I am not sure I can.
—Greyson Ballenger, 14
Livestock pens were broken and scattered like tinder, and the stink of scorched grass burned our lungs. Rage blazed beneath my skin as I took in the destruction. Wren and Synové rumbled with f
ury. Our task suddenly fractured and multiplied like an image in a shattered mirror. In the end, the anger would serve us. We all knew it. Our sham excuse for coming here—investigating treaty violations—had suddenly grown, full-bodied, sharp, all teeth, claws, and venom.
The settlement consisted of four homes, a longhouse, a barn, and multiple sheds. They had all suffered damage. The barn was completely destroyed. We spotted a stooped man, furiously hoeing a garden, seemingly oblivious to the carnage around him. When he saw us coming, he raised his hoe as a weapon, then lowered it when he recognized Wren’s cloak made with the patched fabrics of the Meurasi clan. My leather waistcoat was embossed with the revered thannis found on the Vendan shield, and Synové’s horse had the tasseled nose band of the clans who lived in the eastern fens. All distinctly Vendan if you knew what you were looking for.
“Who did this?” I asked when we reached him, though I already knew.
He straightened, pushing on his bowed back. His face was lined with years in the sun, his cheekbones tired hills in a sagging landscape. Partial faces peeked around doors and between cracked shutters in the dwellings behind him, more settlers too afraid to come out. His name was Caemus, and he explained that the marauders had come in the middle of the night. It was dark and they couldn’t see their faces, but he knew it was the Ballengers. They had come just a week earlier with a warning to the settlers to keep their shorthorns off their land. They took one as payment.
Wren looked around. “Their land? Out here? In the middle of the Cam Lanteux?”
“It’s all theirs,” he answered. “As far as they can see, according to them. Every blade of grass belongs to them.”
Synové’s knuckles whitened with rage.
“Where’s your livestock?” I asked.
“Gone. They took the rest. I guess as payment for the air we breathe.”
I noticed there were no horses either. “And the Ravians that Morrighan gifted you?”
“Everything’s gone except for one old dray horse for our wagon. A few of the others went into town to buy more supplies. They won’t be able to get much. Vendans pay a premium.”
His jaw was set hard, his fingers tight around the hoe. Vendans didn’t scare off easily, but he said he was afraid some might be too fearful to return to the settlement.
“You won’t be paying a premium to anyone, nor payment for the air you breathe,” I said. I took a last look at the damage. “It may take a while, but reparations will be made to you.”
“We don’t want more trouble from—”
“The other settlers will return, and it is you who will receive payment.”
He looked at me, doubtful. “You don’t know the Ballengers.”
“True,” I answered. “But neither do they know us.”
And they were about to.
* * *
Hell’s Mouth was twenty miles away. It was a remote, mysterious city, far from the seat of Eislandia, that few knew anything about, other than it was a growing trading center. Until a few months ago, I had never heard its name. But it was supposedly a large enough town that it offered the opportunity for buying and trading for the settlement. I was tired and irritable as we rode. I hadn’t slept well last night, even in my tent. This miserable flat wilderness pecked at me like a relentless sour bird, and it seemed impossible that any sizable town existed way out here. It felt like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in days. Synové chattered nonstop, and I snapped at her like a shrill crow when she brought up the racaa again.
“I’m sorry,” I said after a long silence. “I shouldn’t have jumped on you.”
“I’m afraid I’ve run out of fresh subjects,” Synové answered.
I was truly wretched. And she was right—she knew. I didn’t like the silence, and she was only trying to fill it for me. I was used to the noise of the city, the constant hum, the bang, the wail, the sound of people and animals, the tinny patter of rain on roofs and the slosh of wagons in muddy puddles, the chant of street peddlers trying to entice someone to buy a pigeon, an amulet, or cup of steaming thannis. I longed to hear the roar of the river, the jingle of soldiers as they marched down a lane, the heave of a hundred men pulling the great bridge into place, the sounds of remembrance bones clacking as they swung from a thousand belts, all of it teeming together like something alive and whole on its own.
All those things helped me to hide. They were my armor. The windswept silence left me naked. “Please,” I said, “tell me about how they give birth again.”
“Eggs, Kazi,” Wren interrupted. “You weren’t listening.”