claws!

The igni realized too late. She tried to react, made another turn, which Sabiri mirrored… Bam! Greta pushed herself into the igni’s back and they both crashed to the ground. Before the igni’s body could stop tumbling, Sabiri jumped on her. The enemy tried to push her off, to reach for her sword, but Greta was already there to help. They seized the igni’s arms, but she did not surrender. Her legs kept pummeling anywhere she could reach, as many times as she could manage. Roaring like crazy, she kept twisting and jerking her body, trying to get free. Her head kept moving, trying to get the enemy with those long, sharp horns. Her tail was whipping them with a berserk persistency and speed.

Sabiri and Greta clung tight, keeping themselves away from the igni’s sharp teeth, claws, and horns the best they could, ignoring the hits she was managing to land. By the time the strength finally left their target, both of them were covered with blood, cuts, and bruises. But the igni could be faking. With extreme care, they locked her arms and legs, and pressed a blade to her throat. Only then were they able to tie her up and catch their breath.

«Fuck! Why did they have to be the igni?» Greta struggled to catch her breath. «Why couldn’t they have been the viri, or the ros?»

Sabiri wiped sweat streaming from her forehead, but it immediately got wet again, so she gave up.

«Say thanks that we’re igni as well. Would we ever be able to catch her otherwise?»

«If we weren’t, would they run? They’d rip us apart right there, in that opening.»

Still breathing heavily, Sabiri looked around. «Speaking of „there,“ where are we?»

Greta stood up and checked their prisoner’s ties one more time. «I don’t care. We’ll figure it out. Just need to rest first.»

Sabiri felt lucky for not having lost her bag in the chase. She dug out a few pieces of dried meat and gave one to Greta. Her whole body ached; deep cuts and bruises on her arms and legs wouldn’t let her move easily. But seeing their prisoner tied up and secured made the whole thing worth it.

After finishing their meal, Greta and Sabiri untied their prisoner from the tree and returned to the river. Even though their prize could barely move, she kept making it as hard for them as possible. She was constantly «tripping over» and «falling down,» pushing Greta to the side, trying to yell through her gag. When she got tired of yelling, she decided to just keep constantly humming something loud and irritating. To screw with her captors even further, she crapped and peed herself. But Sabiri and Greta didn’t show any indication of how they were feeling, didn’t give her any information as to what was effective and what wasn’t, as to what could get on their nerves and what was useless. They just kept dragging her in silence.

Near the riverbank, Sabiri climbed one of the tall trees on the hilltop and looked around. There it was — the Big Market. Although it was so very far away, the mere scale of that thing made it an excellent landmark. So, the Lake should be… There it was! If they could walk there in a straight line, then it shouldn’t take too long.

Yet because of their prisoner’s resistance, it was almost lunch time when they finally reached the Lake. They emerged from the forest near Poinistan; their red banners, depicting a fish pierced by a harpoon, were noticeable from afar. Good thing Sabiri had Greta with her. The guards near the gates and on the wall clearly didn’t expect to see such a group but recognizing their war mistress resolved the situation immediately.

An expedition far away

Upon arrival at Poinistan, the procession was led straight to the prison where Shai and the others were awaiting them. Located in a basement of the barracks, the dungeon was small, but the igni were never known for having many prisoners. There was some food and water on a table. Both prisoners were sitting in a cell, drilling their captors with eyes full of hatred. And now the third one joined them. It was good to see that no one was able to escape. All the other cells were empty, though Sabiri didn’t know how common that was.

«Glad everyone’s alive, including our prisoners.» Sabiri smirked.

Shai offered her a mug of water. «You look a bit beaten.»

«And you look like you’ve been swimming in a river of mud,» Greta said, already chewing on a piece of meat.

«Because that’s what happened…» Shai started to explain.

After sharing their tales and finishing their snacks, the company finally turned their attention to other matters.

«So, we need to talk to them.» Shai walked towards the cell.

The guards let them in, locking the door behind them. There was barely enough room for this many people, but everyone managed to find a place to stand.

«So, shall we take the gags off from all of you, or just one of you?» Greta asked. «Who’s your leader?»

She looked closely at their faces, looking for any useful signs, but there were none. The prisoners just carefully watched her every move but didn’t make a sound.

«We can always put the gags back,» Sabiri suggested.

The scouts stood behind the prisoners and grabbed them by their horns, keeping them from moving their heads and biting. Sabiri and Greta carefully removed the gags, but the prisoners remained mute.

«Don’t want to talk?» Greta raised her eyebrows. «Look. Let’s start with your tribe. Where are you from? It’s simple. Tell the right thing, we’ll verify your words, then we’ll let you go. We’ll even give you something for the trouble we caused.»

Silence. The prisoners didn’t move a muscle, didn’t make a sound.

Greta shook her head. «Come on! Are you afraid of giving us the wrong answer?» She looked at each of them in turn. «If you won’t give us anything, we’ll have to kill you anyway just to be safe. Am I asking for something secret? Something that might endanger your home? You think we would capture some random people just to attack the village they happened to live in?»


«Shall we tell them?» Greta asked.

«We should — I’m curious,» Shai answered.

Sabiri agreed, «That could help our case.»

Greta looked back at the prisoners. «Alright. What were you doing near Drowners’ territory? They scared away everyone who knew even a little about their recent actions. Were you just passing by? Were you totally ignorant about your whereabouts? Why didn’t you take any of the roads? Why just the three of you? Why were you almost empty-handed?»

Those words still didn’t change anything. The prisoners’ blank expressions were taunting, if not mocking.

«We don’t have the time for this!» Greta rushed forward, dangling her claws just a millimeter from one of the prisoners’ eyes. «Maybe you’re not the enemy, but I really want to know what you were doing back there!» she roared. «Tell us, and we’ll let you go. Keep silent, and we’ll make you talk!»

She hovered the tip of her sharp claw in front of each eyeball, making sure the prisoners understood what was going to happen. But she got nothing. None tried to free their heads from the scouts’ grip. None attempted to even look away. Sabiri was almost sure that at this point the prisoners were daring Greta to do it. She saw this before, all those years back. Some of their prisoners not only refused to be defeated but craved to get victories wherever they could. They kept silent no matter what, even if there was nothing to hide. They resisted being moved into another cell, even if there was no way of escaping. They jumped on the blades they were being threatened with. They rejected food and water.

Seeing that threats alone weren’t going to work, Greta picked a target at random and pressed a claw into her cheek. Slowly dragging across the victim’s skin, her sharp talon left a long, red trail on its path. Her victim flinched, but the scouts held her tight, so nothing prevented Greta from making another cut. Bright-red blood ran down the victim’s neck, dripping beneath her armor. Still, there was no fear in those eyes. Pure hatred and rage, that was all Greta could see, making her face twist in a grimace of joy.

«I think there’s no sense in keeping quiet,» a voice on the left finally said, ruining Greta’s fun.

The other prisoners tried to jerk their heads towards the sound, but the scouts didn’t let them move their heads. Yet it looked like the same thought had already occurred in the rest of the prisoners’ minds. They were quiet for a while, probably unsure who should be talking. Greta stepped back, waiting for them to finish thinking.

The one on the right finally spoke. «We’re from the Rortring tribe. I’m Mas, next to me’s Abasi, and that’s Rohu. We were going to the Big Market to buy a few books.»

«Why weren’t you using a road?» Greta asked.

«We would love to, but without a properly protected caravan it’s too dangerous.»

«Why didn’t you have such a caravan?» Sabiri asked. «Silence!» she snapped when Rohu opened her mouth. «She talks, you don’t come to her rescue!»

Rohu gave her another glance full of hate but kept quiet.

Mas continued, «We can’t spare mounts or people for such matter. Books would help our tribe, but that’ll be in the future. Now we barely have enough not to starve.»

«So,» Shai started, «your chief thought so highly of your skills, that she sent you through a forest full of predators, swarmers, and other igni?»

Mas shook her head. «We really needed those books. She said that knowledge would help our tribe to survive, maybe even grow.»

«What books?» Greta asked.

«How to raise crops properly. How to lure prey. How to fight better — »

«You were fighting alright,» Sabiri interrupted her.

«With weapons, I meant.» Mas stared at the floor, her face already red. «With fists we just trust our instincts, but to use weapons properly we need knowledge.»

«What books specifically?» Greta asked.

«How should we know? Any books good enough would suffice.»

«Yet you were sure you could find what you needed there?» Sabiri interrupted her.

«Well, it’s the Big Market…»

«How did you know you had enough money?» Shai interrupted her again.

«We didn’t. Our Keeper of stories — »

«When were you supposed to come back?» Greta interjected.

«In a few weeks — » Mas didn’t know who to look at.

«How did you know you’d need that much time?» Sabiri didn’t let her finish.

«We’re used to traveling through the forest. We figured — »

«Where were you going to stay at the Market?» Shai cut off her explanation.

«In the „Safe travel,“ it’s a…»

By the time they’d run out of questions, Mas’s face was even redder, sweat was running down her forehead, her wide, frightened eyes searching the floor. But she passed the test: all her answers made sense, she wasn’t taking too long to answer, and the answers to the same questions varied slightly. All seemed legitimate.

«What are you thinking?» Greta asked Sabiri and Shai.

«I think she’s telling the truth,» Sabiri said. «I’ve heard about people traveling through forests in small groups. I don’t think she was making up those answers.»

«I agree.» Shai nodded. «We shall investigate their supposed tribe just to be certain, but she did sound convincing,»

«Alright.» Greta turned towards the prisoners. «We’re leaving now. The guards will untie you, but you’ll still be locked up here for a while. We’ll treat you as our „locked-up guests,“ with a hot bath, good food, and everything. Feel free to ask the guards for something extra, something normal prisoners don’t get. Any questions?»

Once again, the prisoners struggled to decide who should talk, but they didn’t waste too much time.

«For how long?» Abasi asked.

«No less than a week. Depends on how fast we check your words,» Greta answered.

«A week!» Rohu yelled. «We can’t waste another week! Our tribe needs us and those books!»

Greta put her hand on the hilt of her sword, and Rohu stopped yelling at once.

«You’re apparently one of the smaller and poorer tribes, judging by what you supposedly don’t know. But we’re more resourceful. If your words check out, we’ll give you those books as an apology. For now, try not to make too much noise.»

They left the prisoners in the cell and crossed the room to examine the prisoners’ belongings. They had short swords, as simple as you could get away with, just oversized knives without pommels or cross-guards. But they were sharp and pointed, although a bit off centered. Their bags were indeed half-empty, and there were indeed coins in them. Sabiri examined them closer: some small coins, some triangles, some squares — there was even oval-shaped money in there. Just one coin was gold, and all the rest were silver. A few looked like they were made in the same tribe; everything else was a weird mix of art styles, sizes, and quality. That could either mean bandits robbing people passing by, or a tribe that didn’t bother unifying the coins they received.

With no more questions to ask, the prisoners were left in the care of the guards. When the metal door slammed shut behind their backs, Sabiri realized that it was already evening. Three falling stars were trying to outrun each other, slowly gliding against the dark-purple sky. Nighttime birds filled the nicely cool air with their shrieking. The houses around them all had their windows lit, shedding warm, golden light on the street. The sounds of people having dinner, squeezing through the glass and window frames, made Sabiri’s stomach rumble.

«There are quite a lot of us today,» Greta said. «Let’s go to the inn and have dinner together. You could stay there until tomorrow.»

Everyone but Sabiri agreed. «I’ll join you later. I really need to send a bird home — they must be looking for me.»

«Come on!» Greta exclaimed. «Like we would leave you alone.»

Sabiri shook her head. «I’ve been here before, remember? I know where the Birds house is.»

«Oh, really?» Greta raised her brows. «Show us, then!»

Sabiri looked around. Strange. Just a few seconds ago I was sure where to go.

«Err…» escaped from her mouth.

«Let’s go!» Greta exclaimed. «After all, Shai could also be interested in sending a note home, as well as your scouts.»

Shai shook her head. «My people knew that I might be late.»

«Really?» Sabiri stared at her. «What if you were captured, or killed? Were they supposed to start worrying only after… How long?»

«A couple of days…»

Sabiri gave her a nudge on the shoulder. «A couple of days? I’m sure Iskrila is already anxious and waiting for me near the gates. After «a couple of days’ she would turn every last tree in the area upside down looking for me!»

Shai looked at her seriously. «You’re not some fisher, Sabiri, you never know what will happen in the next hour doing this job — »

Greta interrupted her. «And this means that nobody should be worried about you? Because it would be «okay’ if you went missing? Because «it’s your job’? Well, cool, at least let your scouts send a note.»

The Birds house looked as it would in any other tribe; a narrow building three floors high. The top floor had several glassless, thin windows. A small bird flew out through one of them, disappearing in the darkening sky. Greta and her scouts waited outside while the others entered the building. The first floor was filled with cages, many of which had occupants. The birds were making all sorts of noises, mostly talking among themselves, paying little attention to their new guests.

The keeper was sitting behind a small desk, completely focused on her work. She was measuring grain on shiny scales. The last person to cramp inside closed the door just loud enough to get her attention. She observed the company, unsure at first about who all those people were, then her face transformed into a smile. Apparently, she recognized someone.

«Welcome back, Shai! Are those your people?» the keeper asked.

«Hello, Abita.» Shai smiled. «Some are mine; the rest are from Coracastan. We weren’t supposed to be here today, so if would be nice to send word back home. I don’t know…» She counted the people in the room. «Three, maybe four birds might be enough.»

«Oh, that’s no problem.» Abita waved her hand. «Take as many as you need.»

It was too cramped inside to move freely, so the scouts quickly scribed their notes short and hurried outside. Sabiri chewed up her quill for a second, then snickered to herself and started writing.

She handed over their notes to Abita and watched how she tied them to a big bird’s leg. When Abita returned to the first floor after releasing the bird, Shai still wasn’t finished writing. She filled a whole piece of paper on both sides and sent it separately from her scouts’ notes. They thanked Abita for the help and went outside.

«What took you so long?» Greta asked.

«Shai wrote a whole poem to someone,» Sabiri said. «You think she has a new lover?»

«I don’t — » Shai tried to object.

Greta interrupted her. «Oh, that must be one of her old ones!»

«I wasn’t!» Shai yelled at her.

«I guess she wasn’t home for too long,» Sabiri theorized. «She had to give orders to absolutely everyone under her command!»

«You…» Shai snapped. «Why can’t you take this seriously?!!»

«Because you need to relax sometimes, Shai!» Greta laughed, looking at her red face.

Sabiri noticed that one of Greta’s scouts looked like she also wanted to say something funny to Shai but stayed quiet. Did she think that would be out of line? Or did Shai’s voice sound that scary?

Soon they reached the inn, a two-story building which looked most inviting. Large windows were shedding warm light. Door and window frames were freshly painted white. A big sign hanging above the front door, said «The full belly.»

Sabiri was sure that in better times it was usually full of people, but now there were a lot of empty tables. The innkeeper shined after seeing such long-awaited guests. She quickly pushed a few tables together, overfilled them with every kind of food and drink, and brought out a few benches. Instead of returning to her post, she asked to dine with them, and was delighted to be allowed to join.

Her name was Lisa. She liked smoked arnu meat and clare juice. Just yesterday she’d read a book on how to make vegetables taste like meat (Sabiri failed to understand why anyone would do that). She heard that they would run out of metal for arrows soon, so hunting would become more difficult. She—

These were clearly lonely days for her, as Lisa managed to talk more than everyone else combined! But Sabiri didn’t mind her, for it was a nice way to find out what was going on in the village. And her scouts eventually eased up around their mistresses as well and joined the conversation.

After eating and drinking a little more than they thought physically possible, after discussing everything that came to mind, they finally said their goodnights and went to sleep. Usually, Sabiri would share a room with at least one of her people, but Greta insisted that since there were no one else in the inn anyway, they should enjoy as much space as possible.

Sabiri immediately liked her room. It was lit by several jars of burning bugs and had a bed almost big enough for three people. The floor was covered by a piece of lite hide that muted her weary hoofsteps. A big window overlooked the tribe, letting in a stream of welcome fresh air.

She was too full and too tired to do anything else today. After covering the jars with pieces of hide, left there just for this purpose, she dove under a blanket and fell asleep almost immediately.

A white bow-knot

Iskrila felt like she was about to faint. She had just finished making yet another flaming arrow, putting it into a big barrel in front of her. She looked around, tired from hours of monotonous work and being constantly dizzy from that foul smell.

For whatever purpose this place was built for, it was quite roomy. There were a dozen more barrels like hers, all half-filled with flaming arrows. Those arrows were sharp tipped so they could penetrate the object they hit, and they were wrapped in rags, soaked with flammable oil and tar. Several workers sat at little tables just like hers, making arrow after arrow.

Flammable tar radiated a nasty, heavy odor from which there was no escape. It smelled as bad as rotting flesh, though wildly different, unique even. It felt like something invisible and oily was literally blocking Iskrila’s nostrils. All the windows were closed and draped with thick hides; the door was locked — there was no way anyone outside could see what was happening here. The room was lit with jars of burning bugs, for nobody wanted to risk having real fire near all this fuel.

The smell was really messing with Iskrila’s sanity, as well as with her breakfast, so she decided to stretch her legs. She covered one of the filled barrels with a piece of blanket, picked it up by the straps, and carried it outside.

The guards at the door recognized her and let her pass. Fuck, yeah! It’s so freaking great to be outside! She stood still for a while, listening to some faraway chatter and breathing clean, fresh air. As nice as it was, Iskrila remembered that lunchtime was approaching.

Horrible memories of yesterday flashed in her mind. The confusion and dread she felt when Sabiri didn’t return home. The anger at Star and Haileen as they tried to calm her down. The words they said.

«She’s not alone out there.»

«The other war mistresses are with her — like anyone would mess with them!»

Yeah, right, Iskrila thought. They would definitely not fall into Drowners’ trap! An army of swarmers wouldn’t mind eating them alive! A time vortex, or a teleportation veil, or any other sort of stupid magic crap wouldn’t appear right in front of their noses! I really should’ve given her my amulet!

Iskrila made herself stop. Her hand dove into a pocket on her belt and fished out a neatly folded piece of paper. When she finished re-reading Sabiri’s letter for the fifth time today, she was once again smiling, hopeful for a quick reunion. Sabiri would return tired and hungry, so Iskrila decided to cook her something nice beforehand.

Heading back home, Iskrila couldn’t help but notice just how the village had changed recently. People were whispering about the fight ahead. Far fewer were strolling the streets, even at daytime. The guards also looked weary. Everybody was on edge because of the task ahead. It did make sense, but…

Suddenly, a string of yelling and arguing kids sprinted by, almost knocking her down. She watched them go for a while. With their parents busier than ever, there was no one to keep them in check. Yet they were so lively! She was just like them once, so she chose not to be mad.

Walking near the Birds house, Iskrila noticed Berani, one of the lookouts. She called out to her unnecessarily — Iskrila would’ve stopped by even without invitation.

There were a bunch of sacks in front of Berani, some still tied to her tail. Judging by the sweat on her forehead, she had been carrying this weight for some time, and now was taking a break. The barrel was heavy as well, so Iskrila chose to follow her example.

«Hey, Iskrila, any word about when we’re starting?» Berani asked. «I had to cancel a few plans already. It would suck if it was all for nothing.»

«Hi to you too, Berani.» Iskrila scratched her head. «Didn’t Maia tell you?»

Berani shook her head.

«Sabiri said next week. If there aren’t more developments with her or Star, then we’re set.»

Berani’s face shone with joy. «Finally! I’m so tired of waiting for things to get back to normal! Well, thanks for the info. I need to go.»

Iskrila helped Berani load up with sacks, then watched her heading towards the pier. It was a neat idea to tie some of the sacks to her tail. Iskrila looked at her own. Why didn’t they have fingers or something on their tails? It would’ve been so useful! Feeling rested enough, she resumed her walk.

When she finally reached the storage, Iskrila was tired again. To an outside eye this place was nothing special besides the two guards posted at the door. After unlocking it and stepping inside, Iskrila immediately cursed everything in the world. The smell of flammable tar was even worse here! Trying not to breathe too much, she quickly added her barrel to the rest and locked the door.

That odor destroyed what little was left of her resolve of going back and finishing the arrows. Berani’s words made her wonder if there really were some developments. She had enough time to visit Star and to cook some lunch.

Unfortunately, when Iskrila knocked on Star’s door, no one was home. Where could she be? There was a person who would know, but did she really have to find her?

«Huh, I guess Star isn’t home.» Haileen’s voice ended Iskrila’s struggle.

Iskrila gave her a smile. «Yep. I don’t know whether I should go find her, or if I should return home and make lunch for Sabiri.»

«Sabiri should return soon, so I’d suggest you go home. I can give Star whatever update you wanted to tell her.»

«No, thanks.» Iskrila shook her head. «I’ll find her later.»

After saying goodbye to Haileen, Iskrila headed straight to the market. Most traders lived there, so they could watch over their wares while still being home. Butchers got many kinds of meat, mostly from the nearby forest. Iskrila wasn’t a specialist in how to catch prey, she just knew what kinds of meat she found tasty. The butcher helped Iskrila choose the tastiest lump.

Loaded with meat and separated from her money, Iskrila slowly continued on her way home. On the other side of the road stood tables with fish. Iskrila liked to catch a few herself from time to time, but she was hardly an expert.

Farther away stood shelves with armor and weapons. It was always pleasant to see her and her people’s work displayed for sale, but the stocks had been scarce lately. Iskrila wondered just how many people would sell their arms and armor once the battle was over. These days they were making their products much more simply and quickly, to arm everyone before the battle started. Soon those shelves would fill with rather crude pieces. She, of all people, knew that the quality wasn’t the issue, but the appearance… Those could be tricky to sell to strangers. She needed to talk to Star about making a deal directly with some poorer, smaller tribes that wouldn’t mind the way they looked.

Farther ahead there was a mishmash of stuff. Files for horns, claws, and hooves; pots, mugs, plates, brushes, soap, brooms — all sorts of stuff. The traders selling those immediately jumped at their chance to earn a bit.

«Hey, Iskrila! Look at a file I have! Rounded on one side, straight on the other — just for your claws!»

«Don’t listen to her! I got you a great file last time! Better take this broom! Long handle! I couldn’t believe just how much easier it was to clean the house with a handle this long!»

«She doesn’t need your stupid broom! Better take this robe! With a pocket for your tail! So warm when the weather’s bad!»

The first two sellers tried to stop Iskrila from leaving, but she ignored their calls. The third was standing at the last set of shelves and was selling clothes. There was all kinds of stuff there: underclothes that were smooth and light, robes that were thick and fluffy, shorts and pants that looked and felt strong.

But Iskrila’s eye caught something special. There was a shelf with various fal-lals: hide and leather bracelets, chokers, bands… Their various shapes and colors combined still couldn’t match just how bizarre one particular item looked. It was a white bow-knot. Made from the finest lace: so thin, so light — it was almost transparent. Just how long had it taken to combine the thousands of individual, incredibly thin threads, leaving gaps of air between them, painting this fine complex pattern?

Iskrila asked permission to try it on, then found herself unwilling to touch it. What if she ruined the beauty? She wasn’t careful enough to handle this delicate piece. Luckily, the trader came to her rescue. She lifted the thing from the table, then carefully placed it in Iskrila’s open palms. It felt completely weightless! Trying not to breathe, Iskrila carefully wrapped the straps around her neck and tied them gently. The bow-knot thing was huge — it stuck out farther than her chin! She couldn’t even look down without danger of messing up the thing.

«Do you like it? I’ve spent ages making it!» the trader said.

«You’re also a crafter? It’s definitely unusual and kinda cool, yeah, but I can’t look down in this thing, and I would immediately ruin it in my smithy.»

She looked at herself in a mirror — a crazy-looking freak stared back at her, smiling and giggling.

«You definitely shouldn’t take it to the smithy. You can wear it in your free time.»

At first, Iskrila wanted to refuse. Why would she need such a thing? Even if she was careful, just for how long would its beauty survive? But there was something cool in that freak that looked back at her from the mirror. Something unusual and wild.

«How much?» the words escaped her mouth.

«Fifteen gold.»

«Fifteen gold!» Iskrila wanted to yell. She could feed herself for several months for that much money! She could buy a full set of clothes! She… What, what «she»? This bow-knot was a work of art, and the trader clearly spent a lot of time and skill making it. She wanted to buy it! It was so beautiful and strange. What else would she do with her money? Why shouldn’t she spend it?

«This is a piece of art, so, here!» Iskrila was relieved to find enough gold and silver in her bag. «You did a great job!»

The trader snickered. «Thank you for your kind words, mistress. Please don’t worry — it may look fragile, but if you were to wear it gently, then it would prove strong enough to wear for years to come. You’ll see!»

Iskrila thanked her again and went home. Walking in this thing proved to be bizarre. The bow-knot was constantly putting pressure on her chin. With her every move, the fabric was rustling, scaring her shitless that she was crumpling it. But at the same time, it was so cool! No one else had anything like that. She couldn’t wait to show it to Sabiri!

Having finally reached home, Iskrila carefully took her gorgeous bow-knot off, put it away from harm on one of the shelves, then got to work. Quietly humming one of Edweena’s songs, she started to work. After starting the fire in her stove, she sharpened a knife and divided that wonderful pink meat into two huge portions. It was riddled with threads of white fat that would’ve cut easily even by the dullest of blades, but Iskrila liked her knives sharp. She made a few deep cuts and stuffed them with herbs that were teasing her nostrils already. Anticipating how delicious it would smell, Iskrila put their future lunch deep inside the stove. Every few minutes she collected the juice produced by sizzling meat and poured it over the cooking dish.

When the aroma started to become impossible to resist, the door swung open. With her heart racing with joy, Iskrila dropped her spoon and rushed to greet the visitor.

«Glad to see you too,» exhaled Sabiri as Iskrila flung at her with an embrace.

For a few more seconds, Iskrila refused to let go of her strong and warm body, listening to Sabiri’s heartbeat.

«It’s wonderful that you’re okay!» Iskrila let Sabiri go and looked at her face.

Sabiri was beaming with happiness back at her. «Sorry I’m a day late. I’ll tell you everything.»

«Before you do this, look!»

Excited to show off the beauty, Iskrila rushed towards the shelf, quickly put the bow-knot on, then turned around towards Sabiri.

«I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it! Isn’t it beautiful?»

That wide smile on Sabiri’s face! That half-opened mouth as she was looking for the words… Iskrila was so thrilled she’d bought it. She would give all the money in the world to bring Sabiri such delight! To make her smile! To make her laugh!

Sabiri finally exhaled. «That’s… That’s gorgeous! Can I touch it?»

After hearing «Of course,» she ran to wash her hands, then carefully approached Iskrila. A gentle touch. A feeling of Sabiri’s finger moving across the fabric, feeling its fine texture. A pair of eyes, staring at the beauty. A face, beaming with joy. It is the best day ever, Iskrila thought.

«Wow.» The word escaped Sabiri’s mouth. «I’ve never seen anything like this! I’ve never felt fabric so thin, so light and smooth. It’s amazing! Where did you find it?»

«Just bought it from one of the traders.» Iskrila also reached to feel the fabric. «Actually, I never cared to learn her name. I’ll fix that.»

«Can’t believe we have a crafter like this! Do keep it safe.»

The next half hour flew by unnoticed. The meat was probably as delicious as it looked and smelled, but none of them had noticed that, being all too busy looking in each other’s eyes and savoring Sabiri’s tale. Impressed with Sabiri’s agility and strength, intrigued and puzzled by the trespasser’s true intent, Iskrila drew herself deep in thoughts and fantasies about yesterday’s events. But Sabiri cut her daydream short.

«By the way,» she said, her claw seeking a piece of meat that was stuck between her teeth, «I didn’t come alone. Two Vapor strategists tagged along. One of them, Amber, had a good idea. We’ve made a lot of weapons and armor, but not for the healers. She thinks we should arm them as well, just in case, and I agree. Some of them might already have some gear, but the rest — »

Iskrila interrupted her. «Lemme guess — you want me to rush more gear for them. Alright, I’ll do it.»

«We won’t send them up front, but some simple armor and swords should be both mobile enough — »

« — and not too hard to gain some proficiency, to train together and become a unit, effective and united,» Iskrila finished Sabiri’s thought.

The enchanting effect of Sabiri’s safe return disappeared at once, replaced by the uncontrollable urge to do whatever she possibly could for her. In an instant, Iskrila recalled what supplies they had left, how many spare hands could do the job, how many pieces of gear she needed to make.

«We’ve got just a week left.» Iskrila suddenly stood up. «I need to start right away. Will you clean up?»

Sabiri smiled. «Of course I will. What a strange question?»

Iskrila was about to open the door, but something stopped her. The bow-knot! She went back and put it on. This time, it wasn’t so bizarre a feeling, but it was still so cool!

«Don’t ruin it in the smithy!» Sabiri said.

«I won’t!»

The door closed, leaving Sabiri alone. From out the window she watched Iskrila hurrying away, ready to carry on her request. Was she worthy of Iskrila’s efforts? Was she willing to do as much for her? Sabiri felt she knew the answer, but could she do the same for the whole village?


Left alone, Sabiri wondered what to do next. She had already reported to Star, so now she was free to do whatever she wanted. Whatever she wanted… What a joke! The battle was just a week ahead, so there was no time to relax!

Yet, Sabiri remained motionless. The strategists she brought, Amber and Risha, had reminded her of everything she hated about the plan. They were so certain, so calculating, so hopeful to minimize the casualties. Yet every word they’d said had made her flinch inside. It was so impossible! So many things could go wrong! Why would Drowners play along? Why would wildlife (or some stupid magic) not screw up their plans? How could a generation of igni that had never seen a battle do what was required?

Feeling incredibly shitty, Sabiri threw away the idea of joining the discussions of tactics that was taking place at Haileen’s. She hadn’t taken a bath the previous day, wanting to return to Iskrila as fast as possible, so she decided to have one. And when she would be clean herself, she could clean the house. And after that… After that she would find some excuse for herself. Something that would allow her to dodge her responsibilities.

Burning through time this way, Sabiri hardly noticed how the evening came. With everything done in the house, she visited the market and bought a few fish for dinner. Cursing herself for not being as good at cooking as Iskrila, Sabiri did her best. But it was another who entered, which was obvious because she knocked.

«Smells nice!» Haileen’s nose took in the scent of baked fish. «Don’t worry, I’m not hungry.»

Sabiri let her in, getting ready to be punished for her absence. «How did the talks go?»

Haileen went straight to the cabinet filled with games and Sabiri’s figurines. «Nothing new, but we really polished our existing plans. Risha’s good, but who I’m really impressed with is Amber.»

«Yep, I wish I was nearly as intelligent at her age.» Sabiri was surprised and glad about Haileen’s choice of subject.

Haileen returned to the table with a deck of cards.

«Let’s play while you’re waiting for Iskrila. After all, something should keep your mind off all the burdens and insecurities you’ve got.»

A veil of dread choked Sabiri, just like when she heard of Iskrila’s capture. Unable to move a muscle, she just stood there, watching Haileen shuffling the cards and listening to the sizzling fish.

«Take the food out and sit down.» Haileen stared at her, still shuffling cards. «Star gave you this job for a reason. But whatever her way of dealing with your shit is, mine’s different.»

With numb hands, Sabiri retrieved the steaming bodies, covered them with a warm blanket, then joined Haileen, who had already dealt the cards.

«How did you know I’m waiting for Iskrila?»

«Who else could you wait for? Star’s having dinner at her place, and you didn’t invite me. Do you have friends I don’t know about?»

A few more minutes passed in awkward silence. Well, Sabiri knew the silence was awkward just for her, not for Haileen. She cursed herself a thousandth time already, when the door swung open once again.

«Oh, smells like dinner! Thanks, Sabiri. And, Haileen, hi!»

Sabiri jumped to her feet and rushed to the stove. «What’s the news?» she asked as she served the dish.

Iskrila was vigorously scraping her hands in soapy water. «I did find a few extra blades, but not nearly enough. So, don’t wait up for me and go to sleep. The sooner I finish, the better our healers can train before the battle.»

Those words killed Sabiri’s last hopes of getting rid of Haileen. Iskrila quickly pushed the food into her mouth and rushed back to work, leaving her in the company of Haileen and her own guilt and misery.

«Talk to me,» said Haileen after Sabiri had lost yet another game. «How are you going to be a war mistress with an attitude like this?»

«Attitude like what? I’m trying my best to both achieve the objective, and to not risk lives unnecessarily.»

«I do get it. But you’re so uncomfortable with the decisions that you constantly get someone else to make them. You need to learn how to decide on your own. How to stick to your decision and how to stop regretting it.»

Sabiri wanted to object that asking for advice was a good thing. But she knew it was a lie. She wasn’t really asking for advice — she was seeking ways to avoid responsibility.

«I don’t know how to do it!» Sabiri tried to recall whether she had made at least one hard choice she was comfortable with. «This shit never changes! With cards I just assume what you have, what I might get next turn, and I’m comfortable with it! But in real life…»

Haileen got quiet for a while, while Sabiri got up and went to check out her figurines, all to keep her hands busy.

«Well, let’s cooperate with Star and the others to fix your problem,» Haileen finally said. «Sorry to add to your pile, but I got preoccupied lately. What are we going to do with them? Star hopes Drowners will calm down. Tough thing, considering we’re going to burn their village and take them captive.»

Sabiri started thinking out loud. «Well, at first they’ll be scared shitless, running away from their burning homes and buildings. When we take the survivors, most of them will just be glad they’re alive. It is later when they realize that some of their friends and loved ones are dead. By our hand. It’s our job to make sure they never forget why it happened, so they remember why they should at least try to make peace.»

Haileen sighed heavily. «Some of them will never forgive us. Some of them love what they’ve been doing lately, I’m sure.»

«The only alternative is to kill them all.» Sabiri shook her head. «No one’s a fan of this option, but it’s a safer one.»

Holding a figurine of an igni, Sabiri tried her best to imagine what Drowners would think. Would they see there was no other way? Would they accept their help in rebuilding the village? Would they be allies again? Ever again? In a thousand years from now? Or would they plot revenge?

She sighed. «Let’s just hope they won’t hold the grudge against us for too long.»

«If only I had your optimism, Sabiri.» Haileen started shuffling the cards again. «I’m really expecting all sorts of trouble after the battle is over. That is, if the battle will happen at all. For the past few days now, I’ve been haunted by this thought. Drowners aren’t stupid. What if they had the same idea? What if they’re preparing their own attack?»

«Because Jaesa promised us? Drowners keep and keep on expanding their raids, but they never hit any of our tribes. You think they could learn about our plans?»

Haileen nodded. «How can they not learn about it, when so many people are involved? That many mouths just can’t stay shut for long!»

Sabiri sighed. «That’s true, people do talk. But as long as the ears are not Drowners’, we should be fine.» She started strolling around the house. «If they are preparing something, then they would be acting alone. They can’t take any of our villages on their own. Cause serious damage — sure — but they should know that the rest of the tribes would retaliate instantly.»

«But what if — » Haileen wanted to object.

« — outside help? It would require money, the kind Drowners don’t possess yet. Can they sell our lands? The Lake is great, sure, but people can fish in a river with no problem. How can the Lake be worth such risk and, most likely, losses, if you can still get fish and water in abundance elsewhere? So, they can’t sell our lands expensive enough.»

«I’ve been thinking. I mean, it’s gross, but… what if they have an agreement with one of the allied tribes?»

Sabiri shook her head. «They are on our side. Star knows her stuff, we’re safe on this front.»

«If she thinks so… Well, she was wrong about Jaesa. Still, something just feels foul.»

«It means you’re mindful. That’s a good thing, but you still need info to prove yourself right or wrong with something solid. If Imbrergoso sought outside help — we would know. We’ve got people pressing ears to the right keyholes.»

Haileen smiled, «I still think it is a miracle. If there was at least one person against it, if she’d warn Drowners…»

«How would it be different?» Sabiri picked up another of her figurines from the shelf. «Any thoughts?»

Haileen shook her head. «Depends on their tactics. If they were desperate enough to attack…» She thought for a few seconds. «Even without much preparation from our part, it would be over for them. You’re right: even if they were to learn, it would change little. I’ll try to think about something else.»

Sabiri went to the window to hopefully spot Iskrila returning. It was very late, but there was still no sign of her. The last lights died off in a house across the street, and now there was nothing but darkness outside.

«And yet,» Haileen resumed, «I still think we should put on more guards, more lookouts as well. Star has confidence in Jaesa’s word, but is the opposite true? If they are sneaking out to spot whether we’re doing something suspicious…»

Sabiri objected. «The more guards there are, the weirder and more noticeable it is. I wish all of us had artifacts like Iskrila’s. Who knows how truly reliable they are, but they do work. It would be a really useful warning system.»

«Yeah, it really saved her life last time.»

«Not just last time.»

«Alas, I didn’t hear anyone figuring out magic just yet. Speaking of Iskrila, where is she? Working nights is a necessity sometimes, but what if something happened?»

Sabiri snickered. «The amulet would warn her. Or are you not talking about an attack?»

«When you’re working so late, you can make mistakes. Her smithy has enough dangers already.»

Sabiri yawned. «Not the first time she’s working late. Besides, she’s a genius with a hammer and anvil. She’ll be fine.»

«Alright, alright, time to sleep!» Haileen got infected with Sabiri’s yawning. «See you tomorrow.»

Sabiri wished Haileen good night and went to bed herself.

There was a slim chance of Iskrila returning, but she would just sleep right at the smithy if she got really tired. A smile appeared on Sabiri’s face as she remembered how she used to find Iskrila sleeping at her desk, or even at the workbench. She would cover her with a blanket and leave, trying her best not wake her up. Thinking such sweet thoughts, Sabiri didn’t notice herself falling asleep.

Giving up

The next morning Sabiri felt incredibly well-rested. For sure, the day was going to be awesome. The sun was lighting the room with its warm rays. Suddenly, she developed an immense urge to stretch her entire body. So, she did just that. Oh, what an ecstasy!

Yawning and stretching some more, Sabiri sat and looked around. Iskrila wasn’t here. Did she already go out? Or did she sleep at the smithy? Determined to bid her «good morning,» Sabiri quickly collected whatever food she had, shoveled it down her throat, then went to find Iskrila.

On her way, Sabiri wondered whether they also should make some bows for the healers. Just in case. Some should already have them, but the rest… Pretty much all children learn how to use them, but do they take care of their bows and skills? It would take some time to figure out, and even more time to refresh their skills.

A movement interrupted the strain of Sabiri’s thoughts. It was a lookout, running towards her. Sabiri couldn’t make out the face yet, but the way that igni was running…

«Morning, mistress,» the igni stopped in front of her, gasping for breath.

«Hi, Guon. What’s the hurry?»

«I was supposed to change a lookout on the pier, Berani, but she wasn’t there. And…» She paused to take a breath. «And there was some junk sitting on the spot where we stand guard. I thought she was just too lazy to get rid of it, so I moved it away. There was blood beneath it on the pier! That couldn’t’ve been a coincidence! I sent some fishers to search the waters near that area, and then I ran here.»

Sabiri was about to ask Guon to calm down, was about to go with her to the pier. Why did something need to happen so close to the attack? But then she saw another igni running her way. She was wearing civilian clothes — did something else happen? The igni was now close enough to see her face…

A sudden chill of dread swallowed Sabiri. No, that can’t be! The igni was crying something, but Sabiri couldn’t hear it over her deafening heartbeat. Those wide eyes and those tears!

«Tell me she’s just injured!» Sabiri yelled. «Tell me she’s alive!»

Bertie, one of Iskrila’s apprentices, stopped and nearly tripped over her own leg. Breathing heavily, she shut her eyes, then shook her head.

Sabiri watched Bertie’s head shaking, but there was no meaning registering in her brain. The sound of Guon’s hooves, pacing next to her. The wind, stroking her face. The feeling of complete exhaustion. She felt all of it, nothing resonated with her mind. Nothing but those words Haileen told her yesterday.

She didn’t remember how she got to the smithy. All the apprentices were already there. Forced outside by the soldiers and guards, they were whispering into each other’s ears. But when Sabiri looked at them, still not quite sure what was happening, all of them fell silent.

Haileen was already inside. Sabiri looked at her ever-calm face, expecting something, anything. And Haileen raised her hand, inviting her to hold it. Sabiri instinctively tried to do just that, but the way her arm moved, the way it felt was alien. Scared, Sabiri stopped herself.

«Show me, please,» someone else’s voice escaped from Sabiri’s mouth.

Haileen stepped back and indicated the stairs to the attic, where Iskrila’s office was. The trapdoor was open, the warm green light of burning bugs was spilling out. So, either Iskrila was so exhausted that she fell asleep in spite of the light. Or…

Sabiri stopped herself from such stupid speculation. She would see soon enough. But her brain had already woken up. The smithy looked the same, except for a pile of swords in the corner. No hoofprints, nothing turned upside down or scattered on the floor in a hurry.

«Did anyone touch something? Was the door locked?» Sabiri asked Haileen.

Haileen, of course, had already asked the workers. «It was unlocked, but I’m told it’s not unusual. They just started the hearth, didn’t touch anything else.»

Wishing that there was something, that there was a reason to stay where she was, Sabiri started climbing up the stairs. Her heart was racing faster and faster. High enough to see inside the room. One turn of the head, and she saw it.

Frozen on the steps, Sabiri stared at the body lying in a pool of blood. Her dear Iskrila was staring back at her through lifeless eyes. Unable, unwilling to move, Sabiri could only stare back, feeling all life quickly seeping out of her, feeling bitter tears in the corners of her eyes…

She didn’t know how much time had passed, but eventually Sabiri remembered where she was. And to her own terror, she recognized what she had to do. With a heavy sigh, Sabiri gathered all her strength and stepped into the room. She once again glanced at her dear Iskrila. Her head was resting against the table’s leg in a most unnatural position. Who did this to you? A bundle of red fabric was lying at her legs, just a tiny bit of white still remained. Why is your face so calm and peaceful? What are you trying to see in my eyes? What did you see? Who did you see?

Something, something felt bad. A physical discomfort of sorts. What….? With a hissing sound, Sabiri inhaled, realizing she was too tense to breathe.

Where the shelf above the table had been was now just empty nail holes and a smear of blood. All the contents of that shelf were now scattered across the table and floor. An almost empty bottle of ink had spat its contents all over. Pieces of wood, some glass, a quill, coins, writing charcoal, stacks of paper. Drops of blood seemed to be everywhere.

So, she’d been standing, otherwise that blood wouldn’t be on the wall. But why was the shelf broken? Sabiri came closer and saw a thin crack in the wall. Straight and clean, being right in the middle of the blood stain — it was definitely made by a weapon, probably a sword.

Sabiri collected all the will she had left and kneeled beside the body. What she had first thought was just blood happened to be an enormous wound. With shaking hands, Sabiri lifted the cold body, looked at its back. An exit wound, as she suspected. The weapon caused a long, thin wound. Sabiri’s fingers dug deeper into the mess of Iskrila’s clothes and flesh. The weapon managed to cleanly cut its way through the rib, right into the heart. Whoever did this managed to pin Iskrila to the wall. Only another igni or a saxum could be strong enough to do this.

But there was no amulet. Sabiri spread more half-dried blood over Iskrila’s clothes as she searched but found nothing. She stood up, unwilling to continue. But then immediately regretted the decision. It was not the place for her.

«Try to find the artifact, Haileen, please,» Sabiri said, lifting the body.

«I’ll help you down the stairs, then you can carry her yourself.»

Sabiri accepted the help. She hesitated a second, but then picked up the heavy mess of fabric and half-dried blood from the floor. Iskrila has been so delighted by this stupid bow-knot. She had no right to abandon it now.

The workers were probably staring at them, staring at Iskrila, were probably whispering something. When she got outside, the people had already gathered near the smithy. They were probably staring at them as well. Sabiri wasn’t sure. Making her way home, she hardly ever glanced at the road ahead. All that really mattered was the body in her arms. She used to carry her children to bed like that. Come to think of this, sometimes even Iskrila’s children. She loved visiting their home. They used to help Iskrila make something delicious, then they played, or read books. She loved the laughter, loved to be a part of her life. Now it felt like ages ago.

Home. They lived here together for years now. Sabiri laid the body on a guest bed that was almost always vacant. She tried to make it look natural, like Iskrila was sleeping, but it was all futile. She sat beside her, took her cold hand, and that was it. Looking in her empty dead eyes and holding her hand — there was no other thought on her mind.

«You can’t do it right now,» a familiar voice said after minutes of silence.

Haileen’s voice agreed. «We won’t decide what to do next without you.»

Sabiri felt completely empty and powerless. Even sitting on a soft bed seemed too much to bear. She wanted to lie down, close her eyes, and she didn’t care about waking up.

«Report?» Sabiri sighed heavily.

«No more deaths have been reported so far, except for that lookout Berani. They found her body in the water below the pier, already returned to her family. The gates are locked, the lookouts are stationed, the scouts are deployed, all the guards are instructed.

«The assassins left an arrow in Berani’s skull. The smiths have already examined it. Great craftsmanship, common type of wood and feathers, common shape of the tip, no crafter’s stamp — it’s impossible to tell who made it.»

Haileen was always giving reports like that. Never pausing, never searching for the right words, never misspeaking. And she’d been at the smithy first. She’d brought in soldiers, made sure the scene wasn’t disturbed, and all that without asking for any orders! Sabiri felt utterly unworthy of being called her boss.

Yet, she was Haileen’s boss. Star was standing right there, waiting for her to act. Sabiri couldn’t see anything on her face. What did she find in me? What does she expect from me right now?

«What does it mean?» Sabiri asked everyone. «Only the Drowners knew about the amulet. If they were specifically after it, then it makes sense. Or does it? Did Jaesa change her mind and regret parting with the artifact? But it was so dangerous! They could’ve been discovered, and then our retaliation would follow. Jaesa must’ve considered that!»

She knew nothing! So many possibilities, so little data! Why, why did it have to happen? Why her?! Why Iskrila?!!

«It would make sense if she wanted to cripple us while she had the chance,» Sabiri resumed. «But if this is the case — why just Iskrila? They should’ve tried to kill at least all the mistresses! Did they just get afraid and end their mission early?»

Sabiri looked at Haileen and Star, waiting for their thoughts, but there were none. At least Haileen looked preoccupied — Star was staring at something out the window. What was so important out there?!!

«What if it wasn’t Drowners?» Sabiri jumped to her feet and started walking in circles. «The assassins just grabbed the amulet because it radiated magic. But then why did they search the smithy? Did they just stumble upon it? Were they looking for some armor and weapons there? And how did we manage to miss them! Shit, Haileen, I had to listen to you yesterday!»

«There was nothing you could do,» Haileen said. «I was too late with this, there was no time.»

«Then at least think of something! Fuck!» Sabiri snapped. «Could it be Drowners? Who else could it be? Why just Iskrila? How did they learn about the amulet?»

Star’s calm voice called for reason. «Sadly, sometimes there’s just no way to know. There’s no evidence, we can’t just see into the past. Please, try to calm down.»

«How can I calm down?» Sabiri rushed to her, ready to use her fists. «Look at her!» She pointed at Iskrila’s body. «What are we supposed to do? What about the attack? How… how…» Sabiri groaned and stepped back.

She knew that she had to calm down. But how? A pulsing sensation at the back of her neck wasn’t going away; she ignored it. Star was right — there was no way to know. A deep breath. And another one. What were her options? Were there any options? Any but the obvious?

«Send a letter to our allies, Star,» Sabiri said. «If it wasn’t Drowners — fine, we’ll find out when we search their village. But if it was them — we could be in trouble. They could’ve seen something here. They could’ve gotten here precisely because they knew. Our allies could suffer the same fate. We shouldn’t give Drowners any more time to get ready for us. I say we march today. We’re almost ready anyway.»

Neither Haileen nor Star looked surprised to hear this. Yet Star did object. «Being almost ready means higher casualties.»

«Giving them time to entrench or to buy mercenaries also means the same thing,» Haileen agreed with Sabiri.

Star looked Sabiri in the eyes. «Are you sure this is the best way?»

«I’m sure I want to spend time with Iskrila. I’m sure I want to lie down and do nothing.»

A weak smile appeared on Star’s face. «You’ll get your opportunity soon enough, just after we win. I’ll send the word. Be ready.»


Left alone, Sabiri quickly armed and armored herself. There was no guarantee that the attack would indeed happen today, but the chance was high enough. She knew that she had to go out to do… something. Anything to help them prepare. Everything she could.

Yet, she failed to make herself leave Iskrila. Failed not to sit near her corpse. Failed to stop clutching her cold hand, trying to warm it up. Failed to stop staring at her beautiful face. But there was something else on her mind. A thought she couldn’t quite materialize. It was very important somehow, but what was it exactly?

Berani! This thought pinched her very soul. What the fuck she was doing right now? How the damn could she sit idle in a moment like this?

Hoping that she remembered where she lived correctly, Sabiri rushed towards the pier. The whole village had woken; streets became busy and hard to navigate. The air became full of voices and commotion.

Letting a group of soldiers pass, marching towards gathering points, Sabiri immediately noticed fresh recruits. They were necessary for a task this large, but the way they stood out! They weren’t used to marching, they didn’t seem comfortable with their gear, and they looked quite distressed. It wasn’t supposed to be today! They never wanted to be soldiers! Sabiri didn’t know whether she guessed their feelings right, but there was nothing she could do to help them.

A couple of healers passed by, carrying a stack of stretchers. How many of those would they have to use? Many of those healers were also fresh out of training. Could they do their job under such pressure?

The storages were open, and the wagons were being loaded with flaming arrows and other supplies. Sabiri very much hoped it wouldn’t have to become a siege, but they’d made plans for this just in case.

The closer she got to the pier, the fewer people she saw on the streets. Officers and guards were keeping the commotion away from the Lake, where enemies could spot them. People were allowed to pass here only in small groups, or individually. Sabiri wanted to feel a bit of pride and satisfaction: those were their plans — weeks in the making and now in motion. But were they ultimately futile? A waste of time and effort?

Having reached the pier, Sabiri went to its left corner where the water met the wall. There it was — a bloody stain on the wood. Sabiri raised her eyes and immediately recognized Berani’s house. At least she thought it was. To be killed just a few meters away from your doorstep seemed so… wrong!

Sabiri knocked on the door. After a few seconds, it opened a sliver. A face, swollen by tears, looked at her through the gap. Whatever tired and sad expression was on that face before immediately turned into surprise, for she recognized who was standing before her. The host hurried to open the door and let Sabiri inside.

«I shall go away if you wish to be alone.» Sabiri didn’t make a move.

«N-No, please, come inside. Sorry for keeping you waiting,» said the host in a weak voice.

Sabiri stepped inside and closed the door. It was a small house; she stood in a kitchen of sorts. Dried fish and meat were hanging from the ceiling. Some bathing equipment in the far side had traces of water from recent use. An oven with pans, pots, and other equipment on its top. A table near the only window, with three stools under it to save space. Everything was clean, but very old and simple. Either they didn’t have money for paint and carvings, or just didn’t care. Or both.

The only door on the right led to the bedroom. There were two beds cramped in there, one of which was now occupied by Berani’s body. Another igni was kneeling on the floor beside it, holding her daughter’s hand and dropping tears on it.

«I… It’s really embarrassing.» Sabiri wanted to sound firm, but reasonably quiet at the same time. «I know that one of you is Kaiya, and the other is Rolin, but…»

«I’m Kaiya,» said the one who opened the door, «and that’s Rolin. We heard what happened to Iskrila, we’re so sorry…»

«No.» Sabiri stopped her with a gesture. «It is I who should be sorry. Please, forgive me for what happened to Berani. If we had more guards posted, maybe…»

«Don’t blame yourself, please! We all knew what kind of work Berani had chosen. Death is… is…» Kaiya couldn’t finish the sentence.

She went and sat on the bed beside her daughter’s body. Sabiri didn’t want to say anything, she wanted to just leave them to mourn, but she wasn’t sure they knew.

«Listen,» Sabiri said, «we think it was Drowners’ doing. Right now, we’re preparing to strike back. If the other tribes will support us quickly, then we should head out in a few hours. I just wanted you to know…»

Rolin, who had remained silent this whole time, released her daughter’s hand then stood up awkwardly. It would take some time for those wrinkles on her face to fade away. Days? Weeks? As for the eyes, Sabiri wasn’t sure if they would ever burn bright with life again.

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