Exile: Unreachable Skies, Vol. 2
by Karen McCreedy
Zarda, Fate-Seer of her people, the Drax, has chosen to join the wingless and their broken-winged dams on their long and dangerous journey into exile. But Kalis, the Prime she has abandoned, dispatches flyers to hunt her down and offers a reward to anyone who will give her up.
When their path takes them into the Crimson Forest, horror and death stalk the exiles beneath the vines. As the pain and hardship of banishment begin to take their toll, Zarda wonders which of the exiles will be the first to betray her, but nothing can prepare her for the discovery that awaits her beyond the furthest reaches of Drax territory; a discovery that has the power to alter the course of history.
Science Fiction, Fantasy, Adventure, 286 pages
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“If you go through the Deadlands, you will all die.”
As I picked my way between strewn belongings, and smouldering campfires that did little to warm the icy dawn, it was the voice of Shaya, the Chief Hunter, which carried to me above the sound of breaking waves, whimpering younglings, and complaining females. Just two days ago, every wingless youngling, and every female who had produced one, had been sent into exile by our Prime, Kalis, urged on by his favourite adviser, Fazak. Yet already the arguments had started!
My nose alerted me to the stink of a shallow waste-pit and I edged around it, stepping over a broken beaker, and continued on toward the squabbling voices. As Kalis’ Fate-seer I was expected to return to my dwelling on the Spirax peninsula, a few nines of wingbeats across the bay, but a Vision had shown me that my future lay with the exiles and, after visiting my Dream-cave, I had flown to their makeshift encampment.
The females, their wings broken by Kalis’ new Elite Guard, had been netted over the river along with their younglings, and had been left on the claw of reed-tufted sand that jutted into the ocean from the Manybend estuary’s north shore. As I’d circled over the nines of fires, their spiralling layout had shown that someone had taken charge of setting the camp properly, and my sole concern had been finding somewhere to land without being seen. In the end I had set down on the beach to the north, wetting my feet as I landed at the edge of the incoming tide. Taking care to make sure I would not leave any traces of my approach, I had walked along the tideline till I reached the promontory at daybreak. I had intended to find my friend Doran and make myself known to her, but the sound of raised voices had drawn my attention, and I had instead made my way across the camp to the ridge of snow-covered ground that separated the hook of sand from the mud of the Deadlands. I smelled cooking – branmeal bubbling in a pot to my left, meat patties warming in a pan to my right. My stomachs rumbled a protest that I was not stopping to eat, but my attention was on the group at the foot of the slope where Shaya stood, and the arguments that I could now hear more clearly.
“The Deadlands are frozen, Shaya, just like everywhere else. I don't see why we can't walk straight across them to the Ambit river. We can head for the Eye, or even the river upstream from there where it narrows and will be easier to cross.”
I didn't recognise the speaker, though I knew from her copper tunic that she was an Artisan. As Shaya set her ears to a more aggressive angle and began to explain the dangers of the Deadlands – the thin ice masking mud that was deep enough to drown in, brambletrap that would feed on any creature living or dead – I spotted Doran’s russet fur and green-and-black Healer’s tunic amid the crowd. Forgetting that I had changed my appearance by dyeing my fur and changing my tunic from Fate-seer black to Trader blue, I made my way over to her and said, “Doran, what's going on?”
She twisted an ear my way, gave me a sniff, and looked me up and down. “I'm sorry, do I know you?”
I took a quick look round. Nineties of females were attending to their younglings, cooking meals, or still rolled in blankets, sleeping. Those in the group surrounding Shaya had their attention on what she was saying. Only Doran had an ear twisted my way. “It's me,” I hissed, “Zarda. I promised I would join you, didn't I?”
“But you're…” she said as she waved a paw from the neck of my tunic to my feet, “you look so different.” She sounded disappointed. “I've been waiting for you to come. I thought that having Zarda the Fate-seer join us would help all these drax to face what lies ahead. But if they don't know it's you…”
It had not occurred to me that I might help anyone's morale. “I came because I Saw that I should,” I said, “and because Kalis no longer listens to me. Besides, if Dru is to fulfil his destiny and defeat the Koth, he'll need help and guidance from a Fate-seer, especially—” No. Only members of the council knew that Dru had the Sight, and we had agreed to keep it secret for the moment. Doran had no need to know – not yet. I dismissed what I’d been about to say with a flick of an ear that told Doran it was of no importance, and spiralled a paw across the front of my tunic. “I can't be Zarda here. I know Kalis isn't interested in anything I have to say, but he is a stickler for tradition. I've left him without a Fate-seer and he won't be happy. He'll send the Guardflight to look for me – maybe even his new Elite Guard. And I think we can both guess what will happen to me if they find me.” As I finished talking, I turned my head to indicate the pathetic figure huddled in a blanket, sitting alone in the shadows beyond the encampment fires.
Doran flicked an ear in sympathy – the other was still turned toward Shaya and the ongoing argument – and ran a paw over her tunic. “I never liked Varna, but to lose her wings like that…” She shuddered, then leaned toward me to confide, “She howled through the entire first day. Only subsided to a whimper when Limar threatened to bind her mouth shut. Dru kept taking her beakers of soup from Limar’s cauldron, and showed her things he’d found on the beach, but she snapped and snarled every time he went near her. In the end, he stayed by the fire over there with Limar.” Turning back to face me, she waggled an ear in apology. “I suppose you’re right, you can't be seen to have joined us. Not yet, anyway. I just hoped…” she said, indicating the group arguing with Shaya. “Perhaps if the Fate-seer had been able to step in, these silly females wouldn’t be proposing to cross the Deadlands on foot.”
I turned my gaze from Doran to the arguing group and then down to the laden carry-pouch that was still strapped to my shoulders. My black tunic was in there, buried at the bottom beneath cold patties, jars of healing herbs, bags of avalox for tea, a second blue tunic, a blanket, several beakers, knives, spoons, and a bag of precious spirelles which I had found in the Fate-seer's dwelling a few ninedays ago. Could I – should I – pull out the tunic and join my voice to Shaya's? As I hesitated, she climbed part way up the slope, sending snow and sand tumbling beneath her feet as she took the high ground in typical hunter fashion. As she turned to face the crowd again, I saw that there were five other hunters with her, standing at the foot of the slope. All of them had a defiant set to their ears and one wing apiece half-extended while they joined their arguments to their chief’s – “the ice is thin,” – “there will be quickmud,” – “there will be nowhere you can rest in safety.”
Shaya raised her arms and her voice once again: “And if none of that worries you, then the brambletrap should. Just because there's snow on the branches doesn't mean it's safe.”
I eased my pouch to the ground, still uncertain what I should do. As I straightened up and rolled my shoulders, I almost forgot that I was supposed to have a damaged wing and started to give them both a stretch. Only when they were partly-extended did I remember. Giving what I hoped was a convincing yelp of pain, I winced and pulled one wing in.
No-one noticed. All attention was now on the females who wanted to leave the main group. They had heard all the arguments, all the reasons why they should not try to cross the Deadlands. A few moved away, ears drooping, muttering to each other as they shuffled back towards the campfires. But a female in the brown tunic of a farmer stood her ground and I recognised her as Colex, one of the first females I’d attended, along with my teacher Vizan, when her youngling hatched without wings. She had been stubborn and angry then, and sounded equally stubborn and angry now as she barked: “We’ll all die if we go the way you are proposing. So the beach runs north – so what? There are dunes and rocks and cliffs before you even reach the Cleft Rocks. And you can't stay on the coast much beyond them, because the Ambit peninsular juts east, and if you go east, there is nowhere left to go except to turn and head back along the estuary. Even if your wings have healed by then, it will be difficult to carry all the younglings over the water there. Much better surely to go north and west through the Deadlands, and make for the narrower stretch of the Ambit west of the Eye.”
The Eye was a small, vine-strewn islet that divided the Ambit’s flow in two for a few spans, giving the river the appearance from above of looking back at you as you flew over it.
“That's a long way upstream from the estuary,” Doran murmured. “We were west of that, I think, when we flew to the Forest that day, remember?”
“I'll never forget it,” I replied, my voice low. “You were bitten by a vine-serpent, and I nearly got eaten by a mouldworm.” I also remembered that it had taken us the best part of a day to fly there. How long would such a journey take us on foot? Especially if we took the longer but safer route along the coast and over the peninsula? Kalis had set no deadline for us to reach the Forest, but I was sure that he would not wish us to linger in his territory any longer than we had to. “It is a long way,” I said, answering Doran's original point, “but at least by going along the coast there’s a chance of reaching it. Anyone going through the Deadlands has no chance at all.”
I twisted my ears back in Shaya's direction as I heard her make the same point. “At least wait a few days—”
“What for?” Colex extended a paw in the direction of the encampment as she spoke. “We haven't moved since the guardflight netted us here. I say we move now, and quickly, so that we can cross the Deadlands while they are still frozen.” She turned in a slow circle, ears alert, nose busy sniffing for support from those surrounding her. “I'm leaving now, with Lexon,” she added, placing a paw on the wingless shoulders of her offspring. “Get your carry-pouches if you’re coming with us.”
Doran gave me a sideways look and another quick sniff. “Are you going to say anything?”
I looked again at the carry-pouch in which I had buried my Fate-seer's tunic. Lexon had hatched before most of the other wingless emerged from their eggs. Only Colex's stubbornness had kept him alive when everyone else was urging that she left him in the foothills for the Koth to take. Back then, before it became clear that every female who had recovered from the Sickness would produce such offspring, even Vizan had suggested that the hatchling would be better off dead. He’d actually brewed a deadly mixture of zenox powder and rotberry juice, but Colex had knocked the beaker out of his paw. She had refused to listen to him, just as she was not listening to Shaya. “Colex won't heed anyone’s advice,” I said. “She certainly won't listen to me.”
“Some of the others might,” Doran retorted, indicating the group of several nines who were collecting their carry-pouches and their younglings. “They’ll die if they go into the Deadlands. You know that, Zarda.”
I did know it, but a glance round at the still-whimpering Varna reminded me again of what awaited me if Kalis found his errant Fate-seer. My wing struts developed an itch at the mere thought, but still I sniffed the air to discern how Colex's supporters truly felt. There was not so much as a whiff of doubt among them – only determination and a degree of sorrow. I looked around at the nines surrounding us, listened to the shouts of their younglings, and smelled their fright, pain, and doubt. I saw Dru, my reason for joining this exile, bound across to Shaya's side and heard him try to reason with Colex. “I'm not a Fate-seer,” he shouted, his ears erect, and his white mane blowing in the breeze, “but I have the Sight. Shaya is right. If you try to cross the Deadlands, you'll die!”
Colex snorted. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to a pup tell stories. Get along with you, before I nip your snout, young Dru. It’s your fault we’re out here at all – don’t pretend you can know what will happen to us when you couldn’t even See what would happen to you on the Night of the Two Moons.”
“That’s not fair!” Limar, a pink-clad, fluffed up bundle of indignation, pushed her way to the front of the crowd, brandishing a ladle from the branmeal she had been preparing a few spans away. “None of this was Dru’s fault, he did exactly what he was supposed to at the Two Moons ritual. It was Fazak finding some ancient scratching that said everyone had to be airborne that spoiled everything.”
“Doesn’t have the Sight, though, does he?”
And for that, Limar had no answer. Though she was Dru’s half-sibling and nest-nurse, she had not been told that a visit to the Dream-cave with me had awakened his talent. Of those within earshot, only Shaya, Varna, and myself knew he was speaking the truth. Shaya had been on the council when it was agreed to keep Dru’s abilities secret, and whatever had happened since then, I was sure she would not betray that trust. As for Varna – well, she was in no fit state to do anything, and was certainly not about to rise to her pup’s defence.
Nor could I, not without revealing who I was.