She blinked. Black lashed eyelids sliding slowly over sharp blue irises. She drew her arm up in order to plunge the short sword into the dirt beside her; using the force to push herself up to standing. One heavy leather boot dragged up and positioned itself beneath her. It pushed upwards allowing her other leg to drag itself into alignment. As she straightened her back, her knuckles whitened and a muscle flexed involuntarily in her jaw. Once she was upright and stationary, the pain subsided.
She allowed her small mouth to curve up into a cool, lop-sided sneer. Her left eye twitched as she absorbed the site of carnage. The nerves down her back transmitted the feeling of warm fresh blood flowing over the skin but failed to transmit the pain from her wound. She knew it would be a brief respite before the burning feeling of cut flesh began. For now the pain was hidden from her mind, just as the bloody wound was hidden beneath the ripped folds of the grubby linen shirt she wore. The permeable material would soon be soaked with blood.
Her hair was being irritated by the wind which blew dark tangled strands over her eyes, frequently obscuring the battle site from view. She stepped forward, a small step, the shadow of a falter as she felt the wound. The searing hot feeling of flesh opened and aggravated would not abate. Neither would she.
She would disappear and no mistake, Ithrial waited for no man. They would soon be here, the Shadows, angered by the massacre they’d be after her. And where would she be? Realization flitted across her face; nowhere if she didn’t stop this damn bleeding. She lumbered towards where a campfire glowed sullenly, a single emission of light on an otherwise dark night, and by the light began, slowly and agonizingly, to pull clothes off her dead foes. They had no use for them. She used a small dagger slung in the cracked and muddied brown belt around her waist, to cut the cleaner bits of material, not bloodied or travel-torn.
In the half-light of the old fire the woman’s shape could be seen. She was small, almost half the size of some of the dead male adversaries. Her features were small but failed in delicacy, rather claiming a slight sharpness to them. Her hair was as black as the starless night above and lay in knots and dreads down her back. Her clothing was mismatched, old and dirty. She smelled no better than her appearance implied and beneath the clothes that were clearly made for someone far larger than she, her frame was skinny, sinewy and lacking in food.
She was silent and methodical in her work. Her bright blue eyes focused in and her movements were handy and efficient with the knife. Once a pile of cotton strips lay on the earth beside her, she sat on the rotted stump of an old tree near the fire and removed the clothes she was wearing.
The woollen coat was folded first. It was the most essential item of clothing she owned, protecting her from the elements in these harsh northern territories. As she folded it she eyed the ripped panel in the back,
“Damned cursed Shadows!”
A good coat ruined. She would have to see if there were any decent coats among the dead she could harvest for material. The father had been wearing something similar. She looked over to where his bloodied face lay against the earth, his eyes open and his face distorted by a look of fury and pain. Ithrial looked away then. She was glad the humans were dead and thus the shadows with them, but that didn’t mean she had to look at their bodies or their faces.
She turned back to the work at hand. There was a leather jerkin next, as equally damaged as the coat. It was otter pelt and one of the few things she had paid for rather than stolen. She kicked a frustrated boot against the loose embers scattered about the fire causing them to emit a satisfying spark of light. It wasn’t worth it. A few seconds later the jerk of the movement sent a crippling pain through her back. She swore several times unable to move as spasms rocked her body.
She moved gingerly after that. The linen shirt she was keeping on. Reaching behind herself slowly, she took the bottom of the shirt where the material was still connected, and severed it with her dagger shearing the material in two. She swivelled on the trunk to drop the blood covered dagger with the coat and jerkin. As she did so, the fire danced its merry light over the fresh gash on her back, the blood glistening with gruesome beauty. Around this open wound the light also picked up the mottled pattern of old burn scars. They covered over half of her back and if modesty had been cast aside, they could have been seen to wrap themselves around to her front.
She had already pulled the short sword she had killed the campers with out of the soil and now she picked it up from where it rested its leather pommel against the trunk and placed it carefully in the fire. It scraped against the grit and settled at the fire’s center. She stoked the flames around it, careful to keep her back straight, placing wood that had yet to be added by the dead, to encourage flames, but more importantly, heat.
She sat back on the stump when she had finished, awaiting the result of her handiwork, glowing metal, hot enough to brand. The wet of the blood on her back sent a shiver through her as the night wind picked up. She was staring into the fire, the flames licking around the blade, dancing and darting and lacing their way around each other. It was mesmerizing, and as the heat gathered and blew out towards her she felt calmed, ready to shut her eyes against the night.
There was the quiet crackle of what Ithrial presumed was a log in the fire. It happened again and this time, the eyes she had so recently shut, opened. Once could be ignored, twice could be deadly. She listened carefully, her eyes focused back on the fire. She wouldn’t look up yet. It could alert whatever intruder it was that she knew they were there. She made out the sound of soft footsteps. The intruder moved almost silently but they were there.
With the pretense of looking at her coat, she moved her body in a wide arc as she turned to the side, taking in most of the campsite with her peripheral vision, before looking down at her pile of clothing. As she bowed her head she caught movement from the corner of her now widened eyes. She paused, catching her breath in order to listen. If it was the Shadows she was in a slight predicament. She could get out of it, but not without a little hassle.
There were no more sounds, whatever beast it was stood still for the moment. She tried to guess at the location of it, knowing that would at least give her a slight head start when it came to fighting. In the end it was pointless, they weren’t moving anymore and without those sounds to give them away, there was no way she could work out where they stood.
Giving up, she raised her head, her eyes immediately widening when she saw a man standing directly in front of her, just the other side of the fire. She straightened up again, the movement forcing more blood to flow out of the wound and down her back, eventually trickling onto the stump and then dripping onto the ground. Still the man stood staring at her, not moving or making any attempt at talking.
If he was going to be foolish enough to stand before her unguarded, she would take the time to appraise her opponent. Her pale eyes ran over him carefully, her gaze unfaltering and picking out every detail she could. He did not look like the standard choice for a Shadow. He didn’t look common enough to pass by unnoticed. His height would be considered tall even in these northern parts. His hair was jet black like her own and his eyes would have rivalled the best emeralds from Giridon. His features were sharp, angular, though the true line of his jaw was obscured by stubble grown from what Ithrial gauged to be at least a week’s travel. He didn’t look like a Shadow’s choice for a host at all.
Across his shoulders a bow was slung and there was a knife thrust in the leather belt he wore. The belt held together the panels of a traditional leather jerkin like the one she had just removed. Over all that he wore a long, recently oiled, coat. It was the garb of a hunter. The mud and dust on his clothing matched his beard growth, telling Ithrial that he had been travelling for several days, yet he was still a far sight cleaner than her.
Ithrial wondered what he’d been hunting, the intent look in his eyes caused a fleeting thought to run through her mind. Had he been hunting her? She was now doubting that he was a Shadow at all, but that didn’t mean she would listen to that doubt. She could not make a mistake. She rose slowly, partly due to the pain flaming across her back, partly so she didn’t spook the man into aggression. Once she stood she felt more confident, he didn’t look as tall now, though he still stared.
In spite of Ithrial’s oddly dressed state and wound the man’s eyes didn’t drop below her face. She wasn’t used to being so brazenly appraised. Few dared to look at her for more than a few moments because of her scars. With that thought, Ithrial grew impatient,
“Can I help you?” Her brow raised in expectation. After a few moments of silence she moved her hands slowly, fingering the linen edges of her shirt, tucking the loose panels into the top of her buckskin trousers with grubby fingers. In all of this her eyes never left the man.
He didn’t break the silence. He responded to her movements however, his head dropping to one side, his eyes narrowing, their pupils running over her, examining her just as she had him. His gaze was unwavering. After scrutinizing her for a while, his coat responding to the night breeze just as Ithrial’s hair did, he slanted his left shoulder and a pack, which had been hidden in the folds of his coat, slipped to the ground. The canvas shape crumpled, voicing an empty rather than full interior.
Ithrial had tensed at the movement. Each of her muscles felt alive, tingling in anticipation of a fight, but her back was hurting, she knew she wouldn’t be effective. The man suddenly dropped down beside his pack, his hands unfastening it and digging around in the interior. Ithrial was about to snatch up her sword, afraid his hands were going to emerge with a weapon of their own, when suddenly he pulled them free of the covering, holding only a few stale crusts of bread.
“Hungry?” his first word was spoken in the common tongue, though Ithrial could hear an accent she could not place it. Eastern perhaps? His voice sounded deep, masculine, but that was the only word he offered so Ithrial could not guess at much else.
His request did make one of her dark brows arch. She shook her head a little, she had eaten the last meal of the dead. She was well fed, though the meal had been her first in a few days.
The man shrugged, tearing off a chunk of the old bread with his teeth. As he chewed it he eyed her again.
Okay, now this was wasting time, thought Ithrial, she could still feel a little of the blood running down her back. This couldn’t go on, the blade was glowing and even if he did try to attack her, if she was dealing with her wound she would already armed. It did not scare her to think he might attack her. If it had been several years ago, when she had been fragile and inexperienced, she might have been trembling now, but those years had seen her living in the wild and fighting the Shadows. She wasn’t naïve anymore. The only reason she didn’t want him to attack her while she was dealing with her wound was because it would be damned painful.
First she wrapped some strips of material round her left hand. Then she leant forward and fingered the leather hilt of the blade gingerly with her other hand. The man hadn’t moved, but she could see his hunched figure had stilled, suddenly wary of her movements. The sword scraped along the gravelly soil, the clicking of metal not quite overpowering the nighttime sounds. She stood up slowly and with effort. Gradually straightening her back she took a deep breath. This was going to hurt. Her blade was rapidly losing its glow, if she wasted anymore time it would be too cold. She stretched her left hand round her back to finger the open edges of the gash, the stinging forcing her to bite the inside of her cheek. Once she had located the wound she brought the blade up over her head, turning it until it hung vertically down her back and with her covered hand, grasped the tipped and rammed the blade down full and hot on the congealing area.
It hissed, blood spitting around the hot implement. The foul stench of burning flesh rose around the fire and she staggered forward under the pain, barely able to keep vertical. Her legs bent against her will and the hissing sound suddenly became far away, somewhere else, a high pitched ringing taking over. This was not the time, nor the place, for her to be fainting. She mustered all the energy she could and stamped one of her feet against the ground, as if kicking away the fainting and rousing herself once again.
“Damn all the spirits!” she uttered in harsh accents.
As the pain lessened enough for her to think clearly again and take in her surroundings, the man became the focus of her pain formed anger. She would find out what he was doing here, if he was here to harm her, she would have his head. First, however, she needed to finish dealing with her wound.
The skin, now cauterized, she removed the blade, throwing it to the ground with little care. She practically fell upon the stump but before she could register more pain, she snatched up the strips of material and began binding them tight around her torso. She tied them at her front, keeping them flat against the wound. Tears dropped down her cheeks.
She cursed continuously under her breath, refusing to look the man in the eyes while her body reacted this way to the pain. It looked weak and she couldn’t afford weakness. Her breathing was ragged and fitful by the time she finished and her mood was murderous.
“Did you do all this?” the man finally spoke again, his gaze rose and fell over the dead that lay scattered around them.
Finished, pulling her torn jerkin back over her frame against the night cold, she let a sneer, distorted by pain, fall across her face. “Yes.”
She had just tied the jerkin in place when the name rolled coolly off his tongue. Her body turned instantly rigid.
“I know who you are.”
The voice, despite its even tone, seemed threatening to her. Her pale eyes widened, they darted to where her sword lay on the ground. How had he found her? Who was he? In this moment silence seemed her only option.
“The Priesthood have summoned you to Giridon.”
Memories shot through her mind like flashes of lightning. Her mother’s face, the waterfall city, a happy childhood, a prison cell and then just flames. The scars marking her body, suddenly came alive. They tingled, a wave of sensation passing over her making the burning of her wound disappear for an instant.
“Don’t go for your sword,” the man said it, not as a warning, almost as a plea.
“You have the wrong person,” she finally spoke, her voice cold and hard, her lips barely moving and her frame still frozen.
“No I don’t,” his eyes seemed to taunt her, seeing through her lies. Now he did seem bigger, broader, taller, stronger than her.
She ignored his request and bent to pick up her blade.
“I do not trot to heel. The Priesthood can burn for all I care.” She made as if to turn.
“Who are you? One of the El Nahars?” She had swung back round. She needed him to answer this. Was he one of Giridon’s Holy Guard? If he was she would kill him.
“I am your collector,” he said, giving a half shrug.
“Not good enough.” She turned again, this time making it a few steps before he spoke. She wouldn’t stay talking to someone under the authority of the Priesthood unless they gave her more information.
“I’m under the El Nahars, but I’m not a true part of them – I was conscripted because of my tracking skills.”
Ithrial thought she heard him sigh a little before going on.
“And, if I am who you say I am, I am just to obey you and come?”
“Your choice.” He shrugged. “I’m willing to allow you to come quietly, or, if you choose, not so quietly.”
Her fists clenched into balls at the arrogant command. “I am not coming at all. Like I said, you mistake me for someone else.” She sheathed her sword and slung her coat across her arm.
“There’s no mistaking you.”
At his words she remembered what it was like to be recognized. She remembered all the prying eyes, whispers and accusations. So why was she summoned now, after being left alone for so many years?
“And why is that?” she hissed.
She looked at him, her eyes defiant. For the first time in two years she actually felt fear. Damn it! How had he found her? How had the priests known where she was?
“Your accent is high Loa though you try to hide it in the common tongue.”
“Perhaps I’m just a spoilt brat running away from my important daddy,” she countered.
“A lot of people carry burns.”
She wasn’t looking at him anymore, and before she realized it, he was beside her. The proximity made her jump but she wasn’t quick enough to stop him. His fingers were under her long hair, drawing it back and exposing the burns on the left of her face. His eyes locked with hers.
“Not like yours Ithrial.”
She scowled at him, slapping his hand away and stepping back. There were no lies or excuses that would work. The use of her name seemed to make it all worse; no one had called her that in a long time. She considered running, her eyes darted left then right, scanning for the clearest getaway.
“Don’t. The hassle of catching you is something I don’t want to deal with.” His eyes broke off their stare and he walked back to pick up his pack. “Besides you know as well as anyone that the Priesthood will get to you sooner or later. It’s taken you years to evade them and me one week to find you. Better to come with me than with the next person who comes after you.” He faced her again. “It’s not your decision.”
His words came out crisp and calm, and, though peeved he had preempted her, he was persuading her. If it really had only taken him one week to find her she was impressed.
“Why do they want me?”
“They need your help.”
She scoffed at that, her laughter forced and bitter.
“I was granted a pardon, I presume that will protect my freedom if I choose to come with you?”
“I don’t trust you,” she said without much forethought.
“Nor I you.”
“You know my name, at least tell me yours?”
“Good. I’ll call you Collector.” She gathered up her knife and what little else she had. “And you will manhandle me if I don’t come?”
“My orders – but it’s not what I want.”
“Sure,” she said disbelievingly. “Well, the Priesthood calls and every being must jump up and answer. A bunch of old fools, the lot of them.”
He didn’t reply.
“Well,” she said after pulling on her ripped coat, “which way?”
To be continued