Hunting

Tamora Pierce/Immortals Fanfiction.

Blurb: Sarralyn cannot remember a time when she wasn't hiding from the mysterious man who hunts her mother. Sick of living the life of a coward, she runs away and tries to find out the truth, not knowing that her own deadly curse is hunting her down. D/N

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4. Chapter 4: Sarralyn

Chapter 4

Sarralyn

 

It was a job offer: Numair had a friend in Corus who was after a storyteller, and he thought I should take the job. It seemed too convenient, even to my naive ears. We were no longer strangers; we had spoken many times over the past few days, but the idea of travelling with him as far as the capital scared me. He had found out that a merchant was setting out soon, taking a shipment of dye into the city, and asked if I would join them on the journey.

 I asked him why before the coward in me could blurt out, no! Still, I think he heard the refusal that lurked in the word, and he raised an eyebrow. I thought he was going to recite a list of reasons, and braced myself to argue.

“Well, have you ever been there?” He asked instead, surprising me. I shook my head and smiled despite myself. No, I’d never been there. I’d never even been close; Mama avoided the capital city like it was pox-ridden. I supposed that people there would know her. After all, she lived there before I was born. It was one of the few things I knew about her life before I arrived in it. When I was a child, I used to daydream about what the city would be like.

I imagined a house, set neatly in a busy street. The pavement would be full of people, but instead of searching their faces for the danger of recognition, my mother would smile and greet them. I imagined moss-painted thatching on the roof, and a chimney who never wanted for warmth, even in the poor dregs of winter. I imagined a cat, stretched out by a fire, and a comfortable chair which belonged to my mother and wasn’t rented from some landlord. I imagined how the house would look, decorated with years of familiarity. I imagined what it must have been like, to be able to look from the window and see the comforting walls of the castle embracing the town. When I could see the house clearly in my mind, I imagined Mama living in it. I never imagined myself living with her, though. If I did that I’d have to imagine my father too, and I hated even the idea of him spoiling my favourite dream.

Still, as I grew older, the daydream grew with me. Because Mama never spoke about her life, my imagination could run wild. I started wishing to see the real city, to walk its streets and try to guess which one was my mother’s home, once upon a time. I suppose all children dream about the great cities, but my dream was mixed up with my innocent yearning for home. I pleaded with Mama to take me there, to show me where she was once safe. She turned her face away and refused, with her voice as final as the slamming of a door.

Finally, here was a way for me to see the city. And I still refused. It was such an automatic reaction that I blinked after I said it, wondering if I’d even spoken the rapid word out loud. Numair sighed and ran a hand through his hair, his face settling into the closed-off expression that was impossible to read.

“Are you going to go home, then?” He demanded. The directness of the question made me jump. He read my expression correctly and rolled his eyes. “Oh, don’t look so confused. It’s obvious you’ve run away. Even your landlady has worked it out. How old did you tell them you are? They know you’re lying.”

“No, I’m...” I started, and then stopped at the warning expression in his eyes. I stared at the floor instead. “I’m not going back.”

“Fine, then we leave tomorrow morning.” He said briskly, and walked away. He did that a lot- walked away from a conversation, I mean. Perhaps he didn’t want to give me time to think of another argument. And, as much as I tried that night, I couldn’t find an excuse to not go. It was a wonderful chance, even if I had been offered it under slightly dubious circumstances. The next morning found me with my bag packed, waiting at the crossroads for the carts to start trundling past. When Numair saw me there, waiting, his face lit up with a grin. I smiled back and fell into step beside him, suddenly glad I’d made the right choice.

It was a slow journey. The carts were pulled by oxen, not horses, and all the travellers walked beside them at an ambling pace. It was a new experience to walk so slowly! I wondered why Numair chose to travel with these people, rather than keeping a horse. He could easily afford it; I’d secretly overheard from the gossips in Merrian’s kitchen that he worked for the king. But he seemed quite content to trudge along in the wake of the carts, balancing on the clay edges of the wheel tracks and jumping over puddles. I found out later that he did own a horse, which he had sold in the town before we left. Perhaps he was just eccentric like that. After all, who truly likes wading through mud?

He laughed a lot more than I thought he would, too. In the town he had seemed distant and cold. I supposed that was part of his job. He acted as the law, after all, the king’s hand of justice, Merrian said. If people thought that he was human, perhaps they would try to bribe him or plead with him. Or maybe he was serious because his work was equally bleak. I couldn’t imagine a life of hunting down and convicting criminals, seeing murders following rapes and thefts and pointless arguments for years and years. I knew I could never do it. It wasn’t so much the crimes that would drive me mad, but the way that, no matter how many times I caught the killer, there would always be another monster waiting in the next town.

At least he worked for the king. If he was a mercenary, he could be hired by one of my own hunters. He could become a threat, and I realised that I wouldn’t be able to escape from him. I studied him secretly, seeing the casual way he saw the tiniest tracks when we were hunting, and the silent ease with which he walked through the forest. I wasn’t surprised he worked for the king; even mother would have trouble hiding from this hunter. But when I realised this, strangely, I wasn’t as wary of him anymore. The lies and the mysteries that had cloaked him in the town suddenly made sense, and because I understood why they were there, I was no longer frightened.

 Here, in the open air, he was almost a different person. If a stranger had seen our caravan, he would be hard pressed to work out which man was a merchant and which one was Numair. After a few days, I realised the one who really didn’t fit in was myself. The others had completely relaxed in each other’s company while I was still reserved and suspicious. I made an effort to relax, and to my surprise found that letting my guard down was fun. The travellers welcomed me into their groups with welcoming arms, and after a few more days of the slow journey they felt like a family.

In the evenings, I would tell stories to the other travellers. Numair would listen, lying near the fire with his hands linked under his head, gazing up at the stars as if they were sharing in the tales. I watched him as I spoke, seeing the strange smile that only played across his features when he thought no-one could see it. After a week I realised that the smile meant something to me; I told my stories as beautifully as I could, wanting him to be proud of them. It was a new feeling for me. For my whole life, no-one had ever been proud of what I could do. There was only mother, and with her there was no proud, there was only right and safe and wrong and dangerous. Oh, she would smile approvingly at me if we carried off a disguise well, or if we managed to leave a town without being spotted, but stories were different. Mama always seemed to tell stories so seriously, and was cross if I made a mistake in name or place.

Numair wasn’t like that. He listened, and smiled, and teased me about the sillier stories I told. He only criticised me once, and it was so unexpected that it was like a fist crushing my heart. I choked back the story as if I’d been caught doing something wrong. I’d just recited the title- The Path Through the Divine Realms, and he sat up abruptly.

“No, not that one.” He said, his voice sharp. When the merchants glanced at him, he shrugged. It did nothing to dispel the black mood he seemed to be in, but his reason seemed normal enough, “I’ve heard it too many times. Tell something else.”

I blinked, feeling like I’d just been scolded. When the other merchants looked at me, confused, I shrugged and gestured that one of them should tell a story instead. Why should I care what the staring man thought? But he wasn’t the staring man any more, I realised. He was a friend, and I’d made him angry. The story turned to ash in my mouth, and I turned away to fight back unwelcome tears.

He caught up with me the next day, when I was walking at the head of the caravan to avoid him. In the fine tradition of teenagers everywhere I was sulking, which was a habit I’d refined to an art around Mama. I glared at him with the skill of long practice. He didn’t take the hint. Idiot.

“Why are you so upset?” He asked, instead of leaving like a normal person would. “It’s just a story.”

I walked faster, wondering if he could still ask annoying questions if he was out of breath. He kept pace easily, and I swore under my breath. Anyone would think he’d spent his life hiking across Scanra. Mind you, I imagine that his criminals run quite fast.

“It matters.” I said. “You didn’t have to be so... so nasty about it.”

“I didn’t realise that I was,” he looked nonplussed for a moment. “I’m sorry. I just don’t like hearing some stories, that’s all.”

“Then just don’t listen.” I retorted rudely. “Don’t listen, and don’t stare at me, and don’t talk to me. Mind your own hag-damned business, and let me tell any story I like. They’re not your stories, and I’ll tell whatever I damn well please.”

His eyes narrowed, and I suddenly realised how petty and mean I’d just sounded. I opened my mouth to apologise, but he cut in first. Each of his words could have formed icicles in the autumn air.

“Fine.” He said, “Have it your way.”

I tried to apologise again, but he walked away from me to the back of the line. The other travellers raised their eyebrows at our argument, but didn’t say anything. Goddess only knows what they thought of these strangers who walked with them, but whatever they thought they weren’t going to get involved.

And so Numair stayed with the men at one end of the chain, and I stayed with the women who sat up in the carts preparing food while we travelled. The swaying of the carts made me feel ill for a few days, making my mood even worse, and I decided that it was all Numair’s fault. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to apologise! I shelled peas and kneaded sour dough, and laughed too loudly and brightly just to prove what a good time I was having now I wasn’t being annoyed by him.

I honestly think things would have carried on like this until we reached the city, if it hadn’t been for the snakes.

I should explain about the snakes. The Immortals War happened before I was born, but that didn’t mean for a second that they all disappeared when their leaders were defeated. Most of the immortals weren’t even interested in the allegiance to... well, to whoever they answered to, I guess. They had queens and kings of their own, and leaders, and maybe sometimes they would fight together, but like any creature they really just wanted to live their lives.

That would be fine if they were like us. Human, I mean. But they weren’t. Some of them lived off the taste of fear, and some of them were so full of hatred that there was nothing left in their minds but red rage. They didn’t want to go to work, earn a living and come home to a cup of warm milk in the evenings, is what I’m trying to say. And, even though the war was ended, they were still hungry.  

Mama and I spent a lot of time living in the wild, especially in the summer. We used to find caves with fresh water and shelter, and stay in them for a few weeks, just being ourselves. I know that sounds odd, but if you spend your whole life making up stories about who you are, it’s important to make sure you have a break from it, or you might start believing your own stories. Problem was, the immortals lurked in caves as well. Mother could always tell when they were there, and when we should step silently so they couldn’t hear us. She said it was part of her magic, although I never saw her use the gift. But sometimes we weren’t quiet enough, and they would attack us. By the time I was ten I’d probably shot and killed every species of hostile immortal in Tortall.

But I was talking about snakes, and I got sidetracked... so, these snakes were nasty customers. Like a lot of the immortals, they looked like someone had taken a normal animal and looked at it through warped glass. They were slightly too large, and like all immortals they had silver fangs. Of course, if you could see those fangs and the snake was still alive, you were in trouble! The snakes spat poison, you see. They would spit into your eyes, and for a few moments you would think you were perfectly fine. The poison would sting, but not burn. Well, not at first.

Then, slowly, it would enter your blood. Your fingers and toes would go numb, and then your hands, and your feet... like you were turning into stone. Try as you might, you couldn’t move, you could just feel the coldness seeping up your arms and legs, and then, then your eyes would start stinging unbearably. Trapped inside a blind, frozen shell of skin, all you could do was wait in terror for the snake to strike and hope like hell that someone else had killed it.

The poison takes two days to wear off. That was the thing I used to have nightmares about:  you see, the snakes didn’t always strike. Sometimes they would leave you, helpless and alone, screaming inside. Any passing predator could pick you off. I would have nightmares where I was trapped in the echoing dark, expecting claws and teeth at any moment, struggling to make even my little finger move. Thankfully, the snakes were quite rare. They tended to live in rocky areas, and although they moved silently they were surprisingly slow. And the last thing about the snakes is that they have very weak eyesight. They feel the vibrations of your footsteps, and track you down silently at night and in the dark. The worst places to be were in enclosed areas, with lots of cracks and rockfalls for them to hide in.

Well, guess where we camped on the third night after our argument? Yes, that’s right. The axle on the largest cart caught on a sharp boulder, and broke with a sickening crack. It would take all night to fashion a new one. Unsafe valley or not, we had to stop there. And... well, don’t think of the merchants too harshly. I’m being unkind. If we stopped in a forest, then maybe spidren would have descended. In hindsight it was an awful idea to stop there, but at the time I was just glad for an early night’s sleep!

Not that sleep was going to happen. After I lay down in my bedroll I tossed and turned, a headache starting behind my eyes and pounding in my ears. Have you ever dived under deep water? Down there, staring up at the light dancing on the surface, it’s as if everything slows down. All the sounds are different, and deeper, and you can’t tell where they’re coming from.  Every time I tried to sleep that night, my ears throbbed with nightmares. It was as if voices were speaking on the surface of water. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, and I had no idea who they were, but they kept me awake. After a while I gave up, sighing in frustration. Everyone else was asleep, and the fire had almost burned down to nothing. More bored than tired now, I stared at the embers.

A soft noise disturbed me. I looked around, wondering if a fox or badger had wandered into our camp. My eyes widened when I saw the shadow of someone getting up from their blankets and leaving the safety of the camp. A tall, skinny someone... and yes, of course. I rolled my eyes. Of course, it was my favourite annoying stalker. I thought briefly about pulling my blankets over my head and ignoring him, but my curiosity was too strong. Where was he going? And why had he waited until everyone was asleep until he went?  

Something suspicious was definitely going on here. I got up on silent feet and followed him. He walked back along the night-dark road for a mile or so, his footsteps almost as quiet as mine, hands in his pockets as if he was strolling along a beach and not in a place where he could be easily ambushed. I rolled my eyes at this stupidity; my own hand was never far from my belt knife. The road widened out into a field, and then narrowed back into another canyon. When he got there he started climbing. I followed him more slowly, knowing that if I dislodged a single stone it would give me away.

He climbed to the top of the rise and then stopped dead, looking around. I crept closer to him and crouched behind a boulder, squinting in the dim light to see what he was doing. For a long, long time he just stood there. I wondered what he expected to see in the darkness- I certainly couldn’t see anything! And then I realised that the darkness was glittering; a wash of dark magic was pouring out from his hands across the cliff, and onwards. I pressed a hand to my mouth, willing myself not to gasp and betray my hiding place. The glitter stretched as far as the horizon. He must be an incredibly powerful mage!

I shook my head, wondering why my headache had suddenly come back. The strange watery whispering had returned too, as if I was dreaming again. They were louder here, and angrier. I stared at the shadow of my hand as it rested against the boulder, trying to concentrate so the voices would go away. As I stared, the strange pattern of the rock became more clear. It looked burned, as if someone had splashed acid on it. I blinked, and then drew back from it. Snakes! This was a snake nest!

I looked desperately around me, seeing the deeper shadows at the bases of the rocks for what they truly were. The snakes were moving incredibly slowly, unsure whether the two invaders in their nest were still there. I bit back a whimper. One of them was only a few feet away, tongue flickering out as it tasted the air, looking for me.

Did Numair know they were there? I peered around the rock, trembling with the effort to move slowly when all I wanted to do was run. He was oblivious, lost in whatever magic he was casting. Perhaps that was for the best; he was so still that the snakes nearest to him were drifting away, bored. But... when he broke out of it, he wouldn’t know there were there. He would move, and they would be able to find him.

The movement was too much; my shirt rasped against the rock, and the snake’s head snapped around. I ducked in terror as it hissed and spat, spraying the boulder with more of that burning acid. I fumbled for my belt knife and drew it, knowing that it would take the immortal a few moments to recover before it could spit again. And now I had to be quick: I dove out from my cover and slashed at it, catching it across the jaw in a spray of sour-smelling blood. It hissed and recoiled. I grabbed at it before it could slither away, fighting its thrashing tail as it tried to writhe out of my grip. It glared around, lightning fast, and snapped at me with its fangs. As its jaw crunched shut in a creak of shattered bone, I drove my knife into the back of its head, severing its spine. It dropped from my grasp like a stone, paralysed and dying, and I drew my knife out of its body. Was it just my imagination, or did the voice in my head scream into silence?

One victory! But as I fought to catch my breath I knew that the others were surrounding me, moving as slowly as pouring syrup to attack. One snake I could kill, but all of them? There had to be at least twenty. I had to run. But- oh curses! I couldn’t leave Numair here.

The snake snapped at me as I jumped over it, one coil of its tail catching my ankle. I fell and rolled, praying that I could stand up again before it thought to spit. I heard the soft rain of the poison on the stones behind me, and started running again. As soon as I was close enough to the mage I grabbed his hand, shocking him out of whatever spell he was doing. As expected, the annoying idiot refused to budge. He blinked and shook his hand free, eyes narrowing as he saw that I’d followed him.

“Run!” I shouted at him before he could get a word in, “There are snakes! Lots of snakes!”

He looked up, scanning the ground, eyes widening as he heard the hiss of lots of very, very angry serpents. This time when I tugged at his hand he did run, following me down the slope in a sliding waves of pebbles and dust. We heard the hisses and animal shrieks as the snakes followed us, sliding more quickly than they could slither alone. When we got to the bottom I started to run along the road, but he caught my hand and stopped me.

“No,” he said, his voice dangerous. “We can’t leave them there.”

“We can’t fight them!” I cried, “There are hundreds.”

“Oh, don’t exaggerate.” He muttered, tugging at his nose. When he looked up again it was with grim determination. “Alright, stay there.”

I stood still as he walked forwards, studying the cliff carefully. Trails of dust showed where the snakes were still following us; a few of them were only a few seconds away. He ignored them, hands sketching the shape of the cliff in the air, and his lips moved for a moment as if he was thinking out loud.

The cliff burst into flames. The creatures screamed and writhed as they burned, their dark shadows shrivelling in the fire. And then, just as suddenly as the flames had appeared, they vanished. I blinked, chasing the dancing sun-spots from my eyes. As the last snake shrieked against the red-hot rock and died, the voices in my head disappeared. Were they the voices of the snakes? I didn’t know that snakes could speak to humans. I rubbed my forehead, wondering if I was still dreaming.

“Are you alright?” Numair asked the question so casually, as if he hadn’t just cast a mage flame the size of a village onto the cliffs. I shrugged and took out my knife to clean it. The snake blood was already tacky, and I grimaced as I wiped it on the grass.

“Were you casting something to... to make the snakes talk?” I asked, feeling stupid. He blinked at the question, and shook his head. For a second he looked like he wanted to ask a question, and then looked away.

“Thank you,” he said instead. “Those things are vile.”

Well, if he wasn’t going to mention the fact that I followed him up here, I certainly wasn’t going to raise the subject! I shrugged off the thanks and we started walking back. I would like to say that we walked in the companionable silence of two comrades in arms, but that would be a lie. It was the awkward silence of two people who have had a fight, but are both trying not to mention it. The best thing, I realised, would be to change the subject altogether. I apologised for following him, and he shrugged.

“What were you doing?” I asked.

He hesitated, and then said, “I was looking to see if anyone was following us.”

I threw up my hands and grinned, trying to make the idea into a joke. “Why on earth would someone be following you?”

He looked at me levelly. “They wouldn’t.” He shrugged and looked unconsciously back along the road. The sun was just rising, and all the stones were tinged with pink light. “But I think someone might be following you.”

 

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