(Sequel to Blood of Heirs – Book Two of The Coraidic Sagas)
by Alicia Wanstall-Burke
Four years have passed since Lidan’s world was ripped apart, and time is running out to change her father’s mind about the succession before the bargain with her mother expires. Torn between what she wants and what she knows is right, she is faced with an impossible choice; will her brother live, or will he die?
Lidan crouched low. The muscles in her thighs burned as she picked carefully through the undergrowth. She licked dry lips and swallowed a hard knot of anticipation. Somewhere in the bush to the north, Loge mirrored her, creeping unseen through the trees toward their target.
Her grip tightened around the shaft of her bow and she brushed the pad of her thumb along the rough edge of the arrow’s fletching. She could smell their fire; acidic smoke wafting through the trees to whisper its secrets to her. Their wood was green and smoky, unseasoned and scavenged from the bush nearby. The place reeked of tenna bark, which they had foolishly used to kindle the flames. No one familiar with the trees here would ever use tenna in a fire—the stink just never washed out.
The smoke had revealed their camp to the Tolak ranging party in the waning light of the previous day. Siman had ordered a watch, and Jessah and Nathen had scaled the face of a nearby bluff to keep an eye on the little point of light glimmering in the darkness. When the smoke billowed again in the morning, they knew the raiders had not moved on.
Shafts of morning light cut through the haze and Lidan wove through them like a spirit.
The edge of the camp appeared between the trees.
It wasn’t much more than a haphazard collection of bedrolls in a small clearing with temporary hide shelters strung between the trunks of red-core trees. A fire pit sat at the centre, surrounded by a group of dark, hunched figures.
Lidan stopped as close to the edge of the clearing as she dared and sank into a low squat. The soaring trees provided only so much cover. She could not risk being seen. Not until she was ready.
The raiders gave no sign they had detected her presence, and she took a deep breath through her nose to steady her thudding heart. It had been months since a raiding party had made it this far into Tolak territory, and Lidan shuddered to think what might have been had reached an occupied village. For a few short months after the Corron, she had thought there could be nothing worse than the ngaru in the shadows of the bush, but she was wrong.
Yorrell Namjin’s wrath spawned a new evil into her world, and very quickly the ngaru became the least of the Tolak’s problems. The Namjin daari’s burning rage, fuelled by the insult inflicted on him by Lidan and her father, had sparked a war far worse than any border skirmish or land grab the clans had seen before. For every settlement harried by wandering ngaru, three more were attacked by the Namjin. Lidan’s people found themselves fighting a battle on two fronts, never knowing where the next blow would land.
Messengers had arrived at Hummel, beaten and bloody and exhausted. Time and again they had hurried into her father’s private rooms to report on the devastation. At first it was the odd running raid, scorching the earth and pillaging before racing back over the border to the safety of their own range. Then the Namjin grew bold, and their numbers increased until they were marauding across the Tolak borderlands and hill country as if they owned it.
Lidan’s father ordered every ranger he had to the border, leaving reserves to manage the population of ngaru festering in the tablelands. After four years of intense fighting, the land was reclaimed and the raiders sent packing, but the Namjin were undeterred, and the incursions continued.
Erlon Tolak used every excuse he could to keep his daughter from the border—at first assigning her to the healing rooms to work and study with Grent, then to a reserve party of rangers scouting for ngaru in the tablelands. Her father thought to spare her the worst of the war, to keep her clear of the greatest danger, but she’d seen enough to know the truth of what was going on in the western reaches of the range.
She saw the wounds of the riders and the fleeing villagers who made it to Hummel. She saw their tents, pitched around the outer wall, then watched them transform into huts, then houses. The population of Hummel swelled, and the walls shifted to accommodate. She saw the remains of the western villages when her ranging took her along abandoned trackways and hunting trails. She’d seen the blackened ruins of homes, blood-soaked soil and the stinking carcasses left behind. She’d seen the price that had been paid to keep the interior villages safe—
A bird’s shrill call pierced the air and Lidan’s heart skipped.
The raiders around the fire remained unmoved, muttering to each other, one hugging a steaming cup while another scratched at his crotch. Lidan curled her tongue and let out a short burst of sound that echoed through the trees—an answer to the bird call.
She raised her bow and drew the arrow back to the corner of her mouth, training the stone arrowhead on a man directly across the camp. Before she could loose the shaft, his face exploded toward the fire. Blood and brains erupted from the hole in his head and he shuddered. His body flopped into the flames and the others came screaming to their feet.
‘Fuck,’ Lidan hissed and shifted her aim. Her arrow sliced into the neck of a raider spinning to confront the unseen threat. He collapsed and one of his companions whipped around, keen eyes on the trees. She had just enough time to skewer an arrow through his shoulder before she stowed her bow, turned and bolted.
All pretence at stealth vanished and she crashed through the bush. Charging back between the trees, she vaguely heard someone screaming curses and orders and a decent number of other somebodies rushing to comply. To her left someone else came hurtling through the trees and burst onto the track.
‘Run faster!’ Loge shouted, and they cleared a log at a sprint.
The trail was faint, but the raiders seemed to be doing all right at following their ears. Loge let off a series of sharp whistles as the ground dropped away. Lidan slid down the bank toward the creek, her boot heels carving ruts in the soft dirt as she tried to steer away from the biggest obstacles.
She hit the base of the slope and rolled to her feet. Loge caught her arm and yanked her sideways as an arrow slammed into a nearby tree. Their boots thumped along another faint track, shouts and bellowed orders echoing up the valley behind them.
Arrows whistled overhead and thwacked into the trees, shredding leaves and showering Lidan and Loge in splinters. The creek curved to the right and the track followed, the valley narrowing to nothing more than a tight ravine walled on either side with massive boulders shrouded by creeping vines and undergrowth. Lidan raced toward the breach in the rock where the water flowed, a gap no wider than two horses nose to tail. The track hugged the edge of the creek through the gap, enough room only for a single ranger to pass at a time.
She shot through the space and darted around the back side of the stone wall, Loge at her heels. Arrows cracked against the stone on the other side and hurtled through the gap to splash into the rushing water.
Lidan slipped and scrambled to correct her footing as she twisted around the base of a boulder and into a crevice. Loge gave one long whistle that echoed up the sides of the canyon and into the blue sky above.
The screaming started not a full heartbeat after.
Lidan slammed back against a boulder and gulped breath after breath. Her skin prickled and the muscles beneath throbbed, the thump of her pulse nearly drowning out the shouts from the rangers hidden in the rocks above and the wails of the raiders dying by the creek. Loge leaned against the rock beside her, one hand on the wall of stone, his eyes closed as he fought to catch his breath.
‘You used to be faster,’ Lidan gasped. She leant forward and rested her hands on her thighs, her sweat-soaked shirt plastered to her back.
‘I fucking caught you,’ Loge replied.
‘I beat you to the creek,’ said Lidan, looking over as he shook his head.
A raider barrelled through the gap in the rocks and turned his snarling face toward the sound of Loge’s voice.
‘DOWN!’ Lidan cried as the raider launched himself at them.
Loge dropped. Lidan’s knife flashed. Steel met flesh. The raider’s throat offered no resistance to the blade’s edge and blood gushed from the wound, pumping red through the man’s fingers as he clutched at his neck. He slipped in the slick at his feet and went down hard, the side of his head smacking into the rock before he slumped heavily to the ground.
Between the gaping tear in his throat and the crack in his skull, Lidan was fairly sure he wasn’t getting up again. She spat on the corpse for good measure.
‘Fucker,’ she snarled. She sniffed and pushed a stray lock hair from her face. A flash of red caught her eye and she glanced at her hand. There was blood, but it wasn’t hers.
Loge straightened and rested his hands on his hips as Lidan wiped her knife clean and slipped it into its sheath.
Breathing hard, he eyed the body and the expanding pool of blood, then turned to Lidan and shrugged. ‘Reckon he’s dead enough, or you want put some more holes in him to be sure?’
Lidan leaned back against the boulder and pointed at Loge. ‘That’s going on your tally,’ she said, still fighting to catch her breath.
‘You’re keeping a tally?’
‘And those two ngaru up on the eastern ridge last moon.’ Lidan spat a foul taste from her mouth. She needed some water.
Loge rolled his eyes and stepped over the raider and into the sunlight by the creek. ‘You might as well just let the next one have me, because I’ll be dead before I ever pay you back.’
Lidan grinned and adjusted the bow slung across her back. ‘You’re not getting out of it that easy, Loge Baker. At this rate, you’ll be pouring my drinks for the next two years.’
About the Author
Alicia Wanstall-Burke is a writer, author of Blood of Heirs, mum, and a cat-herder. There are rumours she may in fact be a quokka in disguise, but these are not to be believed. Legacy of Ghosts is available below.