When the Shepherd set, the villagers brought Athia out under the stars. Instead of leaving collateral, they would let her take a cart and horse if she made a pact with It of the New Order. Camann pointed up to the new star in the sky and everyone bowed their head in reverence. Except Athia, she didn’t know the customs. Or if she trusted this new god.
They began a prayer together. Athia looked up as they prayed, wondering if all the stars were forgotten gods. If so, what did it mean that they shone only with the Moon? Fun to think about, but she couldn’t imagine she’d ever know.
She spoke in a voice only she and It in the Stars could hear. “Watch me, and don’t get jealous.”
“It,” Camann said of the god, “rewards us for taking the proper path, but punishes us when we stray. So long as we keep Its covenant, there is a beautiful future ahead.”
Athia asked, “what is your proper path?”
Camann walked over to her while others lit a small bonfire. In numbers, with the Moon bright and so close to home, they felt safe from lurkers. The older man walked over to her, clutching a book to his side. The two stepped away from the larger group as they sat to enjoy the cool air before bed.
“The proper path is unity, compassion, equality, and reason. We must press forward, not for advancement’s sake, but for the betterment of all. No more hierarchy of blood, no more living to toil, no more empty souls.”
“So all doesn’t include those executed?”
Camann frowned. “It’s regrettable, but it had to be done. Loyalties and tradition run deep. To have change meant blood. Do you question Serra the Savior for those she killed in the war?”
“She didn’t kill captives.”
Camann looked up at the stars. “It’s already done Ms. Athia. Before Loiys shattered, did you ever question the evils that founded it? Or did you not, because they were so distant as to be forgotten?”
“You seem happy here, and this works for you. I’m thankful for that.” She put her hands behind her head, letting them brush through her hair before settling. “But, Clarient? It’s not a united people, it’s a beehive that doesn’t buzz and doesn’t make honey. The Einarr might be worse than what they replaced, who decides if they should be executed?”
“We’re beset by enemies on all sides. They hate us, hate that we have upended their unnatural order. We represent a new way of thinking, of living, and they would do anything to see us ruined. They restrict trade, refuse our coins. Their spies have tried to rally us against the Einarr, but we have held strong. Clarient is a sad place, but it still grieves. It need time.”
“Easy to say from here.”
“And it’s easy for you to point flaws from the outside. Ms. Athia, why tear us down for our mistakes when you could help us grow our successes?”
Athia’s eyes settled on the moon. “I can walk and talk at the same time.” She took a breath, “you think the people in Clarient would have spilled that blood, knowing how they live now?”
“They didn’t do it for now.”
“But you did?”
“I guess I did.”
Athia found herself unconvinced. Yet, how could she argue with someone who’d fought and gotten their dream? Right or wrong, there would be no convincing. Instead, she’d let them enjoy their peace while it remained.
Minutes passed as the people quieted around the fire. One of them waved at Camann and he gestured Athia forward.
“Ms. Athia,” will you swear now, to It of the New Order, that you will borrow our cart and horse in good faith? Accordingly, you do so with the intention of aiding us as you have said, and that you will not unduly harm or endanger these things in the service of selfish wants?”
“I swear it to you,” she said. “But, I know nothing of your god.”
Someone said, “It will reward you for acting in good faith. If you do not, your soul will be scarred.”
Athia’s lips curled in at that. She had every intention of returning the cart and horse, sure, but agreeing to accept a god’s wrath in case it didn’t work out well- well that was-
“That’s a bit much,” she said. “If I was taking your kids with me as bait or something, sure, but it’s a cart and horse.”
“It’s our only cart and our only horse,” Camann said. “If we lose it combating lurkers, then it’s no one’s fault, but if you rob us, we will be in grave peril for nothing.”
She chewed on that and decided she couldn’t chicken out, not after her earlier proclamation. “I swear to you all, I have every intention of bringing that cart and horse back in one piece. If I can get it back to you, I will.”
“Do you swear it to It of the New Order?”
Starlight fell over her like heat prickled her skin, but she didn’t flinch.
Everyone bowed their heads to her. “Do this thing and you are family.”
She put on a grin. “We’ll be celebrating by this time tomorrow.”
The people hooted with excitement, her confidence infectious after her vow. And she had plenty of reason to be confident. Athia knew what was causing their trouble
. . . . . .
“PLOCK!” Athia shouted in time with the oblong cartwheel. It smacked the road every second, growing louder now for reasons she couldn’t explain. It grated her nerves so badly she directed the horse to move off the road.
Then she remembered her pact and directed the horse back to the proper path. She took a long breath, leaning back against the cart while her dark cloak kept her warm. “A revolution to make everyone equal and cooperative, leading to a god of contracts. Wonder how that happened.” Her mind lingered on that until her attention snapped to the woods. Athia grew up traveling, she knew when to get suspicious and when to be suspicious.
Bends in the road were always prime territory. She neared one now. More importantly, the road sat lower than the woods around the curve, likely the result of heavy traffic’s wear. That meant high ground for anything hiding. The tree line here thinned, but the underbrush stayed dense with branches and moss, even as the last leaves of fall fluttered away.
This was a great place for an ambush. For a very specific kind of ambush. She let out a breath and returned to her bored stare forward for the few minutes until she arrived.
When her cart made the turn, it met a single man in the way.
He whistled twice. “Missy, I think you outta hand over those goods. We’ll spare you if you do.”
Athia halted her cart and glanced left and right. She spied four others hidden in the woods, hunched low in their camouflaged cloaks. They’d be hard to spot for most, but she knew a thing or two. Anyone smart and skilled enough to come up with effective camouflage would also be smart enough to know where to hide. In places with good vantage points, spots where they could make small movements without noise, where their camouflage had the best backdrop. All the places Athia knew to check.
She turned back to the leader, face tight and anxious. “Are there more of you?”
“A dozen, hiding,” he said. “Get down, put your hands up, and kneel. We’ll take what you have, and then you can be on your way.”
“Don’t hurt me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Athia sat the reins down and turned to hop off the cart. She’d put on some of the villagers’ clothes over her armor, sleeves hiding her bracers.
“I-I was just trying to help out some people,” she said as she lifted her hands. “They might send me to Clarient if I lose it all.”
She eased down to her knees, taking slow breaths.
“Tell them you got robbed,” the man said. “I’ll even write you a note.”
He whistled and his companions rose from their hiding spots in good humor. They laughed about another easy haul. She kept her eyes down but felt their gaze as they neared the cart. A timer started in her head, counting down each moment.
The leader met with one, two went to the cart, and the last approached her from behind. Her timer continued to beat in her head. Her tongue wet her lower lip as she took long breaths. The leader and his second turned their backs to her, the other two leaned over the cart to inspect their loot and the last reached her.
One of Athia’s spikes shot to her hand and its pommel extended, at speed. It struck the one behind her in the stomach, emptied his lungs, and sent him gasping to the ground. Her left hand caught its spike and spun it on the cord. While the other flew into a tree before her and pulled.
She slid on her knees and rose to her feet as the other four looked up from their distractions. Her momentum carried forward and her knee caught the second in the ribs. One cracked as her spinning spike smacked into the leader’s crotch.
Both fell as the last two pulled swords. Athia slung one spike across the road, catching a tree. She whirled around at speed, coming in a meteoric approach at her remaining foes.
“How dare you accost a sweet innocent traveler!”
A blade extended at her with reach. She parried, on a crash course. The second bandit vanished. Her mind shot through dozens of possibilities in that instant, settling on, “I’m too fast. He’ll miss.”
The second man appeared just behind her, stabbing at her but coming up just shy. He used the reach and his weapon followed through.
Athia’s knees tensed and both feet impacted the other man. Her spikes moved like living tendrils, spinning and flying as she twisted and flew. One wrapped and snapped the wrist of her forward foe, the other struck out and impaled another man’s arm.
“It’s unnatural,” one of them howled. “Who are you?!”
Athia spun both of her spikes, walking to the front of the cart. “That really all you’ve got? I had more trouble with a bunch of run of the mill brigand last week. I would have expected Lerian to send better than this.”
Their leader drew his sword, adrenaline overriding his pain. “Alright, a sucker punch. But that’s all.”
A second got to his feet as well. Athia wanted a challenge.
Both bandits charged her. The leader vanished while the lackey extended his blade with the reach. Athia spun, her tendrils flying out in a blurring threat. It caught their eyes as she twisted and moved. The reaching blade flew past her and dug into the arm of the leader when he appeared.
Athia’s spike caught a tree and pulled her up and away from another sweep of the reaching blade. The power didn’t affect the balance or force of the weapon itself, meaning it swung as well at twenty feet as it did at two.
The reaching sword came again as her spikes caught into the ground. She pulled with her strength and with her power. Her boot heel hit the reaching blade and pointed it down while her other foot prepared for impact.
She killed her momentum at the last moment, pulling her blow enough to keep from killing the man. Her heel took him in the sternum and dropped him down into the dirt.
They slid a few feet as the leader appeared again. His sword moved and she parried. The blade skimmed and the flat smacked her shoulder as it missed, but she felt the impact on her boot.
Strike redirection, the ability to hit you in one place and make it hurt in another. If it got through her defense and armor, then even a small cut could open a vein, a poke could ruin an eye. He vanished again, without apparent tension in his knees.
Athia stumbled, thrown off balance by the force put on her foot. One spike fell from her hand, clattering away as she caught her balance. The leader appeared again, behind her. She turned but couldn’t plant her feet in time. He hit square on her spike while his free fist slammed into her arm, but it buckled her knee until it hit the road.
“Not so good once you’re on the ground,” he growled. The leader raised his sword.
Athia said, “gotcha.”
A loop in her cord on the ground cinched as he tried to moveskip. It wrapped his ankle as he disappeared. A split second later he fell to the ground a few feet away, foot hanging limp from the ankle. He howled, dropping his weapon and reaching for his leg.
Athia dusted her hands off and retracted her spikes. “Saw this one coming!” She hopped up on the cart to look over her foes. “Alright boys, drop your pants! And shirts!”
“Just kill us,” one shouted.
Athia laughed. “Nah. How about you run back to Lerian in your bloomers, unarmed. Let’s see you cause trouble then.” Her attention turned to the leader. “But you’re coming with me.”