18. THE WOLF'S LAIR

April 03, 2019

Emery had done everything in her power to keep the man quiet. And alive.

The wind was cold and prickly, like needles of ice poking into her face and hands, and she’d even taken off her cloak to cover him with it to keep him warm.

When she was done with the wounds, she pressed an ear to his chest and dropped the knife. It still glowed red and sank instantly into the snow, melting a pool of water around the blade. Even the skin on her hands boiled snowflakes as they fell.

The Kaumian’s breaths were ragged. His heart was beating weakly.

Leaning away and keeping her hands far from the man to not burn him, she lit a small flame on her fingertips and examined the wounds in the firelight. A bead of sweat rolled down her neck. It took much effort to keep her fire in control so she wouldn’t turn the man’s entire body into ashes with it.

The skin where he had been stabbed was bright red and bloody along the edges. It looked awful, but he wasn’t bleeding anymore.

Emery listened again for his pulse, just to be sure. But there it was, a heartbeat. The Kaumian was alive, yet she couldn’t sigh from relief. The hardest part was still ahead: getting over the border. She cursed under her breath as she glanced behind her. The horizon was beginning to lighten, the darkness being lifted by a light grey fog among the spindly tree crowns.

They had to get out of the alleyway and down the street before the city woke.

Emery’s stomach grumbled. Oh. That, too.

She slapped the man’s darkly stubbled face. He didn’t react, so she shook him. Emery kept shaking until he coughed and moaned, mumbling something in a hoarse voice. She pulled her cloak back into her arms.

There was a strand of wool on his chapped lip. Emery picked it away. The wool burned in her hands and the remaining piece of ash blew off into the wind.

She cast wary glances down the street. “We have to go now,” she said.

He didn’t respond. He was exhausted. The circles under his eyes looked like hollows, and blood stained his cheek, forehead, hands—not to mention his entire abdomen.

“We have to go,” Emery repeated.

What if she’d done a grave mistake? If he couldn’t help her, she’d wasted an entire night. She could’ve ran far from Larnham already, if it weren’t for him.

“You owe me this!” she hissed.

Emery was usually a nice, quiet, reserved girl, despite the raging fire within her. But she’d saved this man’s life and he wasn’t helping her in return. And that made her mad. She shook him one last time.

His eyes fluttered open. He gave her a cold stare. She froze still, but then carefully handed him the knife from the snow. It was back to a silvery, metallic color again. The Kaumian lifted his hand and took it. Wincing and hissing through his teeth, he dropped it. He rubbed his hand, but it wasn’t even burnt. The man glowered at her.

Emery wondered if he remembered anything she’d said earlier in the night. She hoped he didn’t. She wasn’t ready.

She picked up the knife. The metal was still warm and had melted the snow around it. Emery   laid the knife inside of a mitten before putting it in her satchel.

The Kaumian was struggling to get up. He grunted and breathed arduously, but she didn’t help him. She held her head up to scan the buildings around them. The cliffs were sharp to the east of the city, and she hoped they could avoid those. The Kaumian would never survive a trip that way, especially if they were chased by Yssir’s men with their throwing knives and bows. Her head turned toward the shrubby forest line further down the mountain slope.

Emery wrapped her cloak over her shoulders and pulled the hood over her head.

There was a more quiet residential area to the east, but it would still not be worth the risk of the cliffs. She looked at the Kaumian, struggling to stand. If standing was enough to make him get out of breath, he wouldn’t be able to scale cliffs in less than minutes to escape Norian soldiers and thieves.

The Kaumian finally said something, but Emery was so deep in through that she missed it. She turned to him, brows raised.

“Are you on your own here?” he asked.

“On my own?”

His eyes narrowed slightly. “Alone.”

“Who would I be with?” she said.

The Kaumian walked up to her. His steps were heavy at first, but when he got the cold stiffness out of them, it was only his abdomen that posed a problem.

“You’re lucky you’re still alive, if you’ve been on your own for so long.”

“No,” she said. “Luck doesn’t live in the mountains. You fight or you surrender. Those are the rules.”

He knitted his brows. “Who told you that?”

Emery glanced at him sideways, but then kept her gaze focused forward. “Can’t remember… I don’t think anyone ever told me that. It’s just something I know.”

“Huh.”

She shrugged, then changed the subject. “The streets are more crooked and narrow the further you get from the main square, so we need to hide in those.” Her finger pointed down the street. “Because you can’t climb.”

The street leading south was a wide one, but if they took that one and turned left, and then right toward the tree line, they could sneak out of the city and into the woods.

He looked at her with disbelief set in the line between his brows.

“We’ll slink through  their fingers and be deep in the woods before they notice.”

“It’s not that easy.”

Emery exhaled. “Then what is your suggestion?”

He was deep in thought for a moment, his eyes seeming glazed over and lips pursing into a thin line. Finally, he met her eyes again. “We’ll die.”

“We won’t die. I already saved you once. Trust me!” 

Realizing she’d spoken too loudly, she proceeded to glance in every direction before returning her attention to him again.

“What about the watchtowers?” the Kaumian said. “The robbers have corrupted the city, but even if the Norians don’t see you, they will. And they didn’t look very friendly back there.” He cocked his head to the place Yssir had chased her down the street and threatened to shoot her.

Emery swallowed. He had a point. Yssir was an obstacle along the way. He could possibly kill her. She couldn’t know that for sure.

Her eyes lit up suddenly and her posture straightened up. She shielded her eyes from the falling snow and looked to the upwards street. “I’ll come and get you, Kaumian.” She paused. “Don’t get into trouble.”

The last words sounded more like a question, and heat rose to her ears. Emery turned her back to the man and climbed up to the roof, feeling her movements were more clumsy than usual.

She was used to being on her own. Even in Yssir’s crew, she’d been mostly alone. And Ayess, she could never run off with Ayess. They belonged in separate worlds.

Ayess had never come to the market place. Emery’s steps became slower, until she stood above the city, wind tugging at her cloak and clothes, panting heavily. Ayess had never come.

Emery had been too busy surviving that she hadn’t found time to think about it, but Ayess had betrayed her too. No, she couldn’t have. She was so sweet and young and pure. Ayess had to have a good reason to not come. To say the last farewell.

Tugging her hood tighter around her head of tangled copper hair, she started walking again.  Her ragged breaths evened and in front of her, the Robber House came into view. Emery cleared her throat. It had suddenly become very tight. She wiped her eyes, although they weren’t teary yet. Ayess had to be left behind. Everything was temporary. This wasn’t Emery’s home. She had to let go.

Sparks erupted within her skin and she tucked her mittens in her satchel, clearing her throat again.

Her chin rose ever so slightly as she looked at the brick building, although her hands were shaking. Memories of rising flames devouring villages flashed in her mind. Men screaming and beatin their wooden shields with knives or wooden sticks—they didn’t need swords to take down these villagers.

Emery let the images fade. She didn’t falter.

This time, her flames would not betray her. Her eyes flitted across the building. The uneven rows of windows, the low gabled roof, the deadly sharp icicles hanging down from its ledge. There was silence. Ghostly silence.

Steep cliffs and low, ancient mountains sloped down the north side of Larnham. After last night’s blizzard, a heaviness had settled over the city, but now the eery fog was gradually lifted by the wind. Emery had to get in, and out, before the city woke, and before the air was clear.

The lights were out. The windows were dark.

Emery slid down the shingles slowly, quietly. It was slippery, but the snow gave her just enough footing to keep her boots from slipping. She’d lived on these roofs for years, and learned early on that one mistake could be her last.

She listened for footsteps, coughs, anything. But when complete silence greeted her, she thanked for it with a relieved sigh.

She let go of the roof. A thud, and she was on solid ground again, trudging through heavy snow. Mosts streets were ploughed when the layer of snow became too much for carts to be pushed in, but Yssir kept his quarters devoid of merchants with carts and wagons full of goods. They’d learned to stay away. And if they did, Yssir’s robbers actually meant good business for them. No Norian soldiers meant no regulations and no tax.

Emery walked to the door and stayed still outside for a moment, but when she only heard silence, she dug in her satchel for a thin, long piece of iron.

She squinted into the lock mechanism, pushed her body against the door and the frame, and then poked the metal pick into the lock. It wasn’t really a lock at all. Yssir had created a lazy solution that didn’t require a key. A lock created for someone who wanted it to seem like it was difficult to break in, but it really wasn’t. The door creaked open.

Emery walked across the dirty floor.

The walls were peeling off and the dark wood and goat wool peeked out beneath the tapestries. Emery crinkled her nose at the smells of mead and sweat plastered all over the walls and floors.

There was movement in the corner of her eye, but she wasn’t quick enough to react, and something sharp lodged in her shoulder with a stab of pain lancing through her chest and arm. A small knife protruded from her left shoulder, blood oozing out. Her fingers touched the blood and she stared at the red on her fingertips.

Emery lifted her gaze, a painful groan on her tongue. She swallowed it. A boy stood in the corner of the room. One of Yssir’s blade boys. He was tall and lanky, his face was covered by a woolen scarf tied up to his dark eyes.

“Are you the only one here?” Emery asked him.

They boy didn’t answer, but that was answer enough.

Emery pushed past him. The knife was still in her shoulder and the pain growing worse. He pulled her wounded arm and she twisted in agony.

Her wrist snapped out. That seemed to make the boy step out of her way for long enough. But what he didn’t know was that Emery had tried to summon her fire, but it hadn’t obeyed.

Ezheira, mother of all things rotten and dead, she swore.

She gritted her teeth and held her hand up, but there was no fire. Emery turned around and started climbing up the steep stairs to the attic.

“No,” he protested. “You can’t go up-”

But Emery was already standing with her back hunched forward in the low-roofed attic. She wasn’t very tall, but even she couldn’t stand upright there. The attic was so small because there had to be space for the smoke from the hearth to escape. The wind howled loudly through the corners and crevices of the dusty attic. It was obnoxiously loud, like what she imagined a dragon’s screech to sound like.

The air was cold—so cold that even Emery shivered. She couldn’t feel a single spark of her fire within her veins. She looked at her hands. This was bad. Her fingers flexed. They were cold.

Shuffled footsteps sounded behind her.

“Emery?” a small voice said. Another voice shushed it.

Emery turned around, a twinge of pain twisting her face. But then her stomach dropped, and her jaw with it.

There she was. Ayess, wearing fur boots and a sheep skin coat. Beside her stood Gern. Yssir’s son was eleven years old but looked like he could be six. He clung to Ayess’ side and she held her hand pressed over his mouth.

Ayess hand slowly dropped down. “Emery,” she said.

“What are you doing here?” Emery asked, her voice laced with worry. She glanced over her shoulder. The blade boy was still downstairs. 

Emery shook her head. It didn’t matter why Ayess was there. She was safe, she was clean, she looked healthy and well-fed.

“You need to get out of here,” she told the kids quietly, her voice almost a whisper.

“Why?” Gern said loudly.

“Because it’s not safe.”

The wind howled loudly. Gern had to scream so that Emery could hear him. “But they’ll be back for us soon!”

Emery swallowed. Her skin was crawling, cold sweat trickling down her spine. She held her hands together. They were cold. Her fingers felt stiff. Panic hitched in the back of her throat. She swallowed again.

“You’re bleeding…” Ayess said.

Emery looked at her shoulder. “I know.”

Was it better to pull the knife out now or wait until later? Yssir had taught her everything she knew about everything. But now her mind was blank.

Yssir had been a medic in some army once, and never specified which army, and clearly didn’t want to elaborate, and Emery had still feared him in the early days. But whenever she got wounded in a raid—which hadn’t been often, because Yssir had been strict about Emery always staying far from the fighting—he had done the pulling out of arrows and blades.

She let it be. It wasn’t bleeding much anymore, as long as she didn’t use her shoulder… She tried to stay calm despite the fact that she knew the blade boy had ruined her chance of a quick escape. Emery couldn’t climb with that shoulder.

“Where are the others?” Emery asked Gern, hunching down above the stairs and peeking down. She shoved empty glass bottles out of the way. Some of them still had drops of liquid in them. A half-full bottle rolled back and forth until Emery placed it standing upright.

“Master is out,” Gern said, “catching a traitor.”

“The Kaumian?”

Gern shrugged. Poor boy, calling his own father master. She gave him a weak smile, then lifted her gaze to Ayess.

“I don’t know, either,” Ayess said.

Emery moved out of the way and gestured for them to climb downstairs.

“No… We should stay,” Ayess protested.

Emery shook her head. “It’s not safe for you here.”

Gern moved closer to the stairs, but he, too, stayed where he was.

“Come on,” Emery said. “You’re going to be really hurt if you stay.”

“Why?” Gern asked. Ayess’ eyes dropped to her feet.

“You need to get down.” Emery pointed down the stairs. Please.

If you hurt them I’ll kill you!” the boy from downstairs yelled.

“Come up and kill me, then!”

He didn’t. Soft footsteps thumped against the hard, wooden floorboards. Emery sighed. She grabbed Gern gently by the arm. “Please, Gern?”

“Master won’t like it.” He pursed his lips, but she could see he was conflicted.

“I’ve always been kind to you,” she said. “Given you butter rolls and told you stories when you couldn’t sleep.” Her eyes moved to Ayess. “You saved my life once, Ayess. I’ve loved you like a sister.”

She took Gern’s little hand. “This isn’t your home. You deserve better, Gern.”

“Burn it,” Ayess said. She nodded at Emery, her pure, sky-blue gaze intense. “Burn it.”

Emery gestured toward the stairs. “I will burn it.”

Ayess climbed first, and Gern followed. Alone, Emery let out a heavy breath. She couldn’t hear it through the loud wind.

It would work out. The house was full of alcohol and there were plenty of burning materials. She would only need a spark and it would be done with. This whole place. All of their weapons, food, drink, everything. Yssir would have nothing left.

She should maybe burn the whole city while she was at it.

Emery pressed her eyes shut and breathed calmly. She raised her hands in front of her, palms laying flat. If she couldn’t create a spark, she was worthless.

The first time she had set a town ablaze, she’d been terrified. It was her second raid, and everybody expected her to finally do it. Hruod had raised a mead skin for her, and she had loved it. After that moment of recognition, any second thoughts she’d had about burning innocent people’s homes were gone. Emery didn’t want to disappoint the robbers. She wanted to be worth their praise. Maybe even affection.

It had been summer. She still had sea legs after a week huddled on a longship. The flames came easy. They blasted over her face and she remembered Orr laughing about it later, calling it a miracle that she still had her eyelashes and eyebrows. It was a miracle.

The flames consumed one dry pile of grass, then the stable, spreading rapidly over the entire  coastal town. They were monstrous, but she was mesmerized. She couldn’t stop looking at them, and Yssir had to drag her away.

It wasn’t until years later that Emery’s flames begun to cause her scars. They did not always hurt her, but often.

She gazed at her hands. Her brown skin was speckled and patchy around her hands. They were so ugly. Emery looked down the wooden stairway. The attic creaked and shook with the wind. She slung her feet over the second floor’s edge.

But she heard voices. And they were not child voices. Horror was painted across her face. She stopped breathing. Heat burned in her face. It was not from her hands. She cursed voicelessly through gritted teeth and pressed her cold palms together. Fleas and serpents and all things unholy.

Emery walked deeper into the shadows of the attic, the wind roaring, her footsteps and the creaking of the old, wooden floors drowning in the noise.

There were no windows.

Any moment, Yssir could climb up the stairs and find her. She didn’t know what he would do, but she’d never been this scared. Her imaginary ghosts and fearful, anxious thoughts whirred about. Her hands trembled. She clasped her hands, rubbed them together, blew a warm breath inside them—but nothing ignited the fire.

Out of all the days that Aru’s gift could fail her, why had the gods chosen this one?

Because they hated Aru, they hated Aruels, and that was why the Norians existed. To bring them down.

Her eyes flitted all around the attic for something, anything, to get her out of this mess she’d made. She didn’t understand why her fire wouldn’t respond, why there were no flame dancing on her palm no matter what she tried.

She would gladly take the pain, the blisters, the blackening marks on her palms. Without the fire, she had nothing. The very thing that had threatened to cause her imprisonment for the entirety of her life was the only thing that gave her freedom.

Emery clenched her hands into fists. She wasn’t going down. 

Drawing deep breaths and steadying her shaking hands, she walked back to the stairs. Light flooded from below. Dim, flickering candlelight. That was all the fire she needed. She knelt down, grabbing a bottle of mead. She opened the bottle and sniffed, having to fight the temptation to take a sip to satisfy the dry itch in her throat.

She put the cork back on the bottle and climbed downstairs.

There were three of Yssir’s men in the room, but Yssir wasn’t there. She breathed easier, nearly drinking in the relief. But the air caught in her throat. The heavy stench of sweat, rot and blood. The men reeked.

Their beards were thick and hadn’t been groomed, ever. And Emery would know, having spent years of her life on ships with men like these. Some had dropped dead during the years. But they were all after the gold.

And these men’s eyes were gleaming with it.

But then Emery noticed something about them. Ayess stood completely unmoving with her face pressed against the wall, and one man was holding Gern as if the boy would run off any second. And Gern’s hands were tied.

Emery’s stare lingered. There was no fear in Gern’s eyes, but the moment Emery saw the  men’s faces more closely, she knew there should’ve been.

Gern was weak and small, and nobody liked him. All of Yssir’s men had babysat the helpless boy at some point, since his father wasn’t exactly the fatherly type. None of Yssir’s men would ever tie him up. Then the man tied a gag over Gern’s mouth, and Emery stepped forward out of instinct.

The three men eyed her from top to toe, yellow grins widening.

The man standing closest to her, his arms braced on his hips and hair braided back with golden hoops behind his head, missed two front teeth. When he tilted his head, more gold glimmered in his ears and face as it caught the firelight.

“Let me take a look at that pretty shoulder of yours,” the man said with a slight lisp and a foreign accent. She stared at him coming closer. “That looks painful.”

The stairs pressed into her back although she didn’t notice stepping backwards. Her eyes flitted around the room rapidly. The blade boy hadn’t been gagged. He sat unconscious in a heap against the wall with his throat torn open. Emery looked away.

Shelves and doorless cupboards lined the timber walls, carrying baskets of furs and animal pelts, glass bottles, jars and mead skins. Emery had lost her own leather water bottle in the marketplace fire, and her throat was scratchy. She swallowed arduously because her tongue had gone so dry.

One of the foreigners held a torch. They had lit the hearth pit in the middle of the room. The fire was still small, but smoke was building up in the ceiling, because there was no way for it to escape.

Her hands trembled again and she pulled them inside her cloak to hide it. The glass flask fell from her hand. It cracked and rolled on the floor, mead pouring out in a half circle.

The man stood only feet away from her, briefly distracted by the bottle on the floor.

Emery drew the small blade from her shoulder, her jaw aching dully with the effort of not screaming. It gleamed with her blood. She struck the man once in the face and then left the knife in his chest, already ducking away from underneath his arm.

Yssir’s rogues weren’t the worst of criminals. Yes, they’d killed and thieved across Rock Island, The Pearl Isles, and even down the archipelago of the Viaran Sea. They’d taken over and corrupted the trade city of Larnham, tortured and murdered Norian guards, and their latest endeavor was sending headless King's men to Hordrigg. The last one was a stupid risk to take, as there were patrolling Norians in every village and outpost on the roads leading to Noriannd. But Emery had stopped trying to understand his plans.

Flickering, rising flames from the fire pit fed the sharp shadows in the room.

The foreigner grunted and lunged for Emery, but she slid a chair between them. Maybe if she hadn’t stabbed the man, they would be more friendly, but Emery doubted it. He screamed and lunged after her.

She ducked down low into a crouch and reached for the fire with her right hand. Flames licking her hands, burning blisters through her scarred skin, she bit through the pain and flexed her fingers. There it was. Fire.

She pounced from the ground, hand aflame.

The men closed in on her, ugly sneers on their faces. The shadows and light of the fire danced across their beards and greedy eyes.

Emery looked past them. Both Ayess’ and Gern’s hands were bound and faces covered in woods. If emery wouldn’t have been there, these men would’ve taken them and sold them as slaves. Emery had never been free, and neither had these children.

Ayess had spent all of her life in an orphanage, earning the roof over her head by doing work for the women caring for her. Gern had never been allowed to frolic in the meadows, build rock forts or play with pine cone animals, like normal children.

Then again, did normal children even exist in Noriannd?

Ayess was shaking. Tears gleamed on her cheeks hidden behind her loose, black hair. Emery felt the fire magnifying in strength within her veins. Her blood boiled.

She spread her arms and stared with an intensity of hellfire into the rogues’ eyes. Her right sleeve was on fire. Drawing from the existing flames, she pushed new fire through her skin. It was more painful than ever before, but she was so full of rage that she hardly noticed.

Flames surrounded her, dancing around the room. They bit into furniture, furs, leathers, and then, the alcohol. The men screamed with agony. Emery let her fire devour them completely. Her eyes burned and prickled. The smoke. The pain. The terrified children sitting hunched down in the corner. Tears streaked her cheeks.

Exhaustion wore down on her. Her skin on her hands and forearms felt as if it were peeling, but she only saw cracks in her flesh with dark blood spilling in small droplets.

Bottles cracked and shattered as they exploded, spreading burning alcohol everywhere. The screaming had stopped, but now the house was creaking and falling apart. Emery dashed toward the cupboards. She snatched one glass bottle, but it slid from her hand as Gern stumbled into her. He stared with wide, large eyes.

Emery reached to the shelf and took one of the leather flasks. Liquid swilled inside. Yes. Pushing the skin into her cloak's pocket, she pulled Gern and Ayess with her toward the door.

Cold air hit against her. The wind tugged at her cloak. Pinched her skin. The foreign robbers were left with their stolen treasures, consumed by the Robber House.

Emery’s breaths were labored. Shallow. She lifted her gaze to the flames shattering windows and creaking inside the stone building. The wooden roof caved in.

“Come on,” she yelled over the loud crackling of her flames. Her magnificent work. She helped Ayess and Gern get the gags off their mouths.

Emery’s skin itched. She began to pull the children with her, away from the burning house.

Ayess screamed, eyes wide with horror. “Emery!”

“We can’t be here when the Norians come!”

“But we are Norians, Emery!”

Emery stopped. She met Ayess’ eyes.

They were Norians.

It was Emery who had to run. Ayess and Gern would be better off if Norian guards found them. If any Norians found them. She was the one who didn’t belong.

She crouched down, holding Ayess’ hands, patting Gern on the arm. She gave both of them lingering, sad looks. “I’m going to leave.”

Gern’s eyes widened.

“Why?” Ayess parted her lips and pursed them, as if lost for words. “You can’t leave!”

A window shattered behind them. Emery forced a smile.

“I’ll be fine,” she said.

Emery stood up straight, looking over her shoulder. Her arm ached.

It made no sense why Yssir would have anything to do with Ayess, but for some reason he had. Ayess had been in the Robber House, and Emery suspected it was not because she was looking after Gern.

The wounded shoulder burned and dull pain lanced through her arm, but she hoisted herself up on a roof nevertheless, carrying most of her weight with her good arm. This was one of those moments where she could be grateful her body was nothing but skin and bone. Her boots scraped the wall. When she was up, she looked back. Ayess shook Gern’s hand away when he tried to hold hers, and they made their way back toward the burning Robber House.

It was gone, and with it, Emery’s chance of ever returning to be one of Yssir’s thieves again. She had nothing left in Larnham.

Emery put on a spurt of speed. Her pulse roared in her ears and sharp stabs of pain pulsated from her shoulder. Her legs cried for her to slow down, but she ran as fast as her feet would carry her on snow-covered roofs with a treacherous layer of ice beneath.

She wouldn’t look back again.







You Might Also Like

0 comments

Leave a comment

Subscribe