Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
THE DIM SUNRISE filtered through red glass, but the gloom haunting the temple’s vestibule didn’t deter Kami.
She entered the sanctuary, passing through curls of sooty smoke from an oil lamp before stopping at one end of the altar. A wooden statue sat on the floor, dozens of sacrificed pigeons at its feet. Kneeling before the statue of the Unsetting Sun was a pious silhouette. The silhouette finished its prayer with a touch to its forehead before turning like a bull facing a tormenter.
Kami tensed as she stepped close enough to see the woman she had been tracking for nearly a year.
Cords of muscle twitched in the woman’s bare arms. Her sleeveless tunic hung belted over her trousers. Ties cinched the frayed hem of each leg around the auburn patina of her boots. The woman dropped a satchel into a heap on the stone floor and stepped toward Kami as if she would attack. She turned instead and vanished behind the altar.
Although Kami had lost sight of her quarry, she heard the rush of angry breaths through a wet mouth and smelled the sweat of a body’s hard labor. The scent embraced her, sinking into her skin like the damp air of a cave, like something mysterious and powerful.
Compulsion drove her from the city into the forest.
In the land of the Unsetting Sun, night came only in the thick of the trees, and she found it suddenly when she stood alone and lost. Like twisted snakes, the verdant growth blocked all but a few rays that lit the air in sparkles above her.
The pungent musk enticed her, stealing her attention and leaving her with an ear-pounding silence. In her distraction, she stumbled against a moss-covered trunk and slipped from its support. She lost her balance and leapt off a ridge. The ground rushed up at her until her boots hit the dirt. The violent impact buckled her knees, and a boulder stopped her tumble down the embankment.
Angry hands seized her and shoved her face into the cold current of a stream. She flailed until her chest burned for the relief of a single breath. In a last moment of strength, she twisted free.
Too desperate to look back, she crawled away, grasping at the water as if it could pull her to safety, but the hands seized her again and dragged her through mud. She heard the wet slap before she felt the sting from the woman’s hand.
“He sends children!” The woman clutched Kami’s hair in one fist and shook her. “Is coin all your pitiful life’s worth?”
Kami tried to catch her breath as she peered up into two slivers of blue ice, eyes as cold as the water that had nearly taken her life. When the hand dropped her, she fell into the leaves, relieved to be alive, relieved to have completed her journey.
The woman hopped onto a large rock and squatted on her heels. She kept herself lightly balanced, as if she were a panther ready to pounce.
Kami propped herself against a tree, but when the tree strangely shed its bark, she slid, stopping only after she thudded against the rock where the woman crouched.
“You should find different work.” The woman’s voice was deep. She fondled her queue of golden hair as her fierce eyes calmed. “The Trade Empire is no place for a child alone.”
“I’m not a child.”
“Are you alone?”
“My knee hurts.”
“You’re no bounty hunter.”
“You’re Avestine of the Hunt.”
“My name is ‘Asada’.”
“You stopped Darklaw at Agate Bay ten years ago. You led my village into battle when Darklaw soldiers came. You drove them back into the sea. You saved us.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed several times as she looked over Kami. “What do you want with Avestine?”
Kami didn’t know what she wanted, exactly. “Darklaw has returned. The legions burned Elderwood again, and there was no one to stop them from taking Featherwood, too. Agate Bay is cut off. I don’t think they’re leaving this time. I think they’re coming to the Trade Quarter. Avestar will do what his father couldn’t.”
The woman pulled Kami to her feet. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you.”
Kami took a few steps to test her knee, which was weak. “I’ll need help back to Queenscourt.”
“That’s not a safe place for a girl.”
“I’ve already been there for three days. I know who to avoid.”
“You can’t even avoid confusing a villager buying supplies with an outlaw.”
Kami laughed. “You didn’t buy supplies. You bought a two-day whore at the worst tavern in town.”
The woman seized Kami’s arm. “I’ll take you to Riverside. Your knee can heal, and then you can go back where you came from.”
“Why haven’t the bounty hunters found you?” asked Kami as they walked. “Why don’t you disguise yourself?”
“I have no reason to hide.”