“They’re coming, Mother.”
“Hush!” Roanna hissed, pulling her daughter down into the scythe grass.
“They’re coming this way.”
“Hush, I said.”
Heart pounding, eyes stinging from perspiration, she wrapped an arm around Pandy and clamped a hand over the girl’s mouth.
“I have to pee,” Pandy managed between Roanna’s fingers.
“Then pee. But be quiet.”
Roanna tightened her hand and drew her daughter close, resisting her own urge to look. Two men with wolves were tracking them. But because the wind blew past the beasts and towards the two of them, Roanna doubted the animals could pick up their scent. With no way to know whether the men intended to take them as prisoners or let the wolves have their way with them, she lie motionless, embracing her daughter and hoping the grass would be high enough.
Against all odds, she and Pandy had made it all the way to Sandoval and almost to its harbor. That two unarmed females could travel undetected for three days across a land at war, past supply lines and phalanxes of troops, was beyond mere luck. They had managed to do so because Roanna was prescient, able to see into the future, albeit myopically. As she and Pandy had fled, she had examined each course of action—whether to run left or to the right, whether to hide behind an outcropping of rock or fallen log—attempting to envision each potential future through the narrow and shadowy lens that was her mind. She discarded those choices resulting in capture or presenting blackness, a vision she interpreted as death. Beyond what her mind revealed, the battle between the warlords, Hath Kael and Obah Sitheh, had driven them west of Chadarr. The resulting decisions had led them here, to a situation bereft of choice. Trapped, with the harbor that was their goal cruelly out of reach, there was nothing left but to lie still and wait for their pursuers to depart.
She considered the irony of their predicament. Prescience had kept them safe until now, yet prescience was the reason for their flight. Not Roanna’s. Her foresight was far too limited. Rather, it was Pandy’s nascent ability that had compelled them to run. It had evidenced only once, but with such power, clarity and eloquence that Essem Cargath, the current ruler of Deth, intended to have the child and use her to forestall the very death she had predicted for him.
Chance had brought the warlord and child together. Days earlier, his forces had quelled dissident opposition near danTennet, the city Roanna and her daughter called home. Cargath was making a show of his victory, parading through its streets at the head of his troops as a demonstration of dominance and absence of fear. As the procession wound towards them, through streets walled with onlookers—some cheering, many not—Pandy broke free of Roanna’s grasp and stood in Cargath’s way.
“Lord Cargath,” the girl announced, “you will not prevail.”
Both angered and amused by Pandy’s audacity and the words of this girl barely into her teens, the warlord raised his hand and brought the column to a halt.
“Whose child is this?” he demanded, scrutinizing the faces in the crowd.
And while his brow furrowed and his eyes flashed in a show of indignation, he could not conceal the amusement that rippled across his lips. He scanned the throng as he waited for someone to reply.
Initially startled, Roanna was about to apologize when Pandy declared, “Before two months pass, these people… ” She threw her arms wide to indicate the surrounding crowd. “ …will bring you to justice. They will imprison you and put you to death, just as death comes to your chief advisor this very minute at the hands of that man.”
She pointed into the crowd the instant before a robed and turbaned youth burst from among them. Before either the warlord or his retinue could intervene, the youth drew a knife across the neck of one of Cargath’s entourage. Throat spurting blood, Cargath’s advisor took three halting steps forward, then toppled face first onto the street. As the blood began to pool, darkening the compacted earth, the killer raised his eyes and glared at the warlord. He launched himself at Cargath and the warlord’s bodyguards intercepted him. They wrestled him to the ground, pinioning his arms and forcing him to release his weapon. Rather than slay him, they spared the youth’s life, for it was well known that Cargath preferred to administer justice to would-be assassins—of which there had been many—with his own hands. Instead, they spirited the assailant away while Cargath turned to regard the girl who had foreseen his advisor’s murder.
As he stared, the crowd fell silent and Roanna feared she could follow the warlord’s thoughts. No ordinary person, certainly no ordinary child, could have foretold that event, and it was by that act that Pandy had given proof to what she was. None but a prescient or co-conspirator could have pointed out the killer before he emerged. Since the second alternative was ludicrous, given the girl’s age, Roanna understood at once how much Cargath would want to possess her. Foreseeing that on regaining his senses he would apprehend her, Roanna leapt forward and grasped Pandy’s hand. Then, before anyone could detain them, they ran, disappearing into the throng, dodging down side streets and alleyways until they arrived at the house where they lived. Once inside, Roanna hastened to gather whatever they might need. When she had stuffed two sacks to overflowing, she and her daughter fled danTennet, the only home they had ever known, never to return.
… … … … …
Wind arose, whipping the scythe grass into a sea of deadly furor. The razor sharp blades slashed at their hooded coats, sliced at their gloves, pants and boots, and would have flayed them into strips of raw exposed flesh had Roanna not foreseen to dress them in oreth hide against just this eventuality. Aside from armor plate, oreth hide is the only protection against these aptly-named living scimitars.
To the uninformed, meadows of scythe grass can appear harmless, yet many had died horrible deaths strolling through them. When the wind is calm, or when gentle zephyrs tease the grass into rhythmic undulations, the blades tinkle together like wind chimes, delighting the innocent with the pleasant music they make, usually brushing harmlessly against the strollers’ clothes, provided they are heavy enough. But when, as today, the air strengthens and the music transforms into a cacophony, the blades become lethal instruments. And while the garments the two had chosen were withstanding the onslaught and the razor sharp edges struck without effect, the drumming on Roanna’s hood added to the tumult and she could make out nothing else above the din. Unable either to see or hear their pursuers and faced with too many possibilities for a clearly defined future to emerge, all she could do was to lie still with her daughter and pray.
“The wind will save us,” she whispered—more to her herself than to Pandy, who likely could not hear—as the wind transformed the palisade into a killing machine. And though the wolves might have dared venture out when the air had been calm, their thick coats providing modest protection, they would not dare risk it now. Furthermore, if, as she expected, the men lacked oreth leggings, they too would be forced to remain on the road. Although this was one more thing Roanna could not see clearly, with luck they would eventually take their search elsewhere.
As Pandy inched closer and huddled against her, Roanna’s world truncated into the sweet smell of her daughter’s skin mingled with the acrid scent of urine, the pungency of tanned oreth hide and the spicy aroma of the fecund soil. Through all of this wafted the salt smell of the sea and its promise of freedom.
Day turned into evening and the world surrendered its colors to the impending darkness. As the wind began to calm, Roanna strained to hear the sounds of man or beast above the chiming of the grass, but still could discern nothing. Knowing they could not remain like this forever, she unwrapped her arm and brought it beside the one underneath her. Pressing with both hands, she attempted to rise, but after hours of immobility, her muscles rebelled and she stifled a cry of pain. Taking two deep breaths, she grimaced and tried once again. The effort demanded all she had. Nonetheless, she brought herself onto her elbows, raised herself as high as she could and peered through the blades. Not a thing, save the first starry glimmers, stood out against the darkening sky. Even so, when Pandy attempted to join her, Roanna hissed, “Stay down!”
Drawing her knees to her hips, she raised herself higher. Seeing no trace of the men, she rocked back onto her heels, sat up and glanced around.
“Alright,” she said, barely loud enough to be heard. “I believe we are safe.”
“I wet my pants,” complained Pandy as she sat up beside her, stretching first one leg, then the other. “E-ew,” she complained. “They’re cold.”
Roanna surveyed the meadow and spied what she needed: a dark shape against the lighter tone of the grass. She retrieved the rucksack. A second later, she spied the other and handed it over.
“Take it,” she said. “We’ll find somewhere for you to change.” As Pandy reached to accept it, Roanna reminded, “You’ll need to keep your leathers on till we’re clear of the grass.”
In the near-dark, Roanna could just make out Pandy’s nod. Bracing herself with one hand, she slung the bundle over her shoulder with the other and rose onto uncertain feet. She staggered for an instant, then steadied herself and peered about warily. The land was falling into blackness, but against the harbor’s deepening gray she recognized a pier with another shape on top of it.
“There’s a building,” she said. “Let’s take a look. Can you stand?”
“Yeah,” Pandy gasped as she, too, struggled to rise.
“I think I see the road,” said Roanna, craning her head. She started towards the spot where the men had been standing, then paused and turned to her daughter. “Come on, but keep your wits about you. You never can tell.”
She arrived at the road a moment later with Pandy beside her. Straining to detect any incongruous noises or movement, she took the girl’s hand and hurried down the slope to the harbor. Stepping onto the dock’s planking, she slowed, quieting their steps. Except for the slosh of water against pilings, the world around had quieted as well.
She went to the building and peered inside, but saw nothing. The window’s sash was ajar, so she listened. When no sounds met her ear, she went to the door and opened it. Confirming that the building was empty, she said, “Change in here.”
Pandy walked through the doorway, then turned.
“Aren’t you going to close it?” she asked.
“No. Now hurry up and change.”
As her daughter complied, Roanna peered into the night for several long minutes. She was attempting to look forward in time, to glimpse what the night held in store, when the clomp of Pandy’s boots interrupted.
“I’m ready,” she said.
“Where are your pants?”
Except for her boots, her daughter was naked below the waist.
“I left them inside. They’re wet and they smell bad.”
“You can’t go around like that,” said Roanna, then extracted a pair of trousers from a backpack and handed them to her.
A brief flash of clarity flared and she saw wolves sniffing the spot where they had emerged—not now, but soon. She cursed herself for being stupid. She should have instructed her daughter to change back there, not here, then toss the pants into the meadow. Now their smell would bring the wolves after them.
“I don’t care,” she snapped. “Stuff them into your pack. We can wash them and lay them out to dry in the morning.”
As Pandy started to object, the vision expanded. The men were returning. Naturally, since the wolves had failed to acquire their scent elsewhere, the trackers would not have ventured far.
“There’s no time to argue. Wait here while I get them.”
As she ran to retrieve the sodden clothing, she chided herself for showing her temper. Such a display could alienate Pandy and fail to secure her cooperation. Despite how often this fourteen-year-old seemed mature beyond her years, there were occasions like this when, pushed to her limits, she would revert to the child she still was. And while most times Roanna could not blame her if she reacted as children are prone to do, right now she needed more from her.
Once inside, she found the pants heaped near the doorway. She snatched them up, then got down on her hands and knees and fumbled in the dark until she located Pandy’s soggy underpants.
“Alright,” she said to herself as she stowed them away. “Brooding over what you should have done will get us nowhere. Think, Roanna. What do we do now?”
It was then, as she emerged, that Roanna noticed a break in the pier’s railing. Drawing close, she spied a handrail and stairs leading downward. At their bottom, black against the glimmering sea, a tiny boat’s silhouette bobbed in time with the water’s undulations. She looked out and, near the harbor’s center, spotted the hull and spars of something large. It had grown too dark to be certain, but the emerging stars, coupled with the last light of day, gave some assistance. If her mind wasn’t creating a phantom… She paused to look forward again, then exhaled in relief. The ship was real.
“Pandy,” she whispered as loud as she dared, “Come! Hurry!” and was relieved when her daughter complied.
She had never been near a body of water as large as the ocean, let alone been in a boat, so it took a few minutes and several attempts to figure out how to work the oars. Eventually, however, after inserting them into the oarlocks, she maneuvered the craft along an erratic course, bringing it alongside the ship after what felt like far too much time. She was looking for some way to board when voices carried across the water and it came to her that she and her daughter needed to be on the side opposite the shore. With the oars creaking and banging, she got the tiny craft moving. Pandy helped push them clear whenever they collided and they rounded the bow just as lanterns were being lit. Soon after they had rounded, they ran into it again.
Roanna cursed and was trying to shove the skiff clear when Pandy said, “Mother. There’s a rope.”
“I was pushing us away when my arm rubbed against it. Come here. Feel for yourself.”
Roanna shipped the oars. Despite her complete lack of nautical experience, she had sense enough to realize if she simply left them in the oarlocks, one or both could slide free, leaving them helpless and adrift. Hoping she had stowed them correctly, she crawled through the darkness towards Pandy’s voice. They touched and Roanna scooted beside her.
“Don’t let it go. Don’t lose it.”
“I won’t,” replied Pandy, sounding offended. “Here. Touch it.”
She found her daughter’s shoulder and felt along her arm. When she reached the girl’s hand, her fingers made contact with the rope’s corded surface. It was as thick as her wrist and its girth surprised her.
“What’s it for?” Pandy asked.
“I don’t know and I don’t much care. Do you think you can climb it?” Roanna asked, holding on to it.
“Don’t be silly.”
Roanna was chagrinned at having asked. For much of her daughter’s childhood, Roanna had criticized her for being too like a boy. The fact was, Pandy could climb anything.
“Good. We need to get aboard. I’ll hold it steady while you climb.”
“Should I wear my pack?”
“No. It’s too heavy.”
“I don’t want to leave it.”
“Don’t worry. I have an idea. Just climb to the top and let me know when you’re there.”
That didn’t prove necessary. Once Pandy had ascended, Roanna heard the sound of boot heels on wood and she felt the strain on the rope lessen.
“I did it,” Pandy called.
“Good. Give me a minute to secure the packs.”
The rope was long enough that its free end dangled in the water. The extra length meant Roanna had plenty to work with so she gathered up the packs. She fed the free end through their shoulder straps, intending to knot it, but due to its thickness, the act proved harder than she had anticipated. Still, there was enough workable length to create a loop and pass the end back through to form a second, then a third and finally a fourth. When she was done, she pulled hard to secure the series of half-hitches.
When she had fastened the packs as securely as she could, she grasped the portion attached to the ship and pulled herself free. In this moment, she knew she was risking everything. With nothing but the weight of the packs to hold the boat in place, it could drift away on its own. Moreover, if she were to lose her grip and fall, she would have no way to pull herself back onto it and she doubted there was another way to board the ship. She chided herself for doubting Pandy’s ability and for not questioning her own, but there was no time to dwell on what might have been. Knowing her strength would fail if the climb took too long, she started up.
She had the soft hands of a laundress and the rope dug into them. But hard work had made her arms strong, so she pulled for all she was worth, pushing with both her knees and her feet as she progressed. Eventually, however, her hands forced her to cry out with each effort, and the way up seemed endless.
“Pandy,” she cried when she felt she had reached her limit. “I can’t do it.”
She began to despair and a sob welled in her throat.
“Mother. Don’t stop. Please, you’re almost here.”
Something warm touched her wrist and Roanna gasped at the contact.
“By the gods! Is that really you?”
“Come on, Mother. Just a little more. You can make it.”
Roanna choked back her tears and took a breath. Then, despite how much her hands hurt, she pulled hard and pulled again. When one hand touched wood, she grabbed and held onto it. She released the rope, and grasped the gunwale with both. As she struggled to pull herself aboard, her feet scrabbled against the hull, slipped, then found purchase. Resting her forearms on the coaming, she caught her breath, then wrapped one arm around one of the rail’s stanchions before Pandy grabbed her collar and tugged. Two more rasping efforts and she lie gasping on the deck. Pandy fell on top of her and mother and daughter embraced, laughing and crying at the joy of having succeeded.
Eventually, Roanna remembered the hunters. She rolled onto her face, then climbed to her knees and peered shoreward, afraid to rise too high lest one of the men see her.
Lanterns shone through the building’s windows and shadows moved within. She cast her sight forward, but they were no longer part of her future. With the release of her fear, her body sagged and she let out a sigh. She returned to the railing, tested the rope and smiled when it resisted. As she and Pandy began hauling up their packs, a wolf howled from the shore and Roanna curled her lips in defiance.