Home > Warrior of the Wild(2)

Warrior of the Wild(2)
Tricia Levenseller

We pass through the streets of Seravin. Homes made from rock slabs line either side of the street. The gray-black stones have been painted over with deep azures and muted greens—the colors of the sky and sparse grass that breaks through the rocks. To the right, a cart is being heaped with chunks of meat to be presented for the Divine Payment. Two nocerotis, large beasts with sleek hides and two horns jutting out of the tops of their heads, are attached to the front, ready to pull once smacked on their hindquarters. Children, too young to begin training for a specific trade, play a game of pebbles in front of their homes.

And all the while Torrin’s fingers are inching closer toward mine.

“I hope this year’s Payment doesn’t require us to skip meals again,” he says as he watches hunters layer more and more valder into the cart. Each one is the length of two handspans and has enough meat to fill a small family. “There were several times during training last year that I thought I would pass out.”

My chest tightens at those words. Peruxolo, the low god, demands payment each year. He collects different resources from every village. Ours is responsible for providing him with the best game. Our hunters are the most skilled of all the nearby villages. Even still, there is not always enough meat to go around.

Sometimes the Payment is so great that some in the village must go without food for days at a time. Parents and older siblings, like Torrin, skip meals so the younger ones can fill their bellies. Because of who my father is, my sisters and I have never had to go hungry. Other families are not so lucky.

Hunger is a better fate than facing Peruxolo’s wrath, but I still feel sick to think of people starving.

“You will not go hungry during this Payment, Torrin,” I say as I take his hand in mine. “I will make sure you and your brothers are fed each mealtime. My family always has more than enough food.”

Torrin turns toward me, a peculiar expression upon his face. Confusion? Guilt? No, perhaps just surprise?

“You would do that for my family?”

“Of course I would.” His intent eyes make my insides squirm. I try to lighten the air. “Because I don’t want to be seen with you if you don’t keep up your impressive physique.”

He laughs, and the action makes me smile in return.

We’ve reached my home now, and Torrin releases my hand. I try to keep from frowning until I realize his face is approaching mine.

This is it, I think as my heart begins racing. He’s going to kiss me.

And he does.

On the cheek.

I don’t break eye contact as he pulls away. Maybe if I just look at him longingly, he’ll see what I want and he won’t be afraid to give it to me.

He looks back at me, his eyes deepening again. I think he might be reading my mind.

“I’ll pick you up tonight outside your window so we can witness the Payment. I can’t wait.” He rubs his thumb against my lips before departing.

But it’s still not a real kiss.

* * *

I NEARLY FALL OUT of bed when knuckles rap against my bedroom window. Of course, I’ve been expecting Torrin, but I’m not used to sneaking out at night. I may be excited, but perhaps a bit anxious as well.

I’ve never left the boundaries of the village before.

When I rise and go to the window, Torrin has his face squished against the glass and is making a funny face.

My lips tilt in a smile as I open the window.

“Ready?” he whispers.

“Yes.” I grab my ax—a sharp blade meant to do damage, not a training weapon—from beside the window and sling it through the strap on my back. Then I lift myself through the window one leg at a time.

Torrin doesn’t waste any time at all lacing his fingers through mine. My home is among those at the edge of the village boundaries, so it isn’t long before we are in the wild. We take the rough terrain at a steady jog.

Everything in the wild is dangerous, including the ground, which is composed of broken-up rocks teetering against one another. It’s difficult to find even footing. Any step could result in a twisted ankle, and rockslides are frequent. Though a more traversable road wends through the wild, we can’t risk taking it, else we might be seen by the adults tasked with delivering the meat to the god.

We have to give the inna trees a wide berth. Their branches grow to a couple feet in length and naturally sharpen into deadly points that can pierce through our armor if we aren’t careful.

As we walk, a lonely valder blurs across our path. As soon as I blink, it’s already moved on. The valder are our main source of meat, but they run so fast, they’re easy to miss. Our hunters are trained to be quick with their throwing hatchets—the only weapons that can be thrown fast enough and hard enough to catch them. I’m shocked to find one so close to the village. It’s as if it knows it’s not in danger now that all the meat has already been collected for the Payment.

As we veer around another tree, a distant cackle carries to us on the wind.

That’ll be the ziken.

They’re the reason we need to train the best warriors. With their paralyzing venom and ability to regenerate lost limbs, the ziken are formidable foes. The beasts love nothing more than the taste of human flesh, and they know exactly where to get it. That’s why we always have warriors scouting the perimeter of the village.

As soon as Torrin and I pass our trial tomorrow, we will join the ranks of warriors and be charged with the village’s safety. Our lives will be consumed with killing the beasts.

I wonder if any will come out to play tonight.

* * *

TORRIN AND I STAND in the shadows of the trees, waiting for the god to appear.

In the clearing ahead of us, seven wagons wait in a line, heaped with various goods: precious stones and gems, fine clothing sewn with metallic hems, preserved fruits and pickled vegetables, flasks of fresh water from the Sparkling Well, herbs and medicines, fresh and dried meat—and in the final wagon …

I cannot bear to look at that last wagon.

“What do you suppose the god looks like?” I whisper.

“They say he never shows his face,” Torrin whispers back.

“Maybe he doesn’t have a face.”

“Maybe his nose is embarrassingly large, and he doesn’t want anyone to know.”

My lips twitch, but I cannot manage a smile with the threat of danger surrounding us.

The light of the full moon makes it easy to spot my father standing next to our wagon. The nocerotis are harnessed to the front. They are restless, sensing the tension of all the men waiting. My father reaches out a hand, patting the rough hide of one of the beasts.

I wonder if the god isn’t watching them, relishing their discomfort. In making them wait.

“You don’t think he knows we’re hiding out here?” I ask.

“Your father?”

I shake my head. “The god.”

Torrin doesn’t say anything for a moment. “Havard’s boasted of sneaking out before to witness the Payment, and he’s still alive.”

Unfortunately.

Still …

“Maybe we should turn back,” I say.

“Rasmira—” Before he can say anything else, the heads of all the nocerotis snap to attention, focusing in the same direction. The fidgeting of the leaders stills, and many of their faces go pale.

My father is the most skilled warrior I have ever seen. How terrible could the god be that even he would be afraid?

Tree branches on the opposite side of the clearing rustle, and it takes me a moment to notice the hooded figure in black furs and armor.

Because he isn’t on the ground.

He’s floating in the air.

A cape drapes across his shoulders and hangs just above his boots. He’s impossibly tall, yet slimmer than I imagined, even with the furs giving him extra bulk. Over his right shoulder, I spot the head of an ax.

The only uncovered parts of Peruxolo’s body are his hands, which are … surprisingly normal. He has, at least, the hands of a human, but what lies beneath that hood?

Every leader in the clearing drops to their knees. The god does not approach them, though his voice is not difficult to hear.

“The gems are few tonight,” he says, a deep and cruel rumble that I feel in my bones. A man stands from his kneeling position, presumably the village leader responsible for providing the gems.

“My god—” He is cut off by a raised hand.

“Come forward,” Peruxolo purrs, and just by the tone of it, I know something awful is about to happen.

The leader hesitates, and I can see him swallow from this distance.

Peruxolo cocks his head, and that is all it takes for the leader to obey.

“That’s enough,” Peruxolo says after a moment. And the man opposite bows his head to the ground.

I know already that he will not rise again.

With a single flick of Peruxolo’s wrist, the bowing leader topples over, blood pooling around him, choking gurgles coming from his lips.

We’ve been told stories since we were children of the god who can kill without touching his ax, but to see it …

Torrin trembles slightly beside me as the leader goes still and silent.

“I trust that someone will let the Restin village know I expect double payment on their gems by next month.”

The guards who accompanied their leader from Restin start to move toward the body.

“No,” Peruxolo drawls out lazily. “You will leave him for the ziken to feed on.”

It’s a shameful thing. Our people are buried under rock so thick that no animal can desecrate their bodies.

Almost without thinking, I grab Torrin’s hand. His fingers curve around mine, and I look down at the sight of our joined hands. A rope bracelet peeks out from beneath his sleeve, lengths of his little sister’s hair woven with the reeds—the child his mother lost at birth last winter.

Despite the danger, my racing heart calms somewhat at the sight.

“If I don’t receive double by next month,” Peruxolo says, “I’ll pay a visit to the village.”

Everyone in the clearing cringes at those words.

“Back up,” he continues. The leaders and guards do so, stepping away from the wagons. Only then does Peruxolo descend. He curves through the air in an arc before bending at the knees to catch himself on the ground. He rises, head held high, hood still firmly in place.

Peruxolo climbs into the last wagon in line.

He leans down to examine the drugged girl lying across the floor. He places a thumb and forefinger on either side of her chin, turning it from side to side as if she were a doll.

“She’s pretty. She will make a fine sacrifice. At least I can count on the Mallimer village to do their part each year.”

The Mallimer village leader nods. Actually nods. As though he’s done some great service.

My father turns away from the scene. Does he imagine how it would feel if one of his own daughters were taken? I know how much our people suffer, because I see the shrunken bodies and hollow cheeks that follow the Payment each year. But now I’m reminded how some villages have a heavier Payment than we do.

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