Trust and faith are powerful. She built her army on those two rocks.
— Padraim Solture, Riddle of Stone, Act II, Scene VI
Kanéko started awake when a murder of crows cawed nearby. Groaning, she cracked open her eyes and stared out at the burning red sky. While she slept, she had turned so her back was flat against the hard wood and her head rested on Pahim’s lap. Her feet dangled over the edge of the bench. She could feel the muscles moving in time with the shaking wagon. With a yawn, she blinked to clear her eyes and peered up to him.
The young man stared forward, the reins in his hands lightly resting along his wide palms.
He jumped at her voice. Looking down, he licked his lips and there was a brief moment of some unknown emotion before he smiled broadly. “Kanek, I didn’t know when you’d wake up.”
She yawned and sat up. Her mouth felt like chalk and a headache throbbed. “How long was I sleeping?”
To either side of the road, she didn’t recognized the trees or her surroundings. It would make sense if they had been riding for a while, but she still tried to picture where they would be on a mental map. She realized she didn’t know the area at all and wished she had seen a map of the inn’s surroundings before she had left.
“About three and a half bells, seven hours.”
It took a moment before his words sank into her thoughts. Kanéko gasped and looked up sharply. “Three bells?”
“You were up during lunch for a while, don’t you remember that?”
She frowned as she tried to remember. A vague memory of him offering her a skin of water came up but nothing else. She shook her head and groaned from the headache. “Pah? Didn’t you say we would be at the campsite in three bells? Garèo is going to kill both of us.”
“Well, I took a wrong turn.” At her frown, he continued, “Oh, it’s not that far. We’ll probably get there by the ninth bell… about two hours from here…” His voice trailed off as he looked down the road.
Kanéko waited for him to say more. When he didn’t, she shifted into a sitting position and rested her head on his shoulder. Her mind still fuzzy, so she let her thoughts drift.
As they rode, she watched the trees on both sides of the road stretching as far as she could see. Curious, she turned her head and looked back the way they came, seeing more trees lining the dirt road. Her eyes rose up to the light that baked the right side of her face. A memory from one of Garèo’s lessons pricked her thoughts. She looked at the sun as it kissed the top of the trees.
“Yes?” He spoke in a terse, distracted voice.
Kanéko gestured to the sun. “Why are we going south?”
His body tensed underneath her. He twisted and rolled his neck.
A prickle of concern ran down her back, an icy finger traced her spine. A beat pulsed in her ears as she looked up at his concerned face, trying to read his expression. As casually as she could, she rested a hand on the back of the wagon bench. “Pah?”
“I said I missed the fork.”
Kanéko shifted away from Pahim. “Pah, we are going straight south, aren’t we? Isn’t the campground northwest of the Boar Hunt Inn?”
The muscle clenching in his neck told her everything. Kanéko sat up away from him and turned to face him. “What is going on?”
Pahim sighed. “I… I just thought you wouldn’t mind.”
“Wouldn’t mind what?” pressed Kanéko. “Where are we going?”
She clamped a hand on the back of the wagon, the tension in her body squeezing her chest. She gasped and tried to force out words, but only a grunt came out. She closed her mouth and tried again. This time, the words came out screaming, “Jinto Panzir!?”
For all of her fantasies, Kanéko never thought she would actually go to the city. There were too many things she didn’t, she didn’t have her tools, and someone would hunt her down long before she proved herself. “No, no, we can’t go there. Not now!”
“Why not? You were talking about it and Garèo was—”
“Because I’m not ready!” Kanéko screamed.
“We have everything we need—”
Kanéko spun on the bench and gestured at the empty wagon. “We have everything? Where!? I need my tools in my trunk. I need clothes. I need something besides the stuff on my back and my wallet. How are we going to survive on a hundred and seventy crowns for a month?”
“I also said I wanted to kiss you!” She stood up on the wagon, still screaming. “Obviously, that was also one of my stupider ideas!”
Pahim looked up guiltily. “I thought with your title—”
She snapped shrilly at his tone. “You didn’t think!” She punched him in the shoulder. Stepping to the side, she jumped off the wagon and winced when her ankle rolled beneath her. A stabbing pain raced up her leg. Unwilling to show weakness, she limped to the side of the road.
Pahim scrambled to stop the wagon. “Come on, Kanek, it won’t be that bad!”
“You!” She took a step toward him and pointed. “are never to call me that! Just… I—,” she ground her jaw together, “I need to clear my head before I kill you.”
Limping, Kanéko stalked off the road and headed to the tree line. She reached it and plunged into the trees, desperate to get out of sight. As she passed branches, she slapped at their leaves.
Her bare feet sank in the moist soil until she broke free of the underbrush. She couldn’t hear Pahim, but his voice wouldn’t carry far through the surrounding bushes and trees.
“Castrated son of a snake!”
Tears burned in her eyes as she continued to storm forward, shoving bushes and branches aside. The ground grew rocky as she approached a ridge running parallel to the road. She stomped hard as she headed up toward the top. When the sharp pains in her twisted ankle increased, she forced herself to plod through it.
“Brains of curdled milk!”
By the time she reached the top of the hill, she regretted twisting her ankle. A burning ache ran up her thigh and she had to hobble the last few feet before she could stop at a large tree. Looking around, she spotted a rotted stump and she limped over to it.
She wanted to keep swearing at Pahim, that is what her mother would do, but the words wouldn’t come. Yelling didn’t make her feel better, and it didn’t solve anything. She sighed and kept her mouth shut as she reached the stump and sat down heavily on it.
The perch shuddered but held her weight.
Kanéko took a deep breath and lifted her throbbing foot up slightly to relieve the ache. When it faded, she cringed and set it down. Instead of the sharp pain she expected, it was only a dull ache. Letting out her breath in a rush, she increased the weight on the ankle and rolled it slightly, exploring her injury.
She remembered reading a similar scene in her Nash novels. Her favorite hero had broken his leg while fighting a ginorak, a fire-breathing lizard. Thankfully, she didn’t feel the grinding of bones or the sharp pain that the author had written about. It was just a burning ache from strained muscles or maybe a forming bruise. Relieved, she tugged up her pant leg and looked at her mud-streaked ankle and heel. The skin was tender and discolored, a bruise but nothing compared to the injuries she had acquired in the last year.
Her mind spun furiously for a moment as she tried to come up with alternative. She would be safe at the Boar Hunt Inn until Garèo came back for her. She glanced at the woods, back the way she came. She could walk back, but it would be better if she had the wagon. Kanéko pondered for a moment. She had some money in her wallet. Maybe she could pay Pahim to take her back. Once she was there, she would avoid him, but it was the best way to return to safety.
Her thoughts went to Jinto Panzir. She had only read about the city in her magazines and heard about it in rumors, but it would have been the perfect place to prove herself. She let herself dream for a little moment before she pushed herself back to her feet. It was time to stop and face her life.
With a sad sigh, she limped back down the ridge and followed the imprints of her feet back to the road. She smiled to herself as she did; if she wasn’t stomping in anger, she would have been lost. She shook her head. “I can’t believe I was considering fucking him.”
It took her longer than she remembered to return to the road. Just as she saw it through the wavering curtain of leaves, she heard hooves pounding against the hard-packed earth. They slowed as they approached.
Kanéko inched forward, holding the branches against her as she peered out from the tree line. The horses were to her right, circling Pahim’s wagon. A prickle of fear ran down her spine, adding to her anger.
For the briefest of moments, she considered calling out to them for help, but then she recognized the leader: the bald man from the inn. He did not smile and something about his dark gaze silenced the words in her throat. Heavy scars scoring his tanned skin and were easily visible from the distance.
As the man circled the wagon, he kept one hand on the hilt of his sword. It was a curved blade, about two feet long with a thick wooden sheath that glinted in the fading sunlight. His other hand rested on the reins of his horse, keeping the mount walking in a small circle around the wagon. He wore a small travel pack on his back that looked like the same one Kanéko originally had prepared. It was a desert-style travel pack with well-worn leather.
Finally, he came to a halt next to the wagon and peered into the back of the wagon and then up to the front. “You were at the inn, weren’t you? Did you see a girl? Dark skin, brownish or reddish hair. A sand blood, a foreigner? Probably has some money, doesn’t show a talent with magic?”
Kanéko pressed her hand to her mouth to mute her panting. She had expected the stranger to ask about the road or gossip, not to ask for her. The magical talent question proved the point. There were very few dark-skinned people in the local area and most of them would have some sort of clan magic.
She glanced at Pahim, silently begging him not to speak up.
Pahim grunted and looked down. “Yeah, I know her.”
Kanéko shook her head, desperately trying to silence him with nothing but a glare. Her heart pounded as she stared at him, terrified of what the stranger would say next.
“Really?” The bald man sat up straighter and looked around.
Kaneko pulled back as his gaze approached her. The pounding in her ribs moved to her ears, drowning out the sound. She had to take deep breaths before it calmed down enough for her to hear his response.
“Where is she? Do you know?”
The blond teenager crossed his arms over his chest and inhaled sharply, causing it to puff out. “I saw the poster.”
The bald man threw back his head and laughed. It was a deep, booming laugh that made Kanéko’s stomach churn. “Oh, that is what this is about? Money?”
In the pause that followed, Kaneko bit her lip and clutched the branch. The leaves shook violently as she waited for his response. Tears burned in her eyes and blurred her vision. She shook her head silently, wishing that Pahim was looking out for her and not some reward.
Pahim pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. He unfolded and handed it to the man. “Ten thousand is a lot of money.”
“N-No…” whispered Kanéko. She stepped back slightly but couldn’t go any further. She wanted to keep watching despite the sour boil in her stomach and the beating under her ribs.
The bald man turned it around to read it, and then handed it back. “You saw us in the inn, why didn’t you just deliver her there?”
“I saw the Queen heading back to Panzir, I was hoping to catch Captain Sinmak Bilmour there.”
The bald man chuckled and patted his wallet. “I would have given you the reward money right at the inn.”
Pahim turned and looked down the road they were riding along. It must have been toward Jinto Panzir. “My dad is on the Queen.” He sighed and looked down, “I wanted to present her to him first.”
“Your dad? Who’s he?”
“Torvis Maldor, he’s an engineer. He joined, um, three years ago.”
The man’s face tensed for a moment. “I knew Torvis, but you better talk to Captain Bilmour.”
Kaneko noticed that the stranger’s grip on his sword tightened.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Pahim. Pahim Maldor, but most people call me Pah.” Pahim held out his hand.
The stranger took it. “I’m Cobin Starisen. I’m the ground commander for Burning Cloud Queen.” I can pay you here, if that is what you want.”
“Yes, sir. That would be nice.”
“Then where is she? I have a black bitch to deliver.”
When Pahim looked toward the trees, Kanéko backed further into the woods. She snarled silently at him, cursing him underneath her breath.
He gestured to the woods in Kanéko’s direction. “She ran off less than twenty minutes ago. I was expecting her back soon. She twisted her leg, and there isn’t anyone else out here. It’s either me or a long walk to Jinto or back to the inn.”
Cobin looked along the tree line, scanning it as he scowled.
Kanéko continued to step back until she lost sight of the man but still heard his voice. She held her breath as she strained to listen.
“We have a quarter bell at most before it grows too dark, and I want that sandy in ropes before that happens. Tom, provide light. Bin, to my left and start sounding. Pah?”
“Do you want to stay here or help us hunt? I’ll throw an extra thousand crowns if you capture her.”
A low rumble shook the ground but quickly faded.
Kanéko gulped. She couldn’t stop the trembling that shook her body. More tears threatened to fall, but she wiped them clear and glanced back, memorizing the route back into the depths. In her mind, she could picture where she needed to put her feet and hands when she finally had to run. Curiosity, however, kept her from running.
“Truth be honest, I’d rather not remain on the road. Garèo will be coming back—”
“Garèo!? Waryoni Garèo!? You know him? Where is he!?”
Kanéko flinched at Cobin’s sudden yell.
“H-He’s,” Pahim’s voice cracked, “on the road to Two Firs. But, he’ll be back when Kanek doesn’t show up.”
Cobin’s voice grew hard. “Boy, if you catch her tonight, I will personally give you twenty thousand on the spot. The same goes to the rest of you. Twenty thousand crowns bonus to each of you if we catch that sandy bitch now!”
That was it, she was no longer safe. Kanéko turned and sprinted into the woods. Her bare feet sank into the soft earth, and she stumbled on the rocks underneath, but she already had her route planned for almost fifty feet. She ran blindly as she trusted her memory. Every time her aching ankle took her weight, though, she winced from the sharp pain. She held one hand over her face and charged forward, protecting her eyes as she fled blindly.
“Found her!” cried out a voice. “Two chains down, on the left! Hai!”
She ran faster, plunging into the woods racing as fast as she could. Her bare feet smacked against the ground as she came to the ridge and scrambled up it using her hands for balance.
Behind her, pursuers crashed into branches and bushes, swearing loudly as they tore into the woods. Two of them were on horseback, she could tell from the cries of the animal, but they were easily covering the distance.
She pushed herself, but sharp pains ran up her ankle and she had to limp forward. Every time her feet pounded against the ground, it felt as if she was running in mud. Sharp rocks tore at her bare feet, thorns scraped against her arms, face, and shoulder. She gasped for breath as she looked around for a clear route but couldn’t find it.
“Sands!” she snapped.
“I heard her! This way!” yelled Pahim dangerously close to her. More branches snapped as he charged after her.
She clamped a hand over her mouth when she realized she had revealed her location with her swearing. Panting into her palm, she ran as fast as she could. Every part of her body ached from fear and terror. Her bare feet bled from the numerous cuts and the sharp pain of her ankle hobbled her attempts to sprint.
Kanéko tried to push herself but she couldn’t move any faster. Her feet refused to push past the pain. Her lungs couldn’t get enough air. The struggle she had with keeping up with Garèo’s lesson was nothing compared to her desperation to escape.
Pahim came up behind her. He was bigger than her, fast, and he was wearing boots. She felt the wind when he tried to grab her.
She let out a cry and tried dodging out of the way, but she slipped and bounced off a tree instead. There was a flash of Pahim’s scowl and his outstretched hands before she spun to the side.
Pahim grabbed at her hair and he yanked her back. He grunted loudly.
Kanéko’s back slammed into his chest, and her scream echoed through the woods.
Pahim wrapped one arm around her, obviously trying to pin her arms to her chest. The strength she admired before turned dangerous and terrifying.
She knew her chance for escape would dwindle if he pinned her. Thinking desperately, she threw her head back but almost lost her balance. Trying again, she planted her feet and then slammed backward with all of her might.
The back of her skull impacted with his nose. There was a satisfying crunch as cartilage shattered from the impact.
A burst of pain blinded her briefly.
Pahim fell back, tugging at her but his grip slipped away, and she was free.
For the briefest of moments, she considered running, but then she realized that the boy who had betrayed her was only feet away. With a growl, she spun around on her good foot.
He had staggered a few feet. Blood poured down his face and throat. It splashed down his shirt.
Enraged, she swung at him but missed. “Rot in hell,” she yelled at the top of her lungs, “you sand-cursed bastard!”
“Shut up, you stupid sandy!” Pahim lashed out at her but also missed. He wiped his face with his other hand and shook it clear. Blood splattered against the leaves below them, leaving long trails of crimson against the ground.
She spotted a rotted branch. The top of it was thick, but large enough for her to grab with both hands. It looked like it was only partially in the ground as it wavered back and forth from their swinging.
Kanéko memorized where it was and then attacked, swinging furiously but not trying to hit.
Pahim dodged out of the way and attacked her, but she avoided his blows easily.
When the opportunity came, she spun around and grabbed the branch. Yanking it hard, she was relieved when it broke free. Without looking for him, she brought it in a low arc around her body and then up as soon as she saw him.
The tip of the weapon bounced against Pahim’s inner thigh before the thick wood crunched into his testicles. The wood shattered from the impact and shards of wood exploded in all directions.
Kanéko staggered forward from the unexpected loss of weight. Her shoulder smacked into him, and she cringed, waiting for him to grab her. She kept a grip on the remains of her stick. Less than a foot of wood remained but it was enough to defend herself.
When Pahim didn’t attack her, she looked up into his face. They were only inches away. Pahim’s eyes were wide enough they were almost white. He shook violently and bubbles of blood popped from his destroyed nose. A long gasp escaped his lips, splattering her face with his blood.
She pulled back and followed the trail of blood down his throat and chest.
Pahim clutched his groin with both hands. A large hunk of wood stuck out from between his fingers. It had punched into the side of his leg, into the meaty part of his thigh. Blood poured down his leg as he clutched his testicles and the bloody shard at the same time.
The gasp continued to escape his lips, the sound growing higher pitched with every passing second.
Kaneko glared at him, panting. Sweat prickled her brow as she regarded the boy who had tried to sell her for ten thousand crowns. It was more money than most people made, but that didn’t matter. She had kissed him.
Anger burning through her, she swung the remains of her stick at the side of his head. The remaining wood cracked with the impact against his skull, but she squeezed down with her fist and followed through the punch. Her knuckles popped against his bone and the force threw him to the side.
She considered attacking again, but a snapping branch told her there were more coming for her. She looked up wildly, trying to orient herself. She didn’t recognize the trees, but she pictured the area around in her head and quickly replayed the chaotic fight between her and her betrayer. Finding a different direction, she abandoned Pahim and hobbled away as fast as she could.
It was darker than she remembered. She could barely see in front of her but the dim light gave her enough to slip between the trees. Unable to see the ground, she tripped frequently and cut her hands as much as her feet.
Behind her, a glowing light flickered against the trees. It was a bright blue, unnatural to say the least. She remembered how Corbin had told one of his men to use their light which meant they were behind her.
Panting, she struggled to keep her back to the light and well away from its shine. The flicker gave her a few hints but that didn’t stop her from cracking her head against low-hanging branches or walking into spiderwebs. Each time, she had to fight crying out and revealing her location. Not swearing was even harder.
One moment, she was hobbling along the ground and the next there was nothing. Unwittingly, she let out a shriek as she plummeted forward, slamming into a steep embankment before bouncing off rocks. Blind, she clutched in all directions to stop herself from falling, but she only managed to pull a few roots loose before her back smacked into water.
River water flooded into her mouth and nose as she dunked below the surface. Panic surged through her, and she scrambled helplessly in all directions, kicking out as she tried to regain her feet.
Time seemed to slow as she choked; it burned her lungs and seared the inside of her nostrils.
She flailed, clutching her hand to grab something, anything. Her knuckles scraped on rocks. She tried to grab them again, but she failed to get a solid grip. She spun around with her effort but she couldn’t figure out which way was up.
Her throat seized up. She managed to jam her toes into the ground. The nerves in her foot screamed out in agony, but she used it to push herself up to the surface and flail for something to grab.
Her hands caught on a root, but it slipped through her fingers.
She bobbed underneath, water flooding into her mouth.
Choking on the icy liquid, she surged up and grabbed the root with both hands. Her knuckles cracked from the effort as she held tight, gasping for breath as she regained her senses. Her breath came out in ragged gasps, washing her hand in warmth.
Kanéko looked around, but she was blind. With a groan, she pulled herself up the river bank and then crouched in a knot of bushes. Peering through the leaves, she dreaded seeing the light of the men chasing her.
When she saw them in a distance, she had to fight back a sob.
They were still far away but approaching quickly.
She gulped, but a cough rose up. She planted her face into the water to muffle the noise and coughed violently. Before she had to inhale, she lifted her face from the water and breathed in deep. Water trickled down her aching throat, but it was nothing compared to the water already there.
“Quiet!” snapped Corbin. “Where is she?”
Kanéko held her breath, her eyes tearing up from the effort not to cough.
“She isn’t running, I can’t feel the vibrations through the noise, sir.”
“Keep at it, Bin. The stupid cow will run soon enough.”
Kanéko thought furiously for a moment. She had read about earth powers that could feel movement along the ground. The water around her must have muted the man’s ability to detect her.
Even though she could barely swim, Kanéko pushed herself away from the shore and headed downriver. She could come out later, when she was far enough away from her pursuers.