Home > Warrior of the Wild(11)

Warrior of the Wild(11)
Tricia Levenseller

“You have my deepest thanks…” Iric leaves the ending open for my name.

“Rasmira,” I offer.

Though I’m in no way fishing for compliments, I’m surprised he doesn’t send one up to the goddess for me. It is the polite thing to do. But then another thought hits me. These two boys have lived in the wild for a year. This house is so permanent. Have they even tried to complete their mattugrs? Maybe they don’t believe in the goddess. These two aren’t from my village. They’re both warriors, so I would have met them if they were. Do not all villages know of the goddess?

The distinct sound of a slap pulls me from my thoughts. I look down to see Iric standing over Soren, the latter boy’s left cheek now red. “Wake up!”

Soren’s whole body jolts. His eyes shoot open.

“What the hell were you doing?” Iric asks.

“I was … hunting,” Soren manages.

“You nearly got yourself killed. You nearly left me alone, you arrogant ass!”

“I’m … sorry.”

“Not yet you’re not. But you will be once you’re healthy enough to receive the beating that’s coming your way.”

Soren smiles. Smiles! And then his eyes drift closed once more.

“Is he safe if I leave him with you?” I ask.

“He’s fine,” Iric grits out. “Did he hit his head at all?”

“Not that I saw.”

“Good.” He takes a deep breath and lets it out. “We don’t have a lot of space, but you’re welcome to find a free spot on the floor to sleep on. You look ready to drop.”

Nothing could wake me up more.

“Thank you, but I need to be on my way.”

“Are you going somewhere? You’re not in exile like we are?”

“I was banished and given my mattugr. I intend to complete it.”

Iric smiles, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s a kind one. “You’re going to complete your mattugr, are you?”

“Complete it and go home or die trying. Either way, I will be with the goddess in the next life.”

His lips press together, as though to keep from laughing.

“What?” I snap.

“You just saved Soren. I shouldn’t.”

“Say it anyway.”

“All right. Rasmira, was it? There’s no delicate way to put this, so let me be up front. You’re never returning home. No one completes their mattugr. They’re designed to be unbeatable. We are the ones no one wants, the ones everyone is ashamed of. The sooner you accept that, the better off you will be. You will never see your family or friends ever again.

“And your so-called goddess? What kind of gracious deity demands that her subjects die horribly in order to be received into her Paradise? Dying horribly is stupid. I suggest you make yourself a shelter, get yourself into a routine, and accept that this is your new life.

“Welcome to the wild.”

CHAPTER 6

Bastard.

I’m glad to be free of that stuffy tree house full of idiot males.

Somehow I manage to find the road again. I walk down it for several minutes before crossing to the other side and plunging into the foliage. Everything Iric told me was false and ignorant, but he was right about one thing. I need shelter. It’s foolish to travel any longer without having a place to rest safely. I’m running on embers. It won’t be long before they snuff out and my body demands the sleep it so desperately needs. I’ll be as helpless as Soren in a moment.

I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for until I find it.

I enter a small clearing. A gap in the foliage allows sunlight to shine down, which must support the short grasses breaking through the rocky soil. The same type of tree that I saw supporting the boys’ house stands at one edge of the clearing. I recognize it by the leaves, each one bigger than the size of my head. They’re green along the edges but a deep purple in the center.

Soren said there were trees that didn’t crumble after they were cut. This must be one of them if it’s supporting a whole house off the ground. I let my pack fall from my shoulders, take my ax in my hands, and start chopping. The branches toward the bottom of the purple-leafed tree are thick and strong, each the width of one of my legs. I cut several from the trunk, trim them to size, and nick the smaller branches from off their sides.

I roll the logs over to the other side of my new space. Another tree, this one with an enormous, smooth brown-black trunk, stretches high into the sky. I prop the branches I cut against it, wedging them between the rocks on the ground, shaping the wood as necessary to get a good fit. When my little fort is long enough for me to stretch out comfortably within, I roll out my bedroll, throw my pack at the top to use as a pillow, and go in search of something to serve as a door.

It’s not long before the perfect solution presents itself, for if there’s anything to be found in the wild in abundance, it’s wood.

A strip of bark, intact, strong, and wide, rests near a fallen log, having long since peeled from its trunk.

I lift it from the ground—it’s heavier than I thought—and haul it over to my little fort. I squeeze myself inside, rest the bark against the opening, and fall onto my bedroll.

I’m out in seconds.

* * *

MY TIRED EYES CRACK OPEN. I’m not sure how long I slept, but by the crick in my neck and the desperate need to go, I suspect it was a very long time.

I’m surprised to still be alive. I thought for sure something would find me when I was asleep and vulnerable, that my attempt at a shelter would be useless against the wild.

But Soren was correct. The wood remains strong. My fort held.

After taking care of my morning needs, I place the bark back over the opening of my fort, hoist my pack over my shoulders, slide my ax through the strap on my back, and head for the stream I hear bubbling nearby.

I still have Soren’s blood caked to my skin. I do my best to wash up in the freezing water with a bar of soap I brought from home. By the time I get the last of it out from under my fingernails, my hands are trembling from the cold. I refill my canteen and immediately start rubbing my fingers together for warmth as I find the road again.

Today I will look for the god. I put Iric’s cynical words out of my mind and replace them with my sister’s.

You will try, won’t you? Promise me.

I promised. I will try.

I step carefully along the road, listening for cackles from the ziken, which are especially active during the day. I watch the ground for snaketraps. I avoid the agger vines that dangle over the road. One brush of the stinging leaves, and my skin will break out in itching hives. We have a few of the plants inside Seravin’s boundaries.

An hour goes by, and all I can think about is how careful I must be. Today’s mission is to find the god. No more. I must observe him, see if there’s a weakness I can exploit.

I feel childish for even thinking it. He’s an immortal god who has wiped out whole villages when they displeased him. If he had a weakness, someone smarter, stronger, or more skilled than I would have learned it by now.

The road continues toward the mountain. Another hour passes, and everything becomes so overgrown and just … wild. I don’t think anyone besides Peruxolo has ever traveled this way before.

I can’t see anything through the brambles and thick trees on either side of the road, if it can even still be called that. Tall weeds grow in the space between where the wheels would have rolled, though they’re now bent. Even the lines where the wheels have trod are sporting smaller, now-crushed plants.

I wonder just how far away I am from Seravin. Maybe a two-and-a-half-day walk? I spent one whole day walking away from Seravin, then another running before I stumbled across Soren.

No one travels farther than half an hour into the wild. No one stays in it for more than a few hours.

And here I am. Alive for three days? Four? Still not sure how long I was asleep, but I’m certain I slept longer than one night.

And now I’m traveling alone on a road never trodden by a mortal.

I can’t help but be afraid.

I’ve been walking for at least a quarter of the day, but finally the mountain’s base comes into view. The plant life clears for about a hundred yards leading up to the mountain, replaced by rock-covered ground.

The road basically ends. The ground around the mountain is too broken up to be used as a road, despite the cleared greenery.

Which is probably why I find the wagons discarded here.

What’s left of them, anyway.

Piles of broken wood line the base of the mountain. Seven piles, to be exact. I spot immediately which wagon carried all the precious stones, because the crumbled bits of wood still bear the weight of gems, as if the wagon just collapsed and the stones fell down with it. They’re untouched. Unused. Out in the open where anything could claim them.

A man died because Peruxolo decided that pile of gems wasn’t large enough, and he’s left them here as if they were a trash heap.

But then, I guess he doesn’t demand tribute from us every year because he needs anything from mortals. It’s about keeping villagers scared and under his rule. Keeping us weak. Making us suffer.

My fear turns to anger, which I welcome, since it will be much more useful in ending the god.

Rather than stay out in the open, I cross back to where the line of trees and undergrowth will keep me hidden. I use the cover as I follow that line of wagons and then continue around the base of the mountain. It’s possible the god went up, rather than around. But he’s on foot. And the food, water, and everything else that was held in those wagons, save the gems, is missing. Granted, Peruxolo doesn’t have to touch things to move them. So perhaps he floated them and himself up to the mountain’s peak.

Either way, I’m not about to start the climb until I’ve thoroughly explored the bottom. I don’t need anything sneaking up on me.

My efforts are rewarded ten minutes later.

I find an opening.

Right into the mountain. A seam large enough for three men to enter side by side. But of course I can’t see into it. It’s much too dark.

So I find a sturdy tree. I climb it, find a good spot to sit, and I wait. I watch. I listen.

Sometimes I convince myself I hear talking, but then it disappears like a rough wind. Sometimes I think I see flickers from firelight play along the walls of that opening, but those, too, are probably imagined. There’s nothing prominent enough for me to truly believe I’m seeing signs of life.

Until a figure steps outside.

It’s the same tall frame. The same black cloak and large ax strapped across the back.

It’s him.

It’s the god Peruxolo.

And his face is uncovered.

Even with the distance from my hiding spot up in the tree to the seam in the mountain, I can see the sharp angles of his face. He does have the face of a man, with hair the color of dark sunlight, held back in a band at the base of his neck. Thick eyebrows give him, well, a godly look. Thin lips are pulled into a straight line as he walks toward the tree line.

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