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The Harrowing
Author:James Aitcheson

The Harrowing by James Aitcheson




Introduction

The horsemen start down the slope towards her. All four of them, kicking up thick swirls of snow dust that the wind takes and scatters. Their spear points shining coldly in the light.

She sheds her gloves, curls her numb fingers around the hilt of her knife. Not the one he gave her. Her own. The one she brought with her all the way from home. The one she practised with, which he showed her how to use. Smaller, more easily concealed. She pulls it from its sheath and draws it inside her sleeve where they won’t see it. Not, she hopes, until it’s too late. If she is to die, then she might as well try to kill one or more of them first.

Stay strong, she tells herself.

She fixes her gaze upon the horsemen. Tries to, anyway. Everything is blurred. White stars creeping in at the corners of her sight. She blinks to try to get rid of them, but they won’t go away.

Closer the riders come, and closer still. Her lungs are burning. Her cheeks are burning.

Attack, don’t defend, she remembers. Be quick. Strike first. Kill quickly.

She grips the knife hilt as tightly as she can as they loom larger. It won’t be long now.





First Day





Not much further, Tova pleads. She doesn’t know how much longer she can go on. She can hardly place one foot before the other any more, but she doesn’t want to be left behind and find herself alone on these hills, with night’s shadow falling all around her. She presses on up the path, leading Winter, clenching her teeth as she struggles against the wind. It grasps at her clothes as if determined to tear them from her, fierce but clumsy, like the fingers of an unwanted admirer.

Her lady, Merewyn, strides on in front, leading her own palfrey, fifty paces ahead. Almost at the crest already.

She’ll kill us, Tova thinks. She’ll kill us both. She’s brought this upon us, and now we’ll probably die out here, in this wilderness. Either they’ll catch us or else the cold will do for us. Because of what she’s done.

Of course Tova didn’t have to come. If she’d been strong enough, she could have refused, could have stayed behind, where it’s safe and warm, where there’s no one pursuing her. That’s what she tells herself. But she knows it’s not true. How could she have forgiven herself if she’d abandoned her lady in her hour of need, after everything Merewyn has done for her?

That’s why she’s here. That’s why she came. And whatever happens now, she knows there’s no turning back.

The wind whips once, twice, then dies away. A moment’s respite. And that’s when she hears it. Blasting out across the hillside, each time louder than the last: a sound she recognises. A sound that makes her stomach lurch and her skin turn to ice.

The sound of the horn. She turns, ready to cry out—

But there’s no one. Only a goat with an injured foreleg, bleating forlornly as it negotiates a rocky outcrop and limps on down the hill. Her tiredness is catching up with her, and now her ears are playing tricks. She takes a deep breath, trying to still her nerves and her pounding heart. She glances down the path, back along the valley. Fields and hedges glisten white with frost that the day’s small warmth has failed to melt. Between them winds the swollen stream: tumbling, frothing, bright with the dying sun’s fire.

She shivers, and not just from the cold. If she stays in one place too long, her feet will freeze and won’t want to move again. Her dress is wet at the hem, and she wishes she’d had time to gather some thicker clothes, ones better suited to the road, rather than these thin things. Gloves, too. Her hands are dry and beginning to crack at the knuckles. Her fingers might as well belong to someone else, for all that she can feel them. Sharp as steel, the wind pierces fur and wool and linen, biting into flesh: ice-burning, wounding deep. In all her fifteen years she can’t remember a winter as bitter as this.

Keep going, she tells herself.

She pulls her borrowed cloak closer around her shoulders and belts it more tightly to try to stop it flapping. Someone back home will be missing it, she thinks, and for a moment she feels sorry for him. It must be a man, she decides, not just because of its size but also because of the hole in one armpit, which any woman would have made sure to mend. Was it Skalpi’s once? Probably not; Merewyn would surely have seen to it if it were. It’s heavy and the sleeves are too long, but it’s all she has and better than nothing. In the darkness and in their rush to leave, she couldn’t find her own anywhere, and this was the best her lady was able to lay hands on. Theft, to add to everything else.