Claudia dove behind the large, red tree, closing her eyes and praying to the god of mercy that whatever it was over there by the boulder had not seen her. She had seen a head of short dark hair, red leather and a lot of exposed shimmering skin. It made a sound, a low sound, a masculine sound, and she knew then that it was human.
Phren floated next to her, watching curiously, no need to hide himself.
“What is it?” Claudia mouthed, jerking her head in the direction of the stranger. Phren looked between them and then walked towards the boulder. Claudia turned around, keeping one side of her against the tree at all times, and dared a peek. Phren had glided up to the boulder and was slowly clambering over it, peering at the stranger. He waved at him, the sleeve of his ghostly robe falling over his fingers.
The man jerked, as though he had been pricked. Then his head disappeared behind the boulder. Claudia inched forward, trying to get a better view. Then she saw that short, tangled head of black hair rise above the boulder. Claudia quickly hid behind the tree again. The man struggled to his feet, his elbows digging into the top of the stone. Phren floated in front of him.
“Da ja?” the stranger demanded in Ponticusan.
Claudia had never heard that language spoken before except in parody. Ponticus was a land so remote from the Mooric tribes that it might as well have been on a different planet. No one knew too much about their culture because every encounter Mooric and Highlandic people had had with them had been in war. Claudia had grown up seeing them recreated in stories, plays, and jokes. To put a Ponticusan in a story was to add a little bit of horror.
There wasn’t a child in the Montomogen Moors or even in the far and windy city of Yenne who didn’t know a Ponticusan by sight: much too tall with golden skin, leather armor the color of clotted blood, nose like a hawk’s beak, and short unnaturally dark hair. It was rumored that if a Ponticusan did not kill someone by their twelfth birthday, they were deemed weak and were themselves executed: girls and boys alike.
Some years ago, before Claudia had been born, Ponticusan soldiers had been showing up in the highlands, armed with dual-pronged spears that were painted completely white with some unknown substance. People said the paint was a poison that induced panic. These soldiers had been setting up camps in the wilderness, on the edge of kingdoms. They had not made any sort of full-force attack on any of the larger cities, but everyone knew it would be coming soon, when there were enough of them.
Because no royal wanted to be the one to send their citizens to their death, this slowly growing threat hadn’t been dealt with. The Ponticusans weren’t in anyone’s territory, so it wasn’t clear whose responsibility they were. Pinning down responsibility had driven a wedge between the previously peaceful relationships the kingdoms had with each other. These discussions never happened on the grounds of the Montomogen Moors. Claudia’s father or mother always visited other kingdoms where she assumed these discussions took place. But Claudia listened in whenever she could when her parents talked about it in private, when they thought their children were in bed. Discussions were not going well, it seemed.
The stranger took a few pained breaths and then said, “Who is there?” in the common tongue. So the common tongue extended to Ponticus as well. Claudia was interested, but she couldn’t afford to think about that yet. She had much more pressing issues to deal with. Like, how she was supposed to evade the Ponticusan’s fearsome spear-throwing ability.
Phren sailed around the tree and up to Claudia, making her jump. He looked worried, but not in a we-need-to-get-out-of-here-right-now sort of way. Phren took his fingers and put them into his eyes. Then he traced a long jagged line along his right forearm. Then he traced several other marks on his face and lip. Claudia didn’t get it.
Phren understood her confusion, so he tried another approach. He put his fingers in both of his eyes and contorted his face into a silent scream. Then he retraced the jagged line on his arm.
“Hurt?” Claudia asked under her breath. Phren nodded rapidly.
Claudia bit her lip and tried to look at the stranger again without being seen. If he was hurt, they should help him. But Claudia didn’t want to find out the hard way whether she could actually defend herself. That’s something she wished she had been able to discover in the safety of Montomogen Moors, at the mercy of no one but a good-hearted combat instructor.
What was she to do? She couldn’t help him. He was a Ponticusan. He was a killer.
“How badly is he hurt?” she mouthed.
Phren floated to the soldier and then returned to her. He grimaced and shook his head. It wasn’t good.
Claudia rested her forehead against the tree’s crumbly bark. If she didn’t do something, he would die; she could feel it. But shouldn’t he die? Besides, what if he killed her before she even got the chance to look at his wounds?
“Please,” the soldier continued, his voice shaking from pain. “I need help.”
Claudia didn’t move.
The Ponticusan gave a cry and threw something. There was a dull thud as he threw his spear away.
“I am not armed. Please, I am injured.”
“Is he armed?” mouthed Claudia. Phren checked and reported that he wasn’t.
Claudia detached herself from the tree and, lifting her chin to give herself courage, she eased away from the tree. The Ponticusan was facing her, but he didn’t see her. His face was caked with blood and dirt, and no matter how hard Claudia looked, she couldn’t see his eyes. Where he should have had eyes, he had empty, gory sockets. He must have truly been in a terrible accident. Or a terrible battle. However he had lost his eyes, it had been recent and if his wounds weren’t tended to, he would likely die from infection.
So, with a deep breath and steeled jaw, Claudia made her decision.
“I am here,” she said with a queenish tint to her voice.
The Ponticusan turned his head towards her voice. He took shaky, frightened breaths. “Please, honored woman, help me. I have lost my sight and I am badly injured.” He spoke the common tongue haltingly and with a sharp accent, but then again, so did Claudia.
The common tongue was a language of books. It was the written language, but no one spoke it, as it reminded people of the warlockian occupation and how close they had been to conquering the entire world, how close they had been to being unstoppable. It seemed like forever ago, but the warlocks had only fallen fifty years ago and there were plenty of people who had lived through it.
Claudia and Cyril’s grandmother would tell stories of how her family would put mild warding charms and protection herbs in their pillows because they wanted to protect themselves, but they didn’t want to make it look like they were protecting themselves. The warlocks were merciless and dangerous and had a knack for knowing who was going to rebel, which is why they had held power for seventy years.
At least this Ponticusan wasn’t a warlock. At least he wasn’t going to hex her and dry the blood in her veins.
“I will help you,” said Claudia in her own poorly annunciated version of the common tongue.
The soldier exhaled in relief and let his head hang against the rock. “Thank you. Oh, thank you so much.”
“Wait here,” said Claudia. “I’ll get you some water.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
“Keep an eye on him,” she whispered to Phren. “I’ll be right back.”
Phren nodded in agreement and settled onto the rock next to the soldier.
A/N: If everyone speaks the common tongue poorly, who’s to know they’re pronouncing the words wrong? The warlocks are the only ones who actually spoke the common tongue, as it is their language, so only warlocks would know the correct pronunciation. Too bad those kind, grammatically correct souls aren’t around anymore.
A little background for this scene: Claudia has found out that Cyril was sent away and so she and Phren go after him to bring him back, even though Claudia has never done much traveling in the wilds. No matter. There’s nothing out there but some rabbits and deer, right?
Also, those who are confused why Phren is still around, he faked his ascension. He didn’t want Inu to make him leave, so he hid.