Synopsis: Sarralyn cannot remember a time when she wasn't hiding from the mysterious man who hunts her mother. Sick of living the life of a coward, she runs away and tries to find out the truth, not knowing that her own deadly curse is hunting her down.
Chapter 1: Sarralyn
Today my mother slapped me. I had been pulling seeds from the long-grass on the verge, neatly whisking them from the stems and scattering them into the daisies. The slap was as sharp as it was unexpected; with her usual rapid fickleness, mama hit the chaff from my hand and left me glaring at the sting of it.
"Idiot." She has her own accent when she yells at me. Those who hear it say she sounds Gallan, although I would not know. I have never been there, despite my voice carrying some of the same softness. She trained me out of having any accent, I thought bitterly, just like she trained me out of everything else. Just like she trained me out of scattering grass seeds.
"I don't see why I can't do it!" I would like to say I said that, although truthfully I must admit that's a lie. I have a habit of whining. Mother's eyes narrow: she knows as well as I do that I do know exactly why. She is in no mood to tell me again, but I want to hear it. Maybe, maybe this time, she'll let another secret slip. As many times as I hear her story, I always feel like she's lying, leaving out something that would change my knowing to understanding.
She's never told me, for example, why she is so frightened, so wary. She says she has always been so, but I don't believe it. We aren't born frightened. Her fear has no name, so I found a word for it once: haunted: The fear of a constant presence. When I asked her if it was the right word she corrected me, the first small slip of another story. The word, she said, was hunted. One small word, and a thousand new mysteries!
But... I am guilty of the same crime I accuse mama of. If I am to tell any story, I must be honest and not leave any secrets behind my words. Words are tricky like that; you can use the same words with different faces, and they will always break through foreign accents or the pitiful look of two ragged strangers on a doorstep. Mama and I often use such words- words like sanctuary, help and please. We change how we look, and the tone of our voices, but we always use the same comforting words. Perhaps that is why I like words so much: they are always the same in my changing world. They belong to us in a way that nothing else does.
Here are the words which are mine: my name: Sarralyn. My age: fifteen. Of course, I lie about both of them. But they are still true. Where I was born: Tortall. My mother's real name: Veralidaine. I do not know my father's name. I only know that he is the one who hunts us.
These are the things I know about my father: he has the Gift. He hunts us by sight and sound and rumour, and he must be clever to follow that trail. But my mother is just as cunning, and runs from him with the same tools. While we are hiding in one town, a rumour will start in another nearby. Not close enough for our hiding place to be suspect, but close enough for us to see the hunters closing in. While they are distracted we slip away from our haven, leaving no debts or crimes behind us that the people might remember us with, and we watch the hunt. Sometimes the hunters are soldiers, sometimes you can see no-one at all, but they are always there.
Mama makes us stop, every time, when we are safely away. She creeps away, and although I am forbidden to follow her I know where she goes. She watches the rumour-ridden town from a treetop or a hillside, silent and still, and when she returns to me her eyes are always red with tears. On those days her heart is full of anger.
Pulling grass seeds from the trail on such a day is utterly forbidden. I don't know what made me do it today; I like the softness of the downy seeds and the way they snow onto the summer soil. I don't see how something so graceful can be so dangerous. But then... mama caught my arm and sharply pulled me to look back at the trail.
"There!" She said, "Look, there. You leave a track that a blind badger could follow. Grasses all bent at your height, seeds stuck in your careless footprints..." she shook my arm for good measure and let me go, finishing with the words that always stung. "I didn't raise a little idiot."
"No mama." I replied sullenly, suddenly sick of it all, "You raised a little coward, to hide and run away. Not an idiot."
She stared at me. I half expected her to slap me again, but it was an unnatural action for her even when she was angry. She opened her mouth and I rolled my eyes, waiting for another useless half-truth. I don't know why I was so badly behaved. All I knew was that, in that moment, all my hatred for our spineless life was suddenly clear to her. All I could remember, my whole life, was running and lying. My mother's anger was nothing compared to the dreariness of another day of it.
"Is that what you think?" She asked, unusually quiet, "That... I'm running away?"
"From father, yes!" I raised my head defiantly, seeing her flinch and thinking in my petulant pride that it was my tone which had affected her. "You're a coward not to face him- to run away for fifteen whole years! You're so scared of him that you won't even tell me his name."
Now, how did this argument start from grass seeds? The chaff blew in the air and stuck to my cheeks, and I realised they were damp with tears. Mother paled at my words, and for a second I thought I had won. I thought she would finally tell me her secrets. But when she finally spoke, her voice was cold and distant.
"I'm not scared of your father." Was that a lie? A shadow always crossed her eyes when she spoke about him, although she wasn't aware of it. This time was no different. I scoffed inwardly. But then... she carried on speaking, a tantalising clue which was utterly perplexing to me. "If he wasn't so hag-damned stubborn we could have a normal life. And if I was a coward, Sarralyn, I would go back to him in an instant." She looked away and took a deep breath, as if this curt statement had been choking her for years. My heart raced- she was going to tell me the truth! But her next words made me sick to my stomach.
"If I did that, the first thing that would happen is that you would be killed. No running, no fighting, no arguing. Coward or not, you'd be dead before you could even see the colour of his hair."
Sarralyn takes a step back, and I instantly wish I hadn't told her. She's been so angry lately, so stubborn, and in my heart I can't blame her. I have a thousand reasons for keeping the truth from her. It's safer, it's easier for one person to lie than two, the truth hurts too much... The truth has teeth, and it bites me just as sharply now as it did when she was a baby. But how can I explain that to her? I've spent her lifetime teaching her to hide while I secretly hunt down the man who cursed us. But how can I tell her that? Telling her the truth would shove all that anger towards him, and turn her hatred into violence- and that I cannot allow. She's just a child.
Ah, but she is already older than I was when I first learned how to hate. I guess I'm overprotective. She is no more fragile than other children, but the curse runs in her veins like blood. I can't tell her about that either. She would not believe me. Curses only happen in stories. I remember when she would listen to my stories with wide eyes, not knowing that the fairytales of dragons and gods that I told her are really the truth. Now she looks at me with narrowed eyes, and sees only her cowardly mother hiding from her father like a kitten from the rain.
She doesn't look anything like him. Every time we change our names I dye our hair a different shade with the spells the gypsy mages sell, but even when the cheap magic fades her hair stays the lighter colour she was born with. She is slight; even as a child it was clear that she would never be tall. But her eyes... her eyes haunt me. They're just as dark as his, and when they glare at me I see his pain in their black depths. I never saw the hurt in his eyes when I left him, but my daughter tortures me with it in her anger.
She glares at me again, the shock of my words turning into bitter accusations. She says the exact same words that I did, fifteen years ago.
"You're a liar!"
I try to calm her down- to explain... no. I try it in my mind and realise that it's useless. I can't make her understand without telling her everything, and there's no time for that. We're too close to the town, and if we don't keep walking they could catch us up. Anyway, she is in no mood to listen. Her frantic outrage, like those black eyes, is another gift from her father.
Maybe if I walk on, she will follow me. She will take her anger out on the grass seeds which started this, and she will be silent for days, and then things will return to normal. It's happened before, too many times to count.
Speechless against her hatred, I turn away.
When I look back, she has gone.
And so I ran away.
The phrase sounds so simple. One action, and gone! But in truth I slipped from the path on silent feet, as slowly as a snail, breathing as little as I dared. When I was far away enough that not even her cat-ears could hear me, well, then I ran. I jumped down rocks and forded streams and stumbled and slipped my way down the path, breathless and frightened. I ran in the one direction that I knew she could not follow: back to the village. Even so, I expected her to appear at any moment, to have tracked me by the birds who saw me pass. But nothing happened. I crashed through the last stream with drenched carelessness, skidding to a stop by the boulders which bordered the pool the creek eddied into, and watched the trail. Any moment now... a footstep, a glaring pair of grey eyes, and I would be in so much trouble!
Why did I run away? I suppose my head should be spinning with excuses, ready to tell mama when I was caught... but to be honest I can only remember one reason: I had to. I knew I would never find out what had really happened from her, or from listening to the rumours which trailed us like a flock of starlings. I had never stayed in one place for long enough to make a friend, let alone to trust someone enough to ask about the rumours.
I was only fifteen. I had been told that often enough. But I had worked out two truths of my own: they were hunting for my mother, not for me, and they had no idea what I looked like. I could stay in a town which hunted for her as safely as a chick tucked under a hen's wing.
I said all of this to myself, and more, as I waited in heart-pounding silence behind that rock. The water I had disturbed slowly settled into peaceful whorls, and my tired lungs stopped panting and let me breathe evenly again. My thoughts seemed to smooth out with the world, and one of them made me laugh: Mama had trained me to run away, and so I had! She should be proud of me.
I realised that I laughed out loud and clapped my hand over my mouth, and then it dawned on me that there was no reason to be silent. I didn't need to hide anymore! I cannot tell you how that felt. If felt as if one of the boulders had dissolved into water and danced into the river, ready to explore the world from the beauty of the lakes and rivers. It felt as if I could do anything I wanted to do.
Even so, it took a lot of effort to stop me from running back to Mama. My new freedom fought against the caution of a lifetime, and my mother's words had unnerved me. Why would my father want to kill me? I had already decided she was lying, but it was a horrible story to make up. The idea that she was using it to disguise something even worse was terrifying. What if my father was waiting in the town? What if I was walking to my death?
I squared my shoulders stubbornly. My imagination had always been too strong. I decided I would be scared of real things, not random nightmares. With legs which only shook slightly, I walked into the town.