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Authors: J. Patrick Black

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BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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The other scouts gather around as Half-Moon confers with Thom in low tones, describing a party of Niagaras spotted about two miles down the Ridge. Five at least, but with campfires enough to spell some twenty more.

I do not wait for him to go into further detail but make straight for our signaling bugle. If Niagaras attack this ridge, Rae and the others will be trapped down in the valley. They must be warned, and without delay. But before I can bring the horn to my lips, Reaper Thom seizes my arm. “It won't do her any good, girl,” he says. “The Niagaras will answer that call long before your sister does. All we can do is hope they don't come this way and beat them back if hoping proves insufficient.”

Reaper studies my face until he is sure I understand, then takes the bugle from me. Around us, the scouts are readying for a fight, checking their weapons, scouring the camp to build covered firing posts. But as soon
as I am sure Thom is occupied, I turn and run, making for the breach. I do understand him about the bugle, but I take issue with his opinion that all I can do for Rae is wait and possibly fire a shot or two into a crowd of Niagaras.

No one gives chase, nor does anyone try to call me back. As I descend, it seems a head or two pokes over the cliff to see where I have gone, but I am moving too quickly to say for sure, more concerned with what is below than above, more with what is ahead than behind.

FIVE

NAOMI

W
ide cracks spread down the Ridge from the breach all the way to the ground, allowing easy footing through the wall of smooth stone. The land at the bottom is just as snowy as at the top, which surprises me until I consider the width of this valley. Summer must be gathered around toward its middle. In the snow, I have no trouble discerning the tracks Rae and the rest have left behind, and I set off at a run, pistol bouncing at my side.

I cross white fields and sparse woodlands of barren trees, a river crusted in ice and marshes of slushy ponds and snowcapped reeds. Now and then I catch a breath of unseasonably warm air, but that is my only whiff of fair weather. I have begun to think the Valley of Endless Summer is some strange fraud or illusion when I come upon a sight that stops me dead.

There, across an expanse of bare ground shrouded in snow and ringed with skeletal trees, is a bold green meadow of tall grass and bobbing flowers. The greenness begins abruptly, shooting up over the snow, as though pressing at that border of winter I imagined from the Ridge above. Only it seems this border has begun to fail: Snow drifts lightly over the meadow, collecting on thick grass blades and the bright faces of flowers. I do not like this place, I realize; it makes me uneasy. But Rae's tracks lead directly into the meadow, and I can see where the scouts passed through, parting strands of tall grass and shaking snow loose to leave a path through the white dusting, and so I force myself on.

Not long after that, the screaming begins.

Without warning, an unearthly wail descends out of the sky like a swooping banshee. I have never heard anything so awful. The vague fear I felt crossing the border of winter flares into panic, and suddenly I am running headlong, thinking only of finding a place to hide. I stagger to a
stop beneath a wide and leafy tree, glad for protection from the echoing sky. The screaming has not ceased, but it is dimmer here, more distant. As I lean there, panting and shivering with fear, I realize Rae's trail is nowhere in sight. Moreover, my sense of direction has become so muddled that I can no longer be sure which way I came. I am well and truly lost.

There is a clearing beyond my tree, and I venture forth carefully, hoping for some familiar landmark but finding none. Even the sun has hidden behind a bank of clouds. I have crept some distance from cover when, at the corner of my eye, I catch a scattering of dark birds taking flight, and when I turn to see what has startled them, I find a man watching me from the edge of the woods.

He is small but densely built, clad in furs, with a bow over one shoulder and a spear in his hand. His hair is yellow, as is his braided beard, though the face above seems blue in color. Niagaras, I recall, are said to paint their bodies blue and white before going into battle. Slowly, deliberately, the man begins striding toward me across the clearing, eyes set on me all the while as he wades through the grass.

I run, mustering what remains of my energy and breath to make for the nearby trees, never considering that this might be exactly what the yellow-bearded man wants of me until a second man has leapt forth to scoop me up. This new man is large and strong enough to hold me with little effort, and I am like a rabbit snatched in a sight hound's jaws, legs kicking uselessly at the air. I can do nothing but scream, and presently this recourse is denied me as well when a thick, hairy paw is folded across my mouth.

“Now then, girl, there'll be none of that,” my captor says, his voice deep and too chipper for a man possessing such a violent grip. He has the musky smell of a wet dog and jagged designs decorating the backs of his hands, crude things quite at odds with the gentlemanly cadence of his speech.

I attempt another scream, but my efforts prove doubly useless: Not only does this man's meaty palm reduce my shout to a bumblebee's hum, but I am answered by the hearty laughter of more Niagaras, strolling from the woods to join the man with the yellow beard. I count no fewer than ten, at least two with old rifles slung over their shoulders, before the man restraining me heaves me around so that I am looking straight into his unpleasant face. His long hair and a beard are the dull brown of wood bark, his blue eyes set deep in pink cheeks etched with intricate blue markings—a color I see now comes not from paint but tattooing.

“I would be more obliging if I were you, young miss,” my captor says, holding me at arm's length, as I have made certain efforts to bite and kick him. “Be advised that my associates have already erected a secure perimeter. As you are alone and without recourse in this situation, we have elected to take you into protective custody. We will overlook your attempts to flee heretofore as mere misdemeanor, but any further resistance will be seen as a willful and intentional act of aggression, and your cooperation will thereafter be subject to coercive efforts, which may result in severe and grievous harm to you. Do you understand?”

Truthfully, I did not follow much of what this man has said, but his demeanor, and the set of his teeth, file-sharpened to points, tell me more clearly than any flowery words that I am in dire circumstances.

“You are lucky I and my associates happened to surveil you out in the woods. There are things in this valley far worse than us. Let us cease and desist this disorderly conduct, now, and after that we can—”

I do not get to hear what this brute has planned, for at that moment, a rifle's crack echoes across the clearing, loud and abrupt over the sky's waning scream. The blue-eyed man releases his grip, and I fall breathless to the cold grass. When I raise my head, I see one of the Niagara men, a long-armed scarecrow with a shaved head, sway and fall to the side, his face a mask of gory red. Around him, his fellows crouch as though ducking hailstones, weapons raised to attack. I watch one Niagara shoulder his rifle, a rusty piece but functional enough to fire with a puff of smoke and another loud crack.

To my startled brain, it seems I must be the target, and I hold my breath for the impact of the bullet, only to find that my enemies have other, more dangerous concerns. My blue-eyed captor has not dropped me out of surprise or fear, but to pull a set of cruel-looking hatchets from his waistband. He swings them up, pivoting in the direction of the first gunshot, but midway through his turn he utters an oath, and a second later, his furs and face and the air around him are red with spraying blood.

Above him stands Rae, blade drawn, red speckles across her cheeks. The blue-eyed man goes to one knee, then falls, and she has put her knife in him twice more—a stuttering puncture, quick as a woodpecker's rattle—before he hits the earth, throat and side bubbling blood.

I make to jump up and rush for Rae's familiar embrace, but even as I
get one shaking leg beneath me, Rae has taken the collar of my coat and thrown me hard onto the snowy turf. When I cry out in alarm, her only answer is to order me in cold, deadly tones to stay down and keep quiet.

Surprise silences me then as much as anything else. Rae has never spoken to me like this, even in the worst of our fights. I am accustomed to the scalding flashes of her temper, but what I see in her now is different, something icy and sharp. She sets one hand on my breastbone to hold me in place and presses a knee painfully into my hip to further discourage any struggling. From my back, I have a good view of her face, her jaw set, the blue-eyed man's blood trailing to her chin, and the idea comes to me that this is a person I have never met in my life. Rae pays me no notice whatever, instead discarding her knife and reaching for the pistol at her belt. Over my staring eyes, she levels the gun and begins to fire slowly and methodically at something I cannot see.

It is about then that I begin to perceive the noise and chaos around me: the wild cries and the whizzing of arrows and the clatter of guns. I count three shots from Rae's pistol, then she rises, stepping over me and striding ahead into the clearing. Finally free to move, I get to my knees and push myself up, turning just in time to see my sister, still firing, advancing on the crowd of Niagaras, though only two of them now remain standing. Rae shoots again, and this number is reduced to one. The last to fall is the yellow-bearded man who chased me here, his empty bow sliding from his hand as he clutches a hole Rae has opened in his chest.

For a while there is only the sky's scream, fading like an echo, and I have time to survey how the scenery around me has changed. The clearing is now scattered with arrows and axes and the bodies of men who only minutes before had been leering and grinning at me, the grass flattened and upset by gunfire and running feet. My sister is the lone figure still upright, her long coat sluiced with blood, pistol hanging at her side, standing motionless in the center of the clearing with specks of snow drifting around her, like she has spotted some quarry and is daring it to move first.

“Rae?” I call, my voice hoarse from screaming and her hand against my throat.

Rae turns sharply, and for a moment it is as if she does not know who I am. Then her face shifts with recognition, like I am someone she met long ago but has only just managed to locate in her memory. Without another
word she is upon me, and I must tell her several times that I am all right before she even seems to hear me and several more times before she will quit asking if I am hurt and inspecting me to confirm I am free of injury.

A whistle goes up from the woods behind us, and I see Lester and Apricot there among the trees, rifles in hand. I realize with a bolt that they must have been the ones firing at these Niagaras, that while I lay pinned to the grass, a skirmish was taking place all around me, that Rae had used her body to shield me from the exchange of arrows and bullets.

At this thought of the Niagaras, I am reminded of the errand that brought me here in the first place. I rush to tell Rae about the enemies Half-Moon discovered on the Ridge, but she stops me.

“We know, Sunshine,” she says, her voice warm now, the last of that dark, chilly aspect I saw in her melting away. “Caught wind of these boys and their crew not far from here. Only they aren't Niagaras. They're Nworkies.”

“Nworkies?” I hazard a glance at the man Rae has just cut down. “What would Nworkies be doing this far north?”

“Beats me, but they're Nworkies all right. Look for yourself.”

The blue-eyed man has gone still, the gush of blood at his neck slowed to a trickle. Rae takes his hand and turns it. There, among the dark tattoos underneath, is the mark all Nworkie warriors wear:

I

NY

“Come on, Sunshine. Lester and Apricot are waiting for us.”

Our friends have faded into the trees, rifles ready to cover our retreat. I watch as Rae retrieves her hat and wipes her knife on the grass, then I follow her into the forest, willing myself not to look back at the clearing and the remnants of the bloody scene played out there.

We decide to take the long way back to the Ridge, heading farther into the valley and doubling back to avoid the main body of Nworkies, which Lester guesses to be nearly fifty in number. “Soon as we saw them, we knew there would be no staying at New Absalom,” he says. “I'm glad Half-Moon had to bring you the bad news first.”

We run at a good clip, Rae first, then me, with Lester and Apricot behind, guns drawn. The sound of screaming is by now only a whisper, but
the warm breezes, once only an occasional hint of sweet air, have picked up, growing stronger the more we move into the valley. We see nothing more of the Nworkies, and I think we are about to begin circling back around when suddenly Rae shouts, “Stop!”

The tone of her command is such that the rest of us obey immediately. “What is it, Rae?” Apricot asks.

Rae doesn't answer. She has halted midstride, shoulders tensed. When Lester takes a step toward her, she screams, “Don't move!” The fear in her voice catches me more than any command could, but her next words are slow, steady. “It's some trap.”

Now that we have stopped, the strangeness of this place becomes apparent. The chill taste of winter is gone, and there is a strange odor, at once like metal and an ocean tide. A warm drizzle has begun to fall, though I recall only a minute ago there was snow in the air.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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