Some secrets need to be buried.
Heiya lived that truth, embodied it, every waking day. It was the reason that she and her family lived alone in the barren, uninhabited reaches of the North. It was why her children had never met other children, never met anyone that didn’t live in their little hut in the shadow of the mountains. All it took was one mistake—a poorly covered trail, a fire that sent up too much smoke, a too-unnatural shift in the weather.
That mistake came on the night of the new moon. Melkin burst through the door, his large frame shielding the light from the setting sun.
“Heiya,” he said, panting. “They’re here. They’ve found us.”
From the firelight in the room, Heiya saw something in his face that she hadn’t seen in years. Fear. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up on end, like soldiers in the Mardonan Royal Guard. Instinctively, her hands fell to her stomach.
Melkin nodded, and his gaze moved to their children. “Boys,” he said to the twins. “Boots on. Hurry now. Fessaline, help your sister.”
“Da?” Jerem’s eyes were wide. Confused
“Hurry,” Melkin urged, without explaining.
Heiya’s warrior training kicked in, and she stuffed her rising fear down, out of the way. She pulled the emergency packs off the wall, passing one to Fessaline, their oldest, and one to each of the twins. Jaek and Jerem snapped into action, pulling on their furs and lacing their boots. Fessaline wrapped Maya’s small cloak around her, bundling the two-year-old up for the cold night air. Maya giggled and pawed playfully at Fessaline’s face, oblivious to what was happening.
Melkin picked up his broadsword from the corner—the one he had earned half a lifetime ago, and hadn’t had a reason to use for many years—and Heiya caught a glimpse of the heinous burn scars on his forearms. She shivered. The pasts they had both run from had finally caught up with them. Heiya wrapped her fur-lined cloak around herself, securing her sword belt on top of it. The weapon felt heavy and foreign at her side.
As if it could sense something was wrong, the baby inside her kicked.
“Here, Fess,” Melkin said, passing their oldest his hunting belt—the one that held his two skinning knives. “Put these in your pack.” Fessaline looked terrified, but she took the blades without a word. Melkin scooped little Maya up and placed her on his back, and ushered everyone outside.
“Fess. Boys,” Heiya said, in a war-like, commanding tone. Wide eyes stared up at her in the failing light. “This is the real thing. Boost your legs. Stay together, and stay silent. Understood?”
“Good. Let’s move.”
The family of six left the hut and ran north, through the small garden dedicated to growing the Erolam plant, and toward the forest at the base of the mountains. Heiya did not look back. There was no time for regret.
Together, they disappeared into the trees.
She drew from her stored Erolam layer, and felt the cold of the aberrant energy flood her muscles. With it flowing in her veins, she boosted her muscles, increasing her speed. The result was a run as fast as a normal man’s sprint, and yet to her, it felt like a casual jog. Had she not been pregnant and carrying the extra weight, she could have moved even faster.
The gnarled, strangled forests of the north were different than the woods of Southern Mardona, where Heiya had grown up, but she was used to them at this point. More importantly, her children were used to them. Jaek and Jerem led the way toward the river, following Melkin’s hidden trail markers. The twins ran with the nimble agility of two identical mountain goats, boosting their muscles as they jumped over roots and stones and wove in and out between bushes and squat tree trunks. Fessaline was right behind them, moving with a wielding grace that reminded Heiya of her own youth.
The very existence of their children was an impossibility—a violation of the laws of nature. All wielders were pote, and she and Melkin never should have been able to conceive. And yet they had broken that rule four times over, with their fifth child on the way. There was only one explanation that made any sense. It resided not in who they were, but what they were.
After all the careful years, had their secret finally been discovered? Why else would their pursuers have come on the night of the new moon? It was the one time each month when the sky was empty, the winds were dead, and everything—everything—was as motionless and silent as a stillborn infant. If it had been closer to the moontide storm, Heiya and Melkin would have flooded their minds with Erolam, and boldly stood their ground.
Heiya pulled more from her layer, increasing her speed. She flooded her mind with Erolam, and sifted. She instantly felt them, boosting their pursuit behind her. They were close—too close. Perhaps close enough to sift her family as they fled. She pulled a dangerous amount of energy to her limbs, pushing herself harder, faster.
It was too much. Her muscles burned, and as she hurdled a rock, her knee buckled. She tumbled forward, barely catching herself. She regained her feet and leaned forward, hands on her knees, panting.
The kids doubled back to her, and Melkin ground to a halt. He gave Heiya an appraising look. Without a word, he pulled Maya off his back. Heiya shook her head, but Melkin ignored her, and placed Maya in her arms. Maya wrapped her arms around Heiya and nuzzled into her neck.
“Go,” Melkin said. He unsheathed his sword. “Get to the skiff.”
There was a part of Heiya that wanted to protest. That part of her wanted to cry, to beg him to stay, to have a chance to say goodbye. But that part of her was weak. The other part of her—the warrior part, the practical part—took over. The safety of her children was the only thing that mattered. It was Heiya, not Melkin, who carried their fifth child in her belly. It was as simple as that.
“Kill them,” she said, her voice growing tight with anger. “Kill them all.”
“Go,” he said. Heiya did not linger to watch him disappear into the trees. What would one last glance change? She shifted Maya’s weight, and began running again. After a few steps, her three oldest were back in front, boosting their flight through the forest.
They ran on, and on, the forest blurring around them. Maya’s little body began to feel like a heavy sack full of jagged stones, and Heiya’s legs and back tightened into painful knots. Roots and stones seemed to jump out of the ground to trip and ensnare her. She drew even more from her layer, which was rapidly depleting—but she knew there was no other choice.
Keep moving, she repeated to herself, urging her tired body onward. Just. Keep. Moving.
Heiya boosted a jump, clearing a small rock. Her left leg aimed for a large step-like root rising above the uneven ground. But the root was rotten to the core, and it crumbled under her feet, sending her sprawling into the base of a needled bush. The sharp branches scratched at her face and hands, and stabbed her body through her fur cloak. Cursing, she pushed herself from the bush.
“Shhh, it’s all right Maya,” Heiya said. “Hush now.”
Maya’s wailing increased. This is too loud, Heiya thought, as she pried her daughter from her neck so she could quiet her screaming. They’ll hear us. Fessaline and the twins rushed back to their mother.
That’s when Heiya noticed the blood. Her eyes grew wide with horror. Blood flowed from a wound on Maya’s face, red and slick. Heiya began to frantically wipe the blood away with her gloved fingers, but it kept seeping out of the wound, and Maya screamed louder.
Lords be damned, what have I done?
“Deathlands,” Jaek muttered under his breath.
“Jaek, don’t blaspheme!” Jerem looked horrified.
Fessaline pushed past them. She reached into her pack for the piece of cloth that wrapped her bundles of Erolam root, and passed it to her mother. Heiya dabbed at Maya’s face, and applied pressure.
Maya’s wailing reached a shrill peak.
The blood slowed, revealing the wound. A thin, crescent-shaped fissure extended from Maya’s forehead, down the middle of her right eyebrow and onto her cheek below. The branch had just missed her eyeball. The cut was deep, but it was not wide, and with good care, Heiya could prevent it from scarring too badly. Jaek and Jerem copied their sister and passed strips of cloth to their mother. Heiya began to wrap the cloth tightly around Maya’s head, completely covering her eye.
Maya clawed desperately at her mother, her lungs bellowing with a power that should not have been possible from such a small person. The people chasing them would come straight to Maya’s screams, like a ship to a well-lit harbor. Heiya’s gaze shifted to her children. Jerem and Jaek shared worried looks, and huddled closer to each other. Fessaline blinked up at Heiya, her body still heaving from the flight, the fear written clearly in her eyes.
Szrac, Heiya silently cursed. Of her children, both Fessaline and Jaek had developed the talent that made them Toh Vahni. Jerem had not shown signs yet—which was a sore spot for the boy. In his eyes, it was a glaring proof that his siblings were special and he was not. That he was less.
For all Heiya knew, Jerem might still develop the ability—be it in the coming months, or years down the road. Because of that, Heiya had to treat him like his siblings. The world still believed that Toh Vahni were evil, corrupted, all-powerful wielders. If her children were found, and their secret discovered, they would be ruthlessly murdered, just like the Toh Vahni of old.
Heiya couldn’t let that happen. She knew what she had to do.
Some secrets need to be buried.
“Fess. Boys,” she said, as she hoisted Maya into her arms. Her voice was strained, but she kept the fear from her tone. “I need you to go ahead of me. It’s not far. You know the way. Get to the river, to the skiff, and float down stream. Stay as silent as you can.”
None of her children moved. Jaek’s bottom lip began to quiver. Jerem just stared.
“Mum, no,” Fessaline said. “We have to stay together. You said we have to stay together!”
“I know what I said Fess, but things have changed. Take your brothers, and go. Do you hear me? GO.”
Fessaline shook her head, and her eyes welled up with tears.
Heiya looked between her children. She had told herself, back when she had first laid eyes on Fessaline, moments after her birth, that she would never lie to her children. Never. To this day, she had kept her word.
But what was more important? Being truthful, or keeping her children alive? She swallowed.
“I will find you,” Heiya said. “You hear me? Just get to the river and float down, away from here. I will meet you further down. But you have to go. Now.”
Fessaline sniffed, and wiped an eye. “Promise?”
Heiya’s mouth was as dry as ash, dry with the lie she had just told, dry as she prepared to tell it again. Maya wailed. No time, a voice whispered in her head.
“Fess, I promise,” she said. “Jaek, Jerem—I promise. I will come find you. I will.”
I’m so sorry, she thought. You will understand, one day.
Fessaline straightened her shoulders, and puffed her heaving chest out. She motioned to her brothers.
“And Fess,” Heiya said. “Whatever happens, whatever you do… don’t tell anyone that you are Toh Vahni. Not ever. You hear me?” Fessaline nodded. “You too Jaek. No one. They won’t understand, and they will kill you.” She changed her words to fit her lie. “They will kill us.”
Jaek looked frightened. Jerem studied the ground.
“Now go! I will find you.”
“See you soon, Mum,” Fessaline said, and turned to her brothers. “Let’s go.”
Before Heiya could say anything else, Fessaline turned and sped into the forest. The twins gave Heiya one last look, and then bounded after their older sister. Within a moment, the three had disappeared into the trees, leaving Heiya alone with her screaming daughter.
A single sob leaked from Heiya’s mouth, but she stilled it, and didn’t let any more escape. They’ll be all right, she tried to convince herself, as if saying it in her mind would make it so. They will be all right! Maya clung to Heiya, and continued to wail.
Heiya took one last, shaky breath—and then the warrior inside her took over. She straightened up, threw her pack over her shoulder, and took off, heading east through the woods. She moved as quickly as her tired and sore and heavy body would allow. She curved her flight, little by little, away from the river. Away from her children, and the skiff.
She pulled on more of her layer, and sifted. There, again, was the boosting. They were coming, and there were many of them. It wouldn’t be long now.
Maya’s screams subsided as Heiya stumbled deeper into the forest. Her exhaustion was wearing on her, and her pace slowed. She hunted around, looking for a defensive point.
Up ahead a jagged cliff of bare rock rose high into the air. She knew the spot. As a defensive point, the wall would protect her from being flanked, and the area at the base of the cliff was clear and free of obstacles. This place was not close to where Melkin had hidden the skiff—but it was not incredibly far away either. Hopefully, it was far enough.
Heiya turned her back to the stone and sank to the forest floor. Maya’s tiny breaths turned steady, and thankfully, she dozed off. Sleep was silent, and silence was good.
All was still. Maybe they had lost her trail. Maybe they would move past her. It was a thin hope, but Heiya held onto it with everything she had. She didn’t believe in the Lords of the Men—not anymore—nor did she believe in the Triad, or Malsak’s foreboding prophecies, like Melkin did. But in the moment, she urgently prayed to both sets of deities.
She waited, and then drew the tiniest trickle of Erolam from her layer—too small to be detected. What she felt shook her mind, like a gong sounding in a silent room. Boosting, from all around her. Then the wielding suddenly went out, like a candle snuffed out in the wind. The instant silence made her skin crawl, and filled her with dread. She knew what it meant.
They’d found her.
Heiya gently transferred Maya from her lap down to the mossy ground. She stood, unsheathing her sword with as little sound as she could. She was tired—so tired—but one look at little Maya firmed her resolve. She set her feet, keeping her weight as low as her pregnancy allowed, and held her sword up, ready. It felt heavier than she remembered.
She caught movement. In the pale starlight, the red hilt of a massive broadsword moved through the leaves, like the prow of a ship through still water. Leaves crunched under boots. A few more soft steps, and the man stepped into full view.
He stood well over six feet off the ground. His thick black cloak draped loosely over his massive shoulders, and a worn, scratched breastplate covered his chest. Long dark hair flowed down to his shoulders, and a heavy, creased brow loomed over his hazel-green eyes.
He was a Guardian Captain—that much was obvious. Heiya looked closer, and her breath caught. This was not just any Guardian, not just any Captain. It was him. Heiya felt like she was staring directly into Melkin’s past. The man stared back at her. He said no words, and he did not unsheathe the sword on his back. Everything about him gave Heiya the chills.
He clapped twice, and black clad forms emerged from all around. One sprung from the underbrush not ten feet away, and another swung down from the bough of a tree. Heiya counted. Nine. A full team. She thought of Melkin, racing back, not knowing a whole team was waiting for him. Panic rushed up her throat.
“Is he dead?”
Heiya glanced from one face to another, frantically, searching, hoping that maybe, just maybe…
The Captain did not answer. His Guardians did not answer. Their silence was answer enough.
“No,” she choked, her body swirling full of grief and rage and the cold torrent of Erolam. “No! Damn you, you szracking…rossz!”
Her voice sounded shrill and weak. She didn’t know why she used the vulgar slur for wielders, except that she couldn’t think of a worse word to call these horrible, horrible excuses for people. They had killed him! They had killed Melkin. She reached out for the wind, for the clouds, for the heat of the sun, for anything—but there was nothing. Heiya scowled and lifted her sword, ready to fight.
Maya shifted on the ground, letting out a soft, childlike sigh. Heiya glanced down at her helpless daughter, and her aggression fled. If Melkin hadn’t been able to stop these Guardians, how could she hope to? She was an exhausted, pregnant wielder—a useless Toh Vahni on the night of the new moon. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t fight.
Her mind worked, searching for a way out. Surely the Guardians knew she was a wielder, by their sifting. But did they know she was Toh Vahni? Maybe their arrival on the new moon was just coincidence. If they knew what she was, they would have killed her already. Her, and Maya.
And yet, they hesitated.
Heiya saw her chance. Wielders. Child wielders. This was the Valomian Empire, after all. What did Valomia value the most?
“My daughter is a wielder,” she said. She tossed her sword to the ground, and held up her hands. “And so is the child inside of me.”
She didn’t know if that last part was true. Her other children could all wield. Chances were the one inside her could, too. True or not, she needed the chance.
The Guardian Captain’s face was stone—unreadable and mute. After a long, heart-pounding pause, he reached a hand toward her.
“Come here, woman,” he rumbled, his voice like an avalanche of rocks thundering down a mountainside.
She approached the man slowly, warily, glancing back at Maya, who still slept silently in the leaves. In a lightning fast motion, the man grabbed her and spun her around, pressing her back hard against his breastplate. He held a knife to her throat. She inhaled, and the quick movement caused the knife to split a tiny line of skin on her neck. A trickle of blood slipped its way down her neck.
One of the Guardians approached and searched her, his hands roughly covering every inch of her body, looking for hidden weapons. When he got to her stomach are, though, his hands grew gentle. He found no weapon, and stepped back. The Captain removed the knife from her throat. He pushed her down to her knees.
They believe me, she thought. It’s working.
The Guardian who had searched her bound her hands behind her back. One of the warriors—this one clearly a woman—moved toward Maya.
“Careful!” Heiya cried out. “She’s hurt!”
The woman reached down and scooped Maya up in her arms. Maya yawned, and stretched, and then opened the eye that wasn’t covered with the bandage. She looked up into the unfamiliar face, and began to wail. One of the other Guardians walked up, holding a large canvas sack. They dumped Maya inside, cinching the top, muffling her screams. The man hoisted the sack over his shoulder, as if the contents were no more important than a bag of potatoes.
The Guardians lifted Heiya to her feet. She wanted to squirm, to fight, to protect her child, but she knew that the more she struggled, the worse it would be. She stared helplessly at the sack, and found herself praying once more.
One of the warriors pulled out a roughly knit black bag. He shoved it over her head, and everything went dark.