15. SCARED LITTLE RABBIT

March 23, 2019


The first time Yssir and Emery had met, she had stolen a dagger from him, and he’d tracked her all the way out of the city. Larnham had seemed much bigger then. Emery had been barely thirteen years old and learned from a bad encounter with some soldiers that she needed a weapon.

Yssir had plenty of weapons, but Emery hadn’t known he’d care that much about one dagger going missing. How wrong she’d been. How much she’d regretted that misconception out in the woods, pressed up against a tree and sweating like never before.

He sneaked up on her, and she was stupid enough to look. One movement, and she sat crumpled on the ground, an arrow in her shoulder. Emery had never seen him miss a target’s heart before, and the arrow poking from her shoulder, blood pouring over her shirt, was how she’d known immediately that he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, kill her.

He’d dragged her out of the woods, even though she’d probably followed him willingly.

She hung around Yssir’s men for long enough to know all their faces and learn most of their names. She’d fought hard to become one of them, eating as much as she could and training early every morning before the city woke. Yssir had turned her into one of his little pocket thieves and called her Rabbit, because she was quick on her feet and good at hiding.

But Yssir was the hunter who could read the thoughts of his prey, and if he wanted somebody dead, they were dead.

Yssir kept her fed, and she didn’t need to hide on the streets anymore. She learned to climb roofs and stay up there during the day, taking much pride in her role as the robbers’ eyes and ears. It was much easier to hide back then, when the whole world wasn’t out to catch her. 

Now, she was still running for her life, but there seemed to be no hiding places she could fit in. It seemed Yssir had paid every thief and burglar in Larnham to catch her, as if it weren’t already bad enough to be chased by soldiers. Yssir chased her, Norians chased her—there was nowhere to go, except out of Noriannd.

She had grown up into an adult in many ways, yet she had never really had a childhood in the first place. Emery knew many things, but never quite enough. Right now, she had no idea why Yssir was running after her, but she kept running even harder.

Unexplainable panic roared in her blood as Yssir closed in on her. She could keep telling herself that he wouldn’t kill her, because he didn’t kill children. But she was no longer a child hiding in the woods, and the mournful mercy in his eyes was long gone, too.

“Emery!” Yssir screamed, voice laced with anger. Hearing him using her real name sounded odd to her ears. “If you don’t stop I’ll shoot you, and then I’ll have to pull the arrow out. Let’s not do that again!”

She kept running, but a ragged breath caught in her throat when an arrow flew past her and missed by inches. The dark fabric of Emery’s cloak flowed, snow flying around. If he was far enough to keep aim on her, she might have a chance. Her legs were aching and sweat turning cold and sticky in the wind. Her hood was no longer on her head, and her hair whipped free in the wind.

Another arrow sprung against the snow, almost making her stumble.

“The next arrow hits flesh!” Yssir called.

✵ 


A week ago, Emery had been spying on Yssir’s band of thugs, waiting for them to leave the Robber House so that she could slink in for some food. It was a fun thing for her, because of how Yssir had treated her in the last years. Stealing food from him wasn’t real revenge, but it was as close as she’d get. She wasn’t really that vengeful anyway.

That evening on the Robber House’s roof, the air had been calm and still—surprisingly so, considering the usual roughness of the wind in the mountains. The afternoon sun hadn’t been much visible to start with, but when it had disappeared behind the mountain ranges in the west, she’d nearly jumped from excitement. Hunger rumbled in her gut.

A girl like her couldn’t go out much in the daylight. She thought about at what had happened when she tried to wander the marketplace to bid her farewells to Ayess. 

She could only be safe outside of Noriannd’s borders, and that was why she didn’t understand why the ghosts constantly worked so hard to stop her. She’d seen nightmares about leaving for months. Even in the dim, cloudy daylight the shadows haunted her.

But the ghosts hadn’t been there that evening, and she’d been more calm than in a long time. In the air hung the salty smell of herring and soup, roasted roots and buttery buns.

Her hood sat firmly on her head, concealing her tangled hair. She pressed her cheek on the cold roof, breathing in deeply and savoring the smells on her tongue. Emery waited outside for hours.

She watched clouds float past the colorful horizon. The moons glowed faintly through a thick fog, and Emery stared upwards, silently humming the song of Hemlian. It was an old song. She didn’t know just how old. But  the story told that Hemlian had once been a man, and now he was a moon, because he had fallen in love with a creature of the sun.

Before their fall, Aruels had been called the people of the sun. Or so Emery had heard. She’d romanticized that thought ever since. Being loved and admired for what she was. Not hated and discriminated. A lovely thought.

An impossible daydream.

To think that Aruels and Norians had once lived together, in peace. Emery had smiled at the sky, thinking about it. She’d spent many days hiding from Norians, listening to rumors and eavesdropping conversations. What if it was true that some villages in Kámwech still lived like that—Norians and Aruels together?

When the last men walked home in the dark, shadows falling on their faces as the last light went out in the Robber House, Emery had quietly slid down the roof’s ice-covered edge. She landed on the ground in a squat. Snow crunched under her light feet, her hands tucking her wool mittens into her satchel. She tucked a stand of hair behind her ear and laid her hand down on the door handle.

Emery pressed her ear against the wooden door, holding her breath. There were still men inside the house, voices growing louder as the men walked closer to the door. Emery’s eyes grew wide and she sprung up, feet scratching the wall as she climbed.

Her feet slung over the roof’s ledge and the door opened. Emery lied flat on the ice, cold seeping into her skin. She held her breath, lungs yearning for air, until the men began to speak. There were two of them, one older and the other younger. She only knew the voice of the older man.

“-It’ll be a great surprise for everybody.” Emery could immediately recognize Orr’s laugh. Orr, the man with white hairs among the light brown, escaping his forehead. Orr was the man who told Emery about the history of Noriannd and spread more gossip than any man she’d met. The other men under Yssir’s command hadn’t cared to speak to her, but Orr had a much harder time keeping quiet. Many nights when she’d gone with Yssir’s band of thieves to raid, she’d only found company in Orr’s drunken rambles and funny stories of his dead family.

 “Oh, their faces. The surprise on their faces is what keeps me going.” Orr’s voice wall full and some of his words slurred because of the mead. He spoke loudly, but the younger man’s voice was soft and quiet.

“So… Where are we going to be, when…” The end of the sentence was too muffled for Emery’s ears to catch the words. Emery inched closer to the end of the roof to hear better.

Orr laughed. “Lurking nearby.”

Emery heard the sound of the cork pulled off the mead skin.

“Oh, no thank you,” the younger man said.

Hruod grunted, pouring down another gulp of mead. “It’ll warm you in this cursed winter that  never ends.”

 “Yeah, no sight of spring up here,” the younger man muttered.

“And no sea raids in a while, it seems. With all the lakes and sea coasts frozen,” Hruod croaked.  He gave a deep sigh. “The seas are far too quiet, frozen too thickly. It’s a miracle if they islanders are even alive out there when spring arrives… With the seas so cold and barren.”

“Hmm.”

“So where are you from, lad?”

The other man answered quickly. “Here and there.”

Orr chuckled. “That’s a poor lie. You might want to come up with something better for me to tell everybody.”

“Well, I’ve been many places,” the man said.

“If you lived in many places… So you were a soldier, then?”

There was a silent moment. The young man said, “I thought they said we don’t talk about our pasts here.”

“But I’m drunk.”

The young man huffed a reserved laugh. Then he was saying something in a strange language.

“You speak Kaumar?” Orr said. “Oh! Really? How’d you get past the guards on the border.”

Emery’s eyes widened. She fought the strong urge to roll over and look over the edge. She cursed silently through her teeth. Emery was beaming with excitement, but then disappointment hit her. nobody would ever help her over the border, or teach her Kaumar.

If only she could’ve seen his face, then she’d know who to look for.


Emery kept running, wind in her hair and boots slipping on ice. She kept her face up, scanning the roofs for a good place to climb up and escape Yssir’s crossbow. Clouds stirred in the grey sky. 

She could scale any of these buildings. Larnham was a good place for hiding because of the low buildings and slanted roofs with easy access. They had to be built that way because of the constant snowfall and harsh mountain winds. The cold prickled her cheeks, a tingling, needle feeling.

She rarely felt cold, but now all of her burning energy went towards keeping her body moving.

There hadn’t been any arrows lately. Emery glanced behind her. But then her feet slipped on a slippery slate of ice on the ground, hidden by snow. She tried to regain her balance, but fell on one knee. She pushed herself up and kept running, her knee aching. Her muscles burned, her lungs cold and hot at the same time.

When she saw the shadow of a thick hand grabbing her by her flowing hood, it was too late.

Yssir pulled her back and then against the wall with brute strength. Snow dripped from the low, thatched roof into her reddish hair. He spat in her face and slammed her harder against the wall.

She shut her eyes, baring her teeth in a pained hiss. When she opened her eyes again, tears glittered in the corners.

“Haven't seen you in a while,” Yssir said, his breath a cloud between their faces.

She kicked him in the leg. “Drop me down. Let me go.”

He slowly shook his head and let the tips of her toes touch the ground. “Where are you going?”

“I haven’t stolen anything from you. Let me go.”

He slapped her across the face. “I don’t care what you do or don’t do! Just be quiet and come with me.”

Emery turned her face toward her shoulder, avoiding his eyes. Her lips were pursed and she hoped he couldn’t see how hard she was biting her tongue to keep from crying. Red began to stain her cheek.

She didn’t fight. She didn’t writhe free and run. She knew she wasn’t strong enough. Yssir looked away and blinked, brows furrowed. If Yssir hadn’t been Yssir—if he’d been a soldier, would she have tried to escape?

He let go of her. “Keep running like a scared little rabbit. You will die.”

Emery drew for breath but stood still. Her breaths were shallow and her whole body trembled. Cautiously, Yssir glanced at her hands. Emery hid them inside her woolen mittens, clumpy with snow. They were shaking slightly, red and raw from new burns. But no smoke, not a single wisp.

She raised her chin, thinking of something to say. Her breaths were shallow, her body aching with exhaustion. She couldn’t keep running. She tried to look for an escape, but she would probably not be able to climb or even walk.

There was no life for someone like her. Only in shackles or in a grave. She didn’t even deserve a burial pyre of her own. No home for an Aruel.

The air was still. It never was in Larnham. The silence was ghostly.

“I’m going to cross the border.”

Yssir snorted. Rolling his eyes, he stepped closer. Emery mirrored him. She stepped back. The cold wall touched her spine.

“They can’t follow me to Kámwech,” she said.

“They’ll catch you before you get close. Soldiers everywhere these days. The security has never been stricter.”

“I’ll make it.” But Emery could feel the insecurity in her own voice. She swallowed a curse.

“Children like you don’t belong in our world. You can’t fix what’s wrong with you. You’ll never belong if you hide what you are.” Yssir pulled the hood off Emery’s head and gestured toward her scarred hands, throwing her mittens in the snow. “You’ll be like this forever, and everybody will always hate you. You’ll never be loved, Emery. stop trying so hard.”

Emery’s breaths were ragged. Heat prickled behind her eyes.

“You can’t get out of here alone, anyway,” Yssir said.

Emery stared at the ground, fiddling with the sleeve of her coat peeking from the arm holes in her cloak.

Yssir huffed a laugh. It was unlike him. Emery’s face was grim. Yssir cleared his throat, lowering his eyes and grabbed her arm. She let him drag her with him. Her legs were on fire—not on literal fire, but she could barely walk anymore. She stumbled after him, breathing heavily. She couldn’t run away. Her palms were still painful from the fire, her scorched clothes stinking of fat and burnt flesh.

Yssir grabbed the crossbow from the ground. Emery bent down for her mittens and shook snow from them.

Yssir pushed Emery by the shoulder, and in his other hand he held the crossbow.

Emery turned around, facing him. “What do you think I should do then?”

“You’re never going to leave Noriannd. You were born here and you’ll never be able to belong anywhere else.”

“I don’t belong here.”

“Then you should learn to.”

Emery pulled her arm to herself and stepped away from him. She didn’t care that her legs were hurting or how her skin was growing hotter. He had no right to stop her. Technically, as a Norian, he had the right to do anything he wanted to her. She was an Aruel, after all. And he was right. She didn’t belong.

“There are spies everywhere. There was even a spy among my men,” Yssir said.

Wait.

Something clicked in Emery’s buzzing head. Because she didn’t belong, she had to go. But if there was a spy among Yssir’s thugs, then it had to be the new, Kaumian man. He had to be.

She tried to remember his face, but she only remembered his voice, speaking to Orr in the night. He was the traitor, the man who had told the real Norian soldiers about Yssir’s plans.

If Emery found him, he could help. He wouldn’t take her to the Norians, because they were the enemy of Kámwech, and he clearly disliked Yssir, because he’d told the Norian guards about his plans on the marketplace.

Emery distracted Yssir with blow of smoke in his face, and he coughed once. But when the smoke cleared, she had climbed up on a roof. She glanced over the shoulder and started clumsily running.

“I’ll be here when you’re ready to get back to your senses!” Yssir called behind her. “If it weren’t for my protection, you’d would have been killed by Norian soldiers years ago.”

Emery leapt off the roof and onto another one. Her feet slipped on the ice and she scrambled back up, starting back to the street where they’d left the other robbers. There was no way they were still there, with the Norian soldiers being on their backs as well. But that was the only place Emery knew to look.

She’d never return to Yssir again. She’d never watch him raid towns full of innocent people and steal from those who already owned nothing, just because their Norian King couldn’t care less. What King allowed—and encouraged—his own people to kill each other?

When Aruels had ruled, everyone had been of equal worth. But that would never happen again. There were too many Norians who hated Aruels more than they had ever hated Kaumians or Xiravs. Too many raids, too many thieves.

She wouldn’t spend another day in Noriannd, tempted to return to the safety of Robber House. She refused to go there again, but if she couldn’t escape Noriannd, she wouldn’t’ have a choice.

Because Yssir was right. He had protected her, trained her, created her. She would’ve been dead if it weren’t for his robbers with a bad sense of humor, even worse smelling breaths, but the strongest arms in Noriannd. The King’s soldiers had no chance at catching her if she stayed with them.

Unless, of course, Yssir gave her up to the Norians, which he had every reason to do. And right now, after what had happened in the marketplace, Emery couldn’t trust Yssir.

Even if she wouldn’t find the Kaumian traitor, she’d have to get over the border somehow.

Dark fell over Larnham, a thickness in the air that itched in her throat with every breath. Once again, Emery found herself wandering aimlessly in the dark. Roaming around, searching for a man who might or might not agree to save her life.

She squinted her eyes. The moons lighted her path, the snowy shingles of the roofs glinting like  shards of glass in their white light.

Emery slowed down, being close to the place where she’d last seen Yssir’s thugs, but hearing nothing. The streets of Larnham were empty; the people knew better than to go outside their homes after dark. Yssir and his band of thieves owned the city now, and there was nothing the King could do about it. The merchants benefited from less regulations and taxes, and the inhabitants of Larnham were only trying their best not to starve or freeze to death.

But it wasn’t a particularly peaceful place. There was a reason she called it the city of orphans.

Emery crouched down, turning her ear toward the street. Her eyes closed, as they wouldn’t help her much in the dark anyway. She was about to stand back up again, when a muffed whimper sounded. It was quiet, and emery almost missed it because of her cloak rustling. The pants and tunic were glued to her body with oil, ice and soot.

She kept completely still. There was a pained groan, the shuffling of snow and the sound of fabric ripping.

Emery slid down, landing with a crunch as her boots burrowed in a pile of snow. There was only silence, now, but she followed the beating drums of her blood, growing louder in her veins. She didn’t know how, but it didn’t matter. There he was. A bleeding, dying, helpless Kaumian.

She would save him first, and then he would save her. She would be a scared rabbit no more.

Emery was the hunter, now. Not of animals, not of humans.

No. Her hunt was for the hunt to end.




A special bonus short story coming April 20th!







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