If you like this sample, The Swampling King is available at Amazon.com
Zerill gripped a handhold in the mountainside above and pulled herself out of the clinging mist, into a sunlit sky.
The light was always hard to take, at first. White fire seared across her vision, burning away the grey of the cliff, and her eyelids snapped shut by reflex—but not fast enough. Behind them the fire still burned, achingly bright against the dark. She fought the urge to fling an arm over her face. It was a long fall to the Swamp below, and taking a hand from the rock would be foolish before her sight returned. Besides, she had experienced this particular blindness before. She welcomed it.
Throwing back her head to let the light warm her face, she opened her eyes.
Above her and far overhead rose the brilliant blue of the sky, impossible and infinite—as terrifying as it was beautiful, and enough of either one to steal her breath away even without the other. Squinting against the discomfort of the light, she searched that endless space for the circle of searing gold that she saw so often in her dreams, and so rarely outside of them.
The first glimpse of the sun was always her favorite part of the climb. She could only endure the sight of it out of the corner of her eye, and only for an instant, but that instant was worth any amount of pain. Sometimes, when she hadn’t been above the mist for a long while, she started to believe that she must have imagined such radiance—so much brighter, so much warmer than the dim luminescence of the spiritmoss in the Swamp that it hardly seemed fair to call both things light.
She kept those thoughts to herself, of course. Her people wouldn’t have understood. The Abandoned feared the sun. It was said that the highlanders’ Sky God had no mercy for those born beneath the mist; that his great fiery eye burned all who dared venture into the sunlight long enough to be noticed. But to Zerill it had always seemed that no god worthy of the name could be so cruel. If he could just see us, he would know that we deserve better, she thought. The highlanders may not see it, but surely a god can.
The gentle tapping of Verik’s boot against the cliff above stole her attention back, and she glanced up to see her friend peering down at her. His silver hair and pale white skin were barely visible through her light-blindness, but the large black eyes that all of the Abandoned shared stood out starkly, two dark spots floating in midair above her head.
Verik released one hand from its hold and flicked his fingers through a series of signs that Zerill had to squint to follow. Every time, the same thing, he signed. If we get caught, it will be because you had to stop and bask. I should blindfold you when we climb.
It was more jest than reprimand; she couldn’t see his face past the spots in her eyes, but she knew Verik would be grinning his lopsided grin. He’d never been as stern as a Maker was meant to be. Even when he tried, that grin always surfaced before long. By traditions that went all the way back to the time of Arvur All-Kin and the first ancestors, the bonds of friendship and family were forbidden to him, but for Zerill he’d always been willing to bend the rules. Few who shared his curse—none, really—would have made this climb with her at all. Not without the permission of a grandmother or grandfather.
Zerill held back laughter, an instinct so natural she barely had to try. Silence was life in the Swamp, but even more so above it, where any highlander who heard might glance down and see the two of them clinging to the mountain. It would do no good, she signed back, risking the gesture as her sight began to adjust. The light still hurt, but if she kept her head down and her eyes half-lidded, she could bear it. I would still feel the sun. And no one will see us before we reach the Plateaus. Highlanders never look down.
Verik’s fingers moved again. Fear your sister instead, then. The longer we take, the angrier she will be.
Zerill let out a near-silent snort of annoyance. Speed won’t make any difference, she signed. She’ll be angry no matter what we do. Azlin had forbidden the climb, and as Grandmother of the Lighteyes, she expected obedience from her younger sister. It isn’t as if I want to disobey her. But she would never send anyone into the mountains if she had her way, and we can‘t learn all we need from whatever highlanders happen to pass through the Swamp. We are Lighteyes, not Shadowfeet. The things we need to know are under the sun, not the mist. Father would have agreed. She didn’t know that, not really—her parents had been killed in the highlander purges when she was barely old enough to remember their faces. But it was appealing to think so.
I feel as if I’ve heard this before, Verik signed with a grin. And he had, more than once. Are you suitably convinced of your noble intentions?
She smiled. For now.
Good. Then we can move. Despite that compelling argument, I would rather not keep Azlin waiting.
Verik reached one slim arm upward, felt around for some feature in the cliff that appealed to him, and then dug his hand into the stone. Solid rock melted and reshaped under his fingers. A moment later he gave a satisfied nod, gripped the new handhold, and pulled himself up to create another. Zerill followed closely behind, her hands finding purchase in each hold his feet left empty.
Very few days passed without some reason to be grateful for Verik and his less-than-strict adherence to his Makers’ oaths, but as she ascended the mountain behind him, Zerill gave particularly fervent thanks to the ancestors. The climb would have been all but impossible without him—the only faces of the mountain left unguarded by the highlanders were the ones they thought truly impossible to scale. Even with the deepcraft to shape the path, it was dangerous; without it, there would be no entry to the Plateaus whatsoever.
Her limbs ached and the hide sack slung over her shoulder felt like it was full of stones by the time Verik stopped to gesture again, a little more than an hour later. The overhang is ahead, he signed. Rest?
Zerill nodded and kept climbing. She knew the spot he meant, little more than a jut in the cliff with a small shelf beneath where they could sit without being seen from above. It was no more than a quarter-hour climb from there to the lowest of the Plateaus’ farming flats, but the mountainside grew no less sheer above, and the air was cold with the lingering chill of a fading winter—a chance to rest and warm her hands would be welcome.
There was no need to hurry, anyway. The revelry wouldn’t end until the taverns closed, and they would close late, even on the last night of the highlanders’ year-end festival. She wouldn’t be going otherwise; she needed the festival mask to cover her face. Among the brown-skinned, dark-haired men and women of the Plateaus, her paleness and large black eyes would immediately mark her as one of the Abandoned, and the penalty for that—for reminding them how real the Abandoned were, for existing at all—was death.
Verik pulled himself onto the ledge ahead of her, and she reached up to grab the handhold he’d used—not one forged by the deepcraft this time, but a natural fissure in the cliff. Anchoring herself, she reached upward with her other hand.
Stone shifted; the fissure gave way under her fingers. Her hand lost purchase, came free. Fragments of rock pelted her arm, skipped off the mountainside, and plummetted toward the mist below. She felt herself toppling backward and reached out, straining for another hold. Her fingertips grazed against the top of the ledge, but found no purchase.
And then she was falling.
She had time to shout, the sound tearing her throat like a blade. “Verik!” Even then, with the mist rushing up toward her, it felt wrong to make so much noise.
Verik leaned out from the ledge at the sound of her voice, saw her falling, and reached down with one hand as if grasping for her, far out of reach. His palm slapped against the cliff; his eyes closed and his brow furrowed.
Immediately Zerill knew what he was doing. She twisted in mid-air to see a knob of stone erupt from the mountainside, several yards below. Her right hand shot out, fingers splayed. She felt a wrenching pain in her shoulder as her arm took the entire weight of her body—and held.
She didn’t allow herself time to think about how close she had come to death, or to lose her grip; ignoring the pain in her shoulder, she swung herself up to grab on with her other hand. Only when she had her arms firmly wrapped around the spur of rock did she look up at Verik.
His eyes were wide with panic, and he frantically signed, Are you hurt?
She didn’t risk taking her hands from the rock to answer.
Can you reach a handhold? Verik glanced down at the recesses he’d left in the cliff.
She was within an arm’s length of nearest one. She nodded. “I can make it,” she said aloud. The sound of her voice made her wince, but she couldn’t release the spur to sign. “You rest.” She didn’t want him falling too, and after climbing so far, such a sudden use of the deepcraft would have taken a great deal out of him.
He hesitated, but when she narrowed her eyes, he nodded and drew back from the edge.
It was a short climb, but her shoulder was throbbing by the time she reached the ledge. Verik helped her up, and she sat with her legs hanging over the side. Though her heart was still pounding, some perverse impulse drove her to lean forward and peer over the edge—to see how far she had almost fallen. From so far above, the mist-line looked solid, a flat expanse of dark rock that stretched away to the horizon in all directions. The grey expanse gleamed with accents of sickly color like oil sheen when the light struck it just so. This is how the highlanders see it, she thought, as she always did, sitting there. The Swamp might as well not exist. All they see is the mist.
Verik tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention, and she smiled at the worry-lines that creased the corners of his eyes.
I’m fine, she signed—still one-handed, though both were free now. The feel of an empty palm made her reach for the Maker-forged knife at her waist, just to reassure herself it was there. The first ancestors had crafted the signspeech—all one-handed gestures and movements of the head—so that they never needed to let go of their weapons to use it. Being caught unarmed by highlanders or the creatures that lived in the Swamp usually meant death, or worse. Even now Zerill felt naked without her shortspear, though it would only have gotten in the way during the climb.
Are you sure? He glanced her over, looking for signs of injury.
My shoulder hurts, she signed. That’s all. You worry too much over me, Verik. He’d been that way since they were children, though he usually tried to mask it with humor. She was the closest thing to family he had left. They’d been playmates when they were very young, nudged together by their kins in the hope that it might someday result in a birth-pact—one of many such arrangements made to ensure the future of the Abandoned. That future had been stolen away when Deeplings had taken Verik’s parents and cursed him with the deepcraft, but their friendship had survived. Survived, and grown stronger over the years. Makers were oathbound to avoid close attachments, and what blood kin he had left took that seriously, but it was something he and Zerill had both decided to ignore without ever needing to discuss it.
Verik peered at her for a moment, and then let out a long, relieved breath. That was too near a thing, he signed. Maybe this was not the best idea.
Zerill shook her head vehemently. We’ve always known the mountain is dangerous. It changes nothing. We had to come, and we had to come now. The festival is our only chance.
I suppose so. Do you think you will find something up there that will appease your sister?
I don’t know, she answered. But this is a bad time not to know their plans. The Deeplings have been prowling above the mist at night, and the highlanders blame us for everything those beasts do. It might mean another purge.
Verik nodded, then flashed a sudden grin, banishing the doubt from his face. You and I will be lucky if Azlin lets us live to see another purge. Have you practiced your loudspeech?
“You know I have,” Zerill whispered, her throat still hoarse from shouting.
She couldn’t remember ever speaking as loudly as she had when she fell, though she prided herself on her proficiency with the loudspeech—a skill few of the Abandoned possessed. They shared the tongue of the highlanders, but outside of Kinmeet her people relied on signs until it was absolutely necessary, and then only used the roughest, simplest terms. Even her own kin, the Lighteyes, used the loudspeech rarely and practiced it little, though it was their duty to scout and report on highlander movements. But Zerill always paid close attention when she had a chance to eavesdrop on highlander speech, and held whispered conversations with herself to keep the words and rhythms fresh in her mind. She was certain that the practice would prove itself worth the trouble, someday.
Verik didn’t respond out loud—he had never been as skilled at it as she was. Instead, he signed, Good, and smiled teasingly. I felt the sudden urge to hide myself—you must sound like a highlander.
Zerill dug her elbow into his side. A highlander who just swallowed hot coals, maybe. But it will have to do.
Do you want me to come with you this time? The concern returned to Verik’s eyes.
Zerill shook her head. Just get me there and then wait here until I return. He always asked, and she loved him for that, but Verik’s poor loudspeech would only raise suspicion, and he could offer little help if it came to a fight. For all the Makers’ oaths that he was willing to bend and break, there was one he never would: he was forbidden to shed the blood of the living. And she would never ask him to. She laid a hand on his shoulder and signed, I will be fine, Verik. But thank you.
You had better be. I already nearly lost you once, and I am not eager to explain it to your sister if you don’t return. She scares me. He grinned his crooked grin. Keep that in mind the next time you have the urge to do something foolish.
Again, Zerill forced down the laughter that rose in her throat. I will.
Whenever you feel ready, then.
Zerill rotated her shoulder, testing its range of motion. It still ached, but not so much that she couldn’t take it. Inhaling deeply, she tightened the strap on the sack that held her festival costume, looked up at the sun, and nodded. Let’s go.
If you liked this sample, The Swampling King is available at Amazon.com