Mud squelched through my fingers, slipping away like grains of sand. I dug deeper, seeking purchase. I refused for this to be the end.
I dragged myself another few inches forward, gasping at the pain the movement brought. My eyes remained locked on the line of stones that marked border. I was nearly there.
A hand gripped my armour at my nape and tugged me back. I held back a wince as I landed on my bad leg.
I forced myself onto one elbow. My blood chilled as I saw two of my more relentless pursuers standing over me. A man and woman. Brother and sister, if their identical flaxen hair and cobalt eyes were any indicator. Their sodden clothes clung to muscular frames and dripped a trail behind them. More barbarians crossed the stream after them. How had they crossed the water?
My body began to tremble as the gravity of this moment set in.
My people had been running this gauntlet for decades. Every five years, one youth was chosen to run the length of the barbarian lands and return home without getting caught. If they were, the lands my people lived on were forfeit. The tradition was nearly three hundred years old.
And now I was the first to fail.
I jerked as the woman crouched by my side. She reached for me, ignoring how I shied from her. She trailed her fingers through my hair soothingly, pushing it from my face for me. I shuddered. How long before they killed me?
My eyes flicked to the man. He watched me, an inscrutable look on his face.
Realising he held my attention, his frown deepened. He crouched by my side, even as I tried to pull away. His sister held me by one shoulder. She tilted my head this way and that, as if looking for something.
“It’s definitely her?” She asked, voice tainted with something I didn’t recognise.
The man grunted. “Look at her eyes. It’s her.”
I flinched as he leant closer, causing myself more pain. His hands were cold as he slid one under my shoulders and the other behind my knees. I hissed as he lifted me in his arms, jolting my injured leg. Moisture seeped into my clothing where my body touched his, chilling me.
The man watched me as he straightened, something akin to satisfaction in his eyes. Eyes that I only now realised were mismatched. One was cobalt; the other silver.
I’d never seen anything like it.
He was also younger than I’d first thought, probably no more than eighteen years. The harsh expression on his face made him seem older.
He raised a single brow when I continued to stare, jolting me back into my right mind. I pushed against his chest, fighting him to let go. He simply tightened his grip.
“Just kill me already,” I snarled.
He shook his head. “Not yet.” He ignored the sharp look his sister shot his way.
I opened my mouth to protest some more, but rustling drew my attention to the border. My face blanched. My father and brother stood among the trees, along with the councilmen and women who supported his governance over our people. My father’s face was calm, but his eyes told a different story. An inferno burned inside – not because he had lost his daughter, but because I had failed.
My hands curled into fists.
“Jenna.” I flinched at the familiar timbre. “What is the meaning of this?”
I thought it was pretty damn obvious, not that I would ever say that to him.
“Your Challenger has failed,” Mismatched-eyes announced. “According to the agreement your ancestors made with ours, your land has reverted back to our care. You have two sevendays to pack your things and leave. There will be no mercy for trespassers beyond this.”
My father sputtered, visibly at a loss for words. Then his eyes zeroed in on me, on the barbarian arms that held me, and his expression darkened.
“You stupid girl. You did this on purpose. You wanted us to lose.” He pressed forward until he stood on the borderline. “You’ve been planning this moment for years, haven’t you?”
“Why-” I started, only to be cut off by his roar.
“Don’t start with the lies, child. You’re a traitor to your people.” My brother set a hand on our father’s arm to stop him from crossing right over the border. He shot Zeke a look before turning back to me. “From this moment forward, you’re no child of mine.”
Before I could so much as process the gravity of his words, he was gone, the councillors following in his wake. My brother lingered a moment longer, before shaking his head and leaving too. He didn’t look back once.
Strong arms tightened around me ever so slightly, holding me firmly enough my world only cracked instead of falling apart.
I clamped my jaw shut, swallowing the cry that wanted to escape and blinked back tears. Mismatched-eyes and his sister wouldn’t see any more fall. It was bad enough they had seen the confrontation with my father. They wouldn’t get to see me break too.
“So,” I prompted. I forced a watery smile to my face. It was the best I could do given the circumstances. “When do we get to the part where you kill me?”
“So morbid,” the girl remarked, frowning at her brother. “Are her kind all like that?”
Mismatched-eyes shook his head. “No. I suspect it’s something unique to her.” He turned to face the river before I could respond. He seemed not to notice how fast the current ran or how high the water had risen as he strode towards it. He chuckled when my entire body tensed. Was this how I would die? Drowning in the very river I had tried so hard to avoid?
But he didn’t let me go, not even as he plunged us into the icy depths. Despite his considerable height, the water still came up to his shoulders. I lifted my chin to keep the water from slapping me in the face.
The current seemed to slow as we crossed. It was nothing like the roaring body of water I had tried to evade before. My heart clenched. I should have crossed instead of jumping. Then I wouldn’t be in this mess and my people would be safe. I grit my teeth. Could I call them my people anymore, when I had failed so spectacularly?
My father would probably say no.
We reached the far side of the river and the man sloshed his way up the bank. I kept silent as he carried me back the way I had come. The trail of broken branches and muddy prints I had left behind was considerable, but I had been pushing for speed, not stealth.
I shuddered as a breeze wound its way through the trees, caressing me with cold hands. Perhaps I would die of exposure to the elements before the barbarians could kill me. Wouldn’t that be something?
A small smile crossed my lips, only to die as we came to a stop. I stared at the sprawling settlement before me. I hadn’t noticed Mismatched-eyes deviate from my trail to lead us here. My route through his land hadn’t brought me anywhere near the barbarians’ dwellings.
My eyes widened as I tried to take it all in. In the seventeen years I had lived, I had never seen anything like it.
The barbarians didn’t build homes of brick or stone like my people. They crafted tents. Animal hides had been sewn together to form the shelters. They were held up by thick wooden supports made from the very trees encircling us.
Fires dotted the land between groupings of tents. Men and women sat around them, some caring for weapons, others preparing food. Children laughed as they chased each other through the settlement, batting washing and tent flaps out of their way. They were so free. Everyone was. It was so unlike the only life I knew, it was almost overwhelming. I only stood on the periphery, but what would it be like to immerse myself in their world?
A man glanced our way. He let out a shout when he saw me in Mismatched’s arms. The beans he had been shelling fell from his lap as he stood. Others followed suit until countless gazes were locked on me.
I amended my previous thoughts. I had no desire to go any deeper into their world.
Mismatched-eyes strode forward, plunging us into the crowd. As he passed, a cheer went up. I bowed my head, feeling the weight of their cries like stones against my skin.
I was carried through the settlement until we reached a large tent at the heart of it all. I barely had time to draw breath before we were inside and I was being set on the ground.
I swallowed, shuddering at the cold now I didn’t even have Mismatched-eyes’ body heat to warm me. I wrapped my arms around myself, conscious of the fact I sat alone in the centre of the tent.
Eyes bore into me from all sides. Would they finally give me what I wanted? Would I finally be killed?
An eternity seemed to pass, fraught with tense silence. Through it all, my heart raced, but I refused to show a glimpse of my discomfort. Setting my shoulders, I lifted my head.
Eyes identical to my own stared back.
— Tahlia with an H
Part three coming soon! Subscribe to my mailing list to stay up to date on all my latest posts.