The Shattered Mountain

BOOK: The Shattered Mountain
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub




ARA wakes in the predawn chill. She did not stoke the fire in her tiny bedroom the
night before, knowing the cold would rouse her early. She will need the darkness and
solitude for her deception.

She swings her legs over the cot and places bare feet on the earthen floor. The chill
creeps through the soles of her feet, into her legs, as she fumbles across the tree
stump she uses as a nightstand for flint, steel, and tinder.

A spark, a wisp of smoke. She touches a candle wick to the tinder, and the sudden
glow makes her feel warmer than she actually is. Or maybe it’s just the thought of

She places the candle on the floor so she can find stockings and boots, and the light
flickers across her toes. Even more than the candle, more than the thought of getting
away, a memory wraps her with warmth and light and love—Julio’s fingers tracing her
toes with callused but gentle fingers, almost but not quite tickling. She always thought
her toes too long and thin, to accommodate her too-long, too-thin body. But thinking
about Julio makes her wonder if her toes might be a little bit beautiful, too.

From the common room come the rustling of parchment and the clink of a mug set upon
the table. Mara’s blood freezes, even as her heart pounds out the aching rhythm—
No, no, no, not this morning of all mornings

Papá is awake.

She could try to bluff her way past him, but not even the prospect of meeting Julio
in the meadow makes her brave enough. She should go back to sleep and try again later.
Julio will wait for her. He’ll worry, but he’ll wait.

Heart sinking, Mara starts to pull her feet back under the quilt, but she kicks the
candlestick and sends it soaring. It clatters against the wall, snuffing the flame.

Her hand flies to her mouth to stifle a gasp, but it’s too late.

“Mara?” comes the gruff voice. “Is that you?”

No help for it now. She shoves her feet into her boots—too dark to find the stockings—saying,
“Yes, Pá. I startled awake.”

Leaving the boots unlaced, she pads toward the doorway. Her stomach clenches as she
pushes aside the doeskin that separates her bedroom from the common area. “Sorry to
disturb you,” she says, keeping her voice mild.

Papá sits on a large cushion at a low table. Parchment and scrolls are strewn before
him, seeming to writhe in red-orange shadows cast by a flickering candelabra. He stares
at her, quill poised in the air, black ink marring his gray beard. The candlelight
shades his eyes and his cheekbones; for a moment he looks as gaunt and alien and cruel
as an animagus, one of the enemy sorcerers that have been prowling their hills in
recent months.

The irony of this comparison is not lost on her.

“I rarely see you up at this hour,” she says, trying to sound offhand as she strides
toward the adobe hearth. Their
is the largest in the village, with four rooms and a common area large enough for
many guests. Her father is the village priest, after all, and very nearly wealthy.

“I’m holding services tomorrow,” he says. “With the Inviernos coming closer and closer
every day, and the king unwilling to send troops, our people need a call to hope and

As if hope and faith could stop the weapons and sorcery of the Inviernos
“So this will be an important sermon, then?” she say, just to fill the cold air with
something besides her own dread. She swings the iron arm holding the kettle over the
fire to reheat the water. It squeals; if this were not her last morning in the
, she would oil the joint.

“The most important I have ever given,” he says with gravitas and conviction that
make her squirm with guilt. He is a good man in so many ways, a devoted shepherd to
his flock of people. For the thousandth time, she wishes his kindness extended to

If he was up all night working on his sermon, he must sleep soon. Which gives her
an idea.

“Would you like some tea, Pá?” Just the tiniest amount of duerma leaf would do it.
He’s already exhausted. And Mara is the best cook in the village—she can disguise
or enhance any flavor. He would never know.

“Yes, thank you.”

His quill
es against parchment as she sorts through the shelves, gathering herbs for her cheesecloth.
Hopefully, she is now forgotten, invisible. Carefully, surreptitiously, she reaches
behind a bundle of dried mint for the packet of duerma leaf.

“Are you tending the sheep again today?” he asks, louder this time, and she almost
drops it.
Of course
she is tending the sheep. He only asks to remind her how much he hates letting her
out of his sight, out of his control.

“Yes,” she says, not turning to face him.

“You’re not meeting that boy again, are you?”

“Of course not,” she lies.

She doesn’t hear him move, but suddenly her forearm is in an iron grip. His thumb
presses into the flesh above her wrist so hard that tears spring to her eyes. But
she knows better than to gasp or wince. Or drop the duerma leaf. Mara blinks rapidly
to clear her eyes, then turns to face her father.

His smile is too brittle to fool anyone save by the most meager candlelight. “Is that
why you’re up so early, Mara?” he says, almost crooning. “Because you can’t resist
the desires of the flesh?”

She straightens and holds her head high. She shouldn’t, because she’s taller than
he is now, and feeling small makes him mean. But she does it anyway. “I startled awake,”
she says softly. “But since I did, I might as well head to the meadow early. I spotted
a stand of sage yesterday, so I’m bringing my spice satchel. I could gather enough
to keep us in savory scones until spring. If you’d rather I didn’t go, just say the

The only thing Papá enjoys more than sermonizing from the
Scriptura Sancta
is the money she earns at the market with her baking. She has trapped him neatly.

“I don’t like you going alone,” he murmurs. “It’s not safe.”

He’s right. It’s not. Which is why she and Julio must make their escape before the
Inviernos have blocked all the roads. But she doubts her safety is his true concern.
“Come with me,” she coaxes.

His thumb digs so deep that it takes all her control not to cry out, and for a terrifying
moment, Mara fears he’ll call her bluff.

All at once he releases her. Warm blood rushes into her hand, and she stumbles backward,
hitting the shelves.

“Add a few pine needles to the tea,” he says, settling back down on his cushion. “I
need something tart to keep me awake a while longer.”

“Yes, Pá,” she says, still clutching the duerma leaf.


T takes almost an hour for Papá to collapse onto the table. She nudges his shoulder
gently, but he does not stir. He will know at once what she has done when he does
finally wake. Mara will be long gone by then.

She gathers her bow and quiver, her spice satchel and water skin, and leaves through
the back door. A dry wash runs behind their
. It’s overgrown with yucca and mesquite this time of year, perfect for making a quick
escape from the village. Not that anyone would question seeing her on her way to the
sheep pens at this hour, but she can’t lose the niggling worry that Papá will wake
up after all. She imagines him barreling out the door toward her, fist raised to strike.

But the day is so beautiful, and the sheep bleat with such delight at seeing her,
that the worry fades as she herds them up the mountain. Mara has always loved early
mornings—the clarity of the air, the chirping rock wrens, the waking lizards, the
freedom and solitude. She especially loves the way light edges the teeth of the Sierra
Sangre, reminding her that not even the mighty mountains can hold back the dawn.

Her bow doubles as a walking staff; it clicks against the rocky trail as she guides
them between red-orange buttes and through a gully wash. A quiver of arrows slung
across her back rattles with each stride. She’s been practicing ever since her father
gave her the bow. Last week she bagged two rabbits, and yesterday she scared off a
coyote that had prowled too close. But she wouldn’t want to test her amateur skill
against an Invierno.

Still, growing the flock is the smartest thing she’s done in her seventeen years,
because duty forces her to leave the village—and her father—almost every day to graze
them. Unfortunately, the surrounding area will soon be grazed out, and they’ll have
to move farther afield. Her father will never allow it, especially now that the foothills
are lousy with enemy scouts.

After today, though, it will no longer be her problem. “I’m sorry I have to leave
you,” she whispers. Her sheep are the one thing about this life she’ll miss. They
are too relentlessly stupid and sweet to hurt her on purpose.

Her path opens into a drying meadow surrounded by swirling sandstone outcroppings,
edged in thirsty cottonwoods. A seasonal creek bed, barely trickling with last week’s
fall storm, winds through the grass. One of the younger ewes leaps into the air, tail
spinning, and takes off across the meadow in an exuberant gallop. Mara understands
how she feels.

Her breath catches when arms snake around her waist and a warm body presses against
her back. Julio’s lips nuzzle her neck. He whispers, “Good morning.”

She spins in his arms, pulls his head down, and presses her lips to his. She kisses
him deeply, hungrily, until he breaks away, laughing.

But he sobers when he sees her face. The skin around his eyes is prematurely crinkled
from days spent on the trap lines, or maybe from too much smiling. It’s one of the
things she likes best about his face. He scans her from top to bottom. “Did he hurt

Mara looks down, her bruised forearm suddenly screaming with pain.

“Every time he hurts you, I want to kill him,” he says. “It’s wrong of me, but I can’t
help it.”

It makes her stomach turn to think that Julio might be capable of the same rage as
her father. She releases his hands, hides her arms behind her back. “I put a bit of
duerma leaf in his tea. He should sleep all afternoon.”

His eyes dance. “You didn’t!”

It never would have occurred to Mara to be amused were it not for him, and she finds
herself smiling back. “I did.”

“I hope he wakes with a massive headache.”

She glances around the meadow. Julio’s pack of supplies is propped up against a cottonwood.
“Where is Adán?” she asks. Julio’s little brother has been their co-conspirator. Today
is his turn to check the trap line, but he agreed to ditch his duties and instead
bring his horse for them. After they leave, Adán will herd the sheep back to safety.

Julio rolls his eyes. “Mamá caught him stealing pomegranate jelly from the cellar.
She’s making him muck out stalls this morning. He’ll be here soon enough.”

Mara nods, relieved. Julio’s mother won’t keep Adán long. His parents are aware of
their plan, or at the very least suspect something. For Deliverance Day this year,
they gave Julio a brand-new traveling cloak lined with fur. Julio said that when they
draped it over him to gauge the fit, his father wrapped him in his arms and held him
long enough for Julio to feel awkward.

What must it be like to have loving parents, who encourage you to follow your dreams,
even when they don’t exactly approve? Even when they might be dangerous?

“I’m worried about the Inviernos,” Mara admits. “A man who bought scones from me the
other day said they’re harassing traders along the northern road now. What if the
way west is blocked?”

Julio plunks onto the ground and crosses his legs. He sifts through the grass with
his fingers, saying, “Then we join the rebellion.”

She snorts. “The rebellion. What a sorry bunch of—”

“What’s the king doing to protect us? Nothing! If it weren’t for the rebels—”

“You shouldn’t say such things so loud!” She sinks to the ground beside him.

Julio yanks a blade of grass and starts chewing on it. “Yes, the sheep might declare
me seditious.” More seriously, he adds, “Whatever we do, it’s only for a year. Once
we’re married—and your Pá has cooled off—we’ll be back.”

Papá’s temper never cools. It only simmers, hidden, until an explosion brings it to
the surface. But it would be cruel to ask Julio to leave his family forever, so instead
of protesting, she sprawls out and lays her head in his lap. “So,” she says, gazing
up at the brightening sky, “we go west as planned, but if the way is blocked, we join
the rebellion.” She silently considers that her hostile feelings toward the rebellion
might have more to do with Belén, the boy who wooed her, then ignored her, then left
to join the rebels. “I suppose even sedition is better than asking my father for permission
to marry.”

“Frankly, I can’t decide which is more fraught with adventure and peril.”

She laughs giddily, thinking,
Oh, Pá, you are so wrong. It’s not the desires of the flesh I can’t resist. It’s this.
The sharing of dreams. The

His fingers trace her cheek, her neck, her collarbone. She closes her eyes, wanting
to savor every sensation, treasuring them up in her memory box so she can take them
out for admiring later.

But then her eyes fly open. “I smell smoke. Not a cook fire.”

His fingers freeze. “You’re sure?”

The scent is off. Not green wood, not firewood. More like rushes, or maybe wool. “My
cook’s nose is never wrong.” She sits up and scans the horizon.

“Stay here.” He launches to his feet and dashes toward the nearest outcropping. Despite
the dread curling in her throat, she can’t help but admire the way he scrambles up
the rock, the strong hands that have learned every bit of her body clutching handholds
with swift assuredness as he pulls himself to the peak.

He gazes off in the direction of the village, and his mouth drops open in horror.

Julio scrambles back down—more falling than climbing in his rush, and she’s shaking
her head against what he’ll say long before he reaches her.

“The village,” he pants. “Burning. All of it.”

“The Inviernos,” she whispers.

He cups her face in his hands. “We could run,” he says.

Hope sparks in her gut, so shining and sharp that it hurts. But she stuffs it away.

“No. My pá. Your little brother . . .”

“Adán!” he gasps, his face frozen with guilty shock. “How could I not think . . .
he could be trapped in the stable!” And then he’s off running.

“Oh, God,” she whispers at his back. “The duerma leaf.”

Mara sprints after him.

BOOK: The Shattered Mountain
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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