With a furious man you shall not go.
“This is Amis,” Rija began, lifting a pale, slender hand in the direction of the hostile one.
His face was expressionless but his eyes were hard as he stared openly, first at her and then at Rija. The bitter, metallic taste of impotent rage pooled at the back of her throat. Another scene rose before her eyes; the vaulted room, the clustered throng that bayed for blood, her mother, surrounded on all sides by just such eyes and the emotion on her mother’s face when she signalled for Sambeth to run.
Sambeth felt her body shudder but seeing the expectation in Rija’s eyes, forced herself to offer this Amis a civil greeting. She refused to feel polite, even the animals knew staring to be an act of aggression.
The other man had not wasted any time standing around. In the time Sambeth took getting her bearings, he had taken down the mast and was stowing away the sail. Reaching into the boat he drew a thick, shaggy skin around broad shoulders.
Sambeth swallowed. The bear fur, brown and grizzled, made an imposing figure of him. He looked like a giant, like an earthborn. He jumped out onto shore and heaved mightily on the boat. The muscles in his forearms knotted like ropes. They cracked and strained until the big boat yielded, inching forward slowly until it was hidden under the sheltering overhang of the dense bushes.
In minutes he and Amis finished its concealment. She noticed the quiet efficiency of the bear-fur one and the hawkish watchfulness of the other one. She wondered at their relationship to one another.
In soft, urgent tones, Rija filled her in on the lagoon rescue and the swift appearance of the Fallen One. A sharp twisting wrenched at Sambeth’s stomach. It intensified until she clutched desperately at her stomach. Everyone marvelled at the unearthly beauty of the Fallen one whose startling platinum hair was so unlike the black-haired Arcan people.
She glanced quickly at Rija and turned to peer up through the trees around them. He would be up there, watching them, if he’d found them.
Around her was much the same lush, green tangle of forest already so familiar except that here were rocky outcrops and rather than being flat the ground swelled into hills all around them.
A deep voice spoke right beside her. It was the man wearing the bear fur. She flinched turning startled blue eyes up to his face, a pulse ticking visibly at the base of her slender throat.
‘Look sharp, Sambeth,’ her own thoughts upbraided her, ‘he was right beside you without you even noticing.’
He held out a hand, large but finely shaped with long, tapering fingers. She took it gingerly and found her own completely engulfed in a strong grip.
“You’re so jumpy,” he grinned pleasantly down at her. There was an open friendliness in his warm, brown eyes.
An answering smile appeared on her lips before she could hold it back. It diluted the necessary, familiar wariness, the ever-present deep caution so vital to survival in Arca. She snatched her wariness, forcing it back and wrapping it firmly around her like a comforting, impenetrable blanket.
“Sambeth,” she replied with a hint of sharpness, “my name is Sambeth.”
She saw in her mind’s eye, the innocent child, the easy-going young woman beguiled by a pleasant charmer. Remembered their destruction and shuddered. How many times had she seen it employed? Friendliness was the trick used to entice the gullible. This man could be as black-hearted as those suave ‘oh so kind’ serpents in Arca.
“She says,” she pointed to Rija, “that you saw the Fallen One pass by not long after we fell into the lagoon.”
Her chest rose and fell. Just speaking his name felt like inviting a curse. As if its utterance would conjure up his presence. The hammer of her heart beat struck at her tender innards. She took another deep breath.
Sem nodded, a watchfulness appearing at the back of his eyes. The brief frown on the pale brow, the downward sweep of her eyelashes to cover blue eyes, hiding unruly thoughts. All this he observed.
“Was he close?” she urged, “Did he see us fall?”
“I don’t think so,” Sem replied carefully, “it was neatly done.”
He paused but the question lying on his tongue demanded to be heard.
“How on earth did you two manage to catch a ride on a shimerith in the first place? Let alone get him to tip you off neatly into the lagoon?”
Sambeth found three pairs of eyes, two dark, one grey, fastened to her face. Her mouth went dry. She tried to clear her throat, her thoughts racing.
“It’s a long story,” she replied briefly and looked away.
“I said a Fallen One, Sambeth. Not the Fallen One.”
Sem’s tone was light but she picked up an intensity and a purpose to his question. He was trying to bury it under a friendly expression but Sambeth had spent years by her mother’s side watching and learning; surviving by her wits, being able to read people; clever people, tricky people, evil people.
He continued, “You know this particular one do you?”
She felt sick. Her stomach heaved and she coughed violently until she bent over. She was aware of a cool hand, Rija’s, light on her back. And she was sick, heaving up lagoon water. A cloth came toward her, from Sem to Rija who held it to her mouth. Sambeth took it and a sip from the cup Amis held to her lips.
“Thank you,” she murmured, giving him a grateful look, “I’m so sorry.”
Colour flushed her cheeks as if she had leaned too close to a hot fire. She burned at the loss of her dignity and hated how vulnerable the retching episode had made her appear.
“You’ll feel much better without that lot in your stomach,” Sem was polite but his gaze caught and held hers with the questions still in it.
Sambeth wondered what she should tell him. The thought of many other Fallen Ones startled her. For a long time she had only known of the one; Proximus, until her mother had whispered to her of others, Fallen like him, ruling in many places on Earth. They too, taught men their knowledge, their technology and their darkness.
Proximus, had been the god from the Sky, appearing before the gates of Arca.
“I am from there,” he claimed, pointing to the stars, “and I fell.”
The wonders he had shown the people had convinced them. The things he could do plus his knowledge astounded them. His ferocity and violence terrified them.
“I will show you things you never imagined until you also will be powerful, like gods.”
Rija spoke her name and Sambeth’s thoughts jumped to the present.
Would this man be angry that she and Rija had brought danger to them? He was astute. A quiet whisper in her core told her to be very, very careful.
“He is chasing us.”
“He’s chasing you!” his hand leaped to the knife handle at his belt and dropped again, “What does he want with you?”
His tone darkened, roughened with suspicion, “Are you one of his women, you and her?”
His eyes flicked to Rija standing so close to Sambeth. Rija had started to shake and small beads of sweat gleamed on her upper lip. Her face was white.
“I was to be a sacrifice. Sambeth saved me,” Rija managed to speak quietly.
‘Be careful!’ a voice in Sambeth’s head screamed. And yet they had to tell these men something, something that would motivate them to help and not to chase them off or worse, take advantage of herself and Rija.
Rija glanced at Sambeth and continued. The message in that brief look reassured Sambeth. Rija knew what she was doing. She wouldn’t say any more than she had to.
“I was to be Sacrificed, along with a group of other unfortunate ones,” Rija swallowed, visibly distressed at the memory.
Sem’s dark eyes mirrored her sorrow.
“We were taken deep into the forest. For some reason the Earth-born decided not to kill me,” she turned her eyes to Sem’s, “while he was arguing with my guardian about my fate, the Fallen One came. While he and Altor were discussing someone, Sambeth helped me run away into the forest.”
She’s clever, Sambeth thought. She hasn’t made it obvious whether I was part of the Sacrificial group or not and she’s brought in the Earthborn. Just as Sambeth hoped, Sem passed right over the topic of Sambeth and zeroed in on the Earthborn.
“So,” he said slowly, “there is a Fallen One chasing you but you were being sacrificed to an Earthborn?”
“Yes, that’s so,” Rija nodded.
“Which one?” He demanded, tight-faced, all the good humour vanished. Now he was grim. Sambeth began to tremble.
“It was the one they call Altor, the youngest son of…”
“Proximus,” Rija and Sem finished together.
There was a long pause.
“Right,” Sem had made a decision, “Altor wants you,” he gestured to Rija, “and his father is hunting you. She,” he glanced toward Sambeth, “is caught up in this helping you escape.”
Sem sighed deeply, his stance changing from interrogative to thoughtful. He covered his face with both hands, pressing hard along his cheekbones to push away the painful thoughts knifing through his own heart.
“Fallen Ones are devilishly clever. It won’t take long for him to realise the shimerith no longer carries its burden. He’ll figure out very quickly that the only place the young women could have exited unseen was when the shimerith dipped low over the lagoon. He’ll find the boat and follow our tracks.”
Amis stepped close to Sem, his face close and tight.
“Cousin, we can’t get tangled up in this. There’s too much at stake–“
Sem lifted a hand, cutting him short.
“It’s the will of Ehyeh, Amis.”
“No,” Amis voice was hard. He glared at Sem and shot an angry glance at Rija and Sambeth, “it will put others in danger. Sem, we’re not just risking ourselves alone.”
Amis fell silent, gazing urgently at Sem.
Sem shifted his feet, a slight frown between his eyebrows.
“You seem more concerned about keeping Tetrahin’s location a secret than I am. A fact that I find odd, considering your leader saw fit to bring quite a large group of her people there unannounced.”
His eyes fastened on Amis’s face and they held a distinct warning, “Your people.”
Amis’s colour changed. After a brief, internal struggle, he subsided, throwing up his hands a little.
“Okay,” he said through tight lips, “on your head be it.”
He turned away muttering, “At least there’s not going to be too much fussing over that ruined net!”
Sem lifted an eyebrow at Amis’s retreating back and smiled briefly at the two girls.
“Ah Amis,” his voice held a laugh, “always the optimist.”
He followed Amis a short way off and spoke with him earnestly but quietly, just far enough that they couldn’t be overheard.
“Who are these men?” Sambeth muttered out of the side of her mouth.
Rija turned so that her back was toward Sem and Amis. Looking deep into Sambeth’s eyes she whispered, “I’m sure they mean to help us at present, Sambeth, but the hearts of men are dark in these times. We have to be very, very careful.”
She lowered her voice still further, leaning close to Sambeth’s ear, “They are most definitely hiding something of great importance to them.”
Sambeth’s head ached from her recent violent tumble in the water. She breathed in deeply, a small puzzled frown knitting her eyebrows together.
“What are they doing out here so deep in the Endless Forest? My mother took me out in it and taught me its secrets, the ways of her people, but I don’t know anyone else that has ventured deeper than that glade.”
She glanced at Rija and their eyes met, lightest sky blue and black, remembering the horrible events at the glade.
Rija swallowed hard and turned slightly to glance at the men now talking with more animation, pointing and gesturing toward different points in the forest.
“They certainly don’t act afraid of what’s lurking out there,” Rija said.
She was right. Usually people who had to venture abroad were afraid of every shadow, jumped at every snap of a stick and drew weapons at the slightest rustle in the undergrowth of the forest. The unwary had a way of disappearing.
It was many years since people wandered freely and confidently in the forests that covered Earth. Sambeth’s mother had told her that the change started not long after the arrival of the Fallen Ones. Prior to that, the wild animals were mild, even friendly. Then they began to change, becoming tense around humans, then hostile and wary until finally they preyed upon humans. Now many, great and small, were aggressive and deadly dangerous!
“What are we going to do?” Rija spoke in an urgent undertone. She glanced at the sky, “Will the shimerith return?”
Sambeth shook her head, “He’ll still be leading Proximus away. I don’t know if he’ll return.”
She stopped herself saying more. This young woman was still a stranger, even though they shared the bond of surviving near-death experiences. Sambeth didn’t want anyone to know how vulnerable she was. She really didn’t know if Pip would circle back to find her and without him she had no defences.
“I don’t know anyone outside Arca and I can never go back there.”
“It seems we have no choice but to seek shelter with these men,” Rija stiffened slightly as she spoke.
She took Sambeth’s arm, her slender fingers pressing a quick warning. Sem and Amis had finished their conversation, had turned and were striding toward them purposefully.
Sambeth searched their faces, seeking a clue to their thoughts regarding the two females they’d pulled from the waters. Their expressions gave nothing away.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Sem said briefly. He took Sambeth by the arm.
“I’ll have to help you,” he said and his voice was gentle, “it’s rough ground and you’ve not recovered from your little dip back there.”
The grim look had returned.
A flush crept up Sambeth’s neck. The firm pressure on her arm sent panic coursing through her body. Her breathing quickened into short, panting gasps. She wrenched her arm from his in one abrupt move.
His eyebrows flew up in surprise. An awkward pause followed. Sem’s mouth hardened and he glanced from Sambeth to Rija and back again, fixing his gaze on Sambeth’s flushed face. Rija said nothing but fixed herself firmly by Sambeth’s side, tense and coiled like a spring ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.
“Who are you?” Sambeth demanded, “And what are you doing out here so far from Arca? And where are you taking us?”
The questions were hard and sharp. Sem looked nonplussed. He shifted from one foot to another. He started to speak and stopped, simply shrugging his shoulders,
“What do you mean?”
His voice was light but his eyes flashed dangerously at Sambeth.
“I mean, why did you fish us out of there,” she snapped straight back, gesturing to the lagoon, “why are you helping us? There’s a Fallen One on our trail! And where are you taking us?”
The unspoken question hung palpably in the air – and for what purpose?
Her eyes blazed and she shot out each question with staccato-like fire. She was aware of Rija throwing her a quick, cautionary glance. Her approach had all the subtlety of a rock-smashing hammer.
Sem’s eyes got wider and wider with each emphasised question. Then they narrowed as it dawned on him that her real concern was his and his cousin’s integrity toward them as vulnerable, unprotected women. A spasm of anger crossed his face, curling his lip in a snarl. Just as swiftly his face eased in a flash of understanding. These were girls from Arca, a most dangerous city, especially for women and girls.
“Well,” he said and the word hung in the space between them for several heartbeats, “which question to answer first?”
The question was purely rhetorical, giving him time to think. What could he say without giving away too much? He tried to think of how his father would put it.
“Well,” he repeated, “why did I fish you out of the lagoon?”
He turned to his cousin.
“Amis, what did we discuss at the time? Was it you or I decided it would be a good thing to fish these two masark-baits out of there?”
He raised a questioning eyebrow at Amis.
“Definitely you, Sem,” his cousin replied quietly.
Looking at Sambeth, Sem changed to a serious tone, “We saw you fall and decided not to let you drown.”
He held up a finger and a second ticking them off as he covered each point.
“We didn’t know about the Fallen One being after you, but that wouldn’t have made a difference and we are taking you to our family residence not far from here.”
He finished ticking off his fingers and gazed at the two girls silently then with a quiet sigh he finished.
“We have no motive in helping you but rather find ourselves caught up in something a lot more serious than we imagined. We can’t just leave you here. You need a place to hide. We all need to hide from the Fallen One. We’ll take you to Tetrahin, our hidden fortress, and ask my father’s advice on what we should do.”
Sambeth could feel Rija relaxing. Rija believed him but Sambeth was not wholly convinced. She desperately wanted to lay down her fears and allow herself to trust but she could not. It was not healthy. People didn’t help other people for no reward to themselves. Especially if it involved personal danger. There had to be a motive! Well she would watch and wait for the answer to be revealed. Women, friendless and alone, were easy prey – taken as slaves by the benevolent and taken for purposes much, much worse by those with evil hearts.
Reading her expression, Amis took a half step toward Sambeth, his fist curled.
“My cousin risked his life to save you and your friend,” he snarled, “I would not have done it.”
A whirring and flapping of feathers and wings above, tore attention away from Amis. A thrill of alarm coursed through each one of them. In the forest, birds were warning signals, flying away at the approach of something dangerous.
“We must move out,” Amis said.
Sem nodded at Amis and held out his hand again toward Sambeth’s arm.
“We must be off,” he repeated and she stepped toward him, submitting to the help.
A hard wedge pressed into the backs of his fingers as he gripped her arm. He realised she was carrying a knife and smiled at the naïveté. The arm he held flexed and with some surprise he realised it was wiry and tight, all muscle. Obviously, this was not a soft city girl.
Nonetheless, should he and Amis choose to harm these girls, a single hidden knife could not save them. He decided to say nothing about the knife. If it gave the poor little thing comfort, he’d let it be.
“Which way?” she asked and he smiled at the truce.
“Let’s go, Amis!” he called.
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