The Scribe Cycle #1
by James Wolanyk
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Born into the ruins of Rzolka’s brutal civil unrest, Anna has never known peace. Here, in her remote village—a wasteland smoldering in the shadows of outlying foreign armies—being imbued with the magic of the scribes has made her future all the more uncertain.
Through intricate carvings of the flesh, scribes can grant temporary invulnerability against enemies to those seeking protection. In an embattled world where child scribes are sold and traded to corrupt leaders, Anna is invaluable. Her scars never fade. The immunity she grants lasts forever.
Taken to a desert metropolis, Anna is promised a life of reverence, wealth, and fame—in exchange for her gifts. She believes she is helping to restore her homeland, creating gods and kings for an immortal army—until she witnesses the hordes slaughtering without reproach, sacking cities, and threatening everything she holds dear. Now, with the help of an enigmatic assassin, Anna must reclaim the power of her scars—before she becomes the unwitting architect of an apocalyptic war.
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But the targets of their hunt had no time to think of shelter. Anna, First of Tomas, was too busy thinking of death. She wondered if it would be sudden and painless, numbing her exhaustion like bathing in winter streams. Perhaps death was agonizing, which explained the sobs of feverish men who--
Just two leagues, she reminded herself, even as her steps faltered among the oaks and saplings and lichen-choked stone, all looming monstrously in the fog. Even as her pulse drummed in her temples. The lake is two leagues away. But the air was humid and foul, too thick to breathe. Everything smelled of carcasses reclaimed by the mud.
Her predictions had placed the trackers at five leagues by dawn, yet beyond the latticework of branches, the skies were still a murky wash. Darkness hadn’t yet been flushed from the horizon. No, it was impossible
for them to make up this much ground before sunrise. They’d come earlier every year, ever since the village started to learn their tactics, but this was calculated.
“What is it?” Julek winced. “You’re hurting me.”
Anna glanced down. She’d absently clamped onto her brother’s wrist, turning his fingers a pallid blue. Her grip eased as she focused on the predawn stillness. Mother often told her that she had their kin’s sharpest ears, but now she hated the honor. She heard the rustling of shrubs, the startled flight of a thousand birds, the slap of paws on damp reeds as
huntsmen cut across the floodplains.
“Nothing,” she said, hoping the boy was too young to understand. She was hardly an elder, but old enough to tell convincing lies. Old enough to make an eight-year-old feel that he wasn’t being hunted, and that they’d spend their morning with toes dipped in crisp water, staring out at the dark pines across the lake. Weaving her fingers into the links of her silver necklace, Anna pulled Julek toward the ferns. “If we don’t hurry, we’ll spend all day out here.”
“It isn’t even sunup yet,” Julek said. He frowned at the beasts’ cries.
“Anna, what’s that?”
“Elk,” she whispered.
Ahead lay the gloom of deeper woods, and behind them, a sprawl of waterlogged fields. She’d been forced to carry Julek through the bogs, and all the while she’d made him laugh by pretending she was his warhorse. Her new boots were ruined, and her linen leggings were soaked to the knee, but it hardly mattered. She wouldn’t be returning.
“Come on, little bear,” she said, waving a gnat away from her face.
“Here, come on. I’ve got you.”
He scrunched his brow, clenched his tongue between crooked teeth, and swung his right boot out. Pitching forward, he caught Anna’s arm for balance. His left leg was more deformed, but the momentum pulled him into an awkward gait. “Anna, it isn’t making me fast. Whatever you rubbed on my arm.”
Anna stole a sniff of her free wrist, breathing deep for the twistroot’s sap-like odor. In its place, she smelled only sweat and ancient wool, and realized the beasts hadn’t latched onto a false scent. She’d mixed the salves incorrectly, perhaps forgetting the tallow to waterproof it on their skin. It was too late now, of course. They were closing in.
“Anna, please,” Julek whined. “I need to sit down. That’s all.”
“When we reach the lake, we can sit down. Is that fair?”
“No,” Julek said. “The lake is an hour away.”
“Less than that, if we hurry. Isn’t that right?”
“I can’t hurry.”
There was pain in his voice, and worse yet, sincerity. Back home, he could barely pace around the field or crawl onto his cot by himself, and he’d been excited by the idea of a secret trip to the lake without his riding pony. For once, he’d been trusted to keep pace on his own two feet. Now it was an exercise in cruelty.
“I know,” she said softly. She blinked away prickling tears, wondering if they came from desperation or pity. When she saw another cluster of crows scatter from the treetops, she realized it was both. “Julek, we can’t disturb these men. I need you to be quiet.”
“Why?” he whimpered. “You’re hurting me.”
Anna bit into her lower lip, threatening to draw blood. She tried to soften her grip on him, but couldn’t. Letting go meant death.
The boy jerked his arm back, twisting free of Anna’s hold.
She rounded on him with clenched fists. “Julek!”
But he was already crumpled among ferns and overhanging thistle, his breathing hard and broken between whimpers. Thorns fixed his tunic in place, leaving his legs sprawled limply behind him.
“Julek, please,” Anna whispered. She knelt beside him and reached out, but he recoiled, pinning his arm to his chest. His tunic sleeve ended above the elbow, exposing the lashes from the briar patches. Beneath the blood, mirrored across his face and neck and fragile ankles, his rounded sigil shifted in luminous white. The symbol was cryptic yet familiar in Anna’s mind: the boy’s essence, unique to him alone. To glimpse such a thing was a gift and burden known only to scribes. “I’m sorry.”
Julek glanced away, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “Just take me home, Anna. I don’t like this. I want to go back.”
“Fine,” she said. Again she heard the trackers crashing through the underbrush. Panic put a burning flush in her cheeks. “Come on, Julek, we can go.”
The boy looked up at her, tears streaking his freckles and trailing down his dusty cheeks. “You’re lying to me.”
Branches snapped, perhaps in the grove a pence-league away.
“Never,” Anna said. She offered a hand to coax her brother’s arm out of hiding.
He shook his head. “Something’s wrong.”
“No,” she said in a broken whisper.
“You’re crying,” he said. “Anna, who are they? What’s wrong?”
Out of sight, the beasts growled.
Anna snapped her focus to the expanse of dead brush behind them, scanning for any sign of disturbance among the thorns. But the morning was still a filthy gray, staining the forest in monochrome, and she couldn’t discern anything beyond the dark slashes of trees and creeping fog. The scene only grew blurrier as her eyes watered.
She glanced back at Julek. “We’re fine. I just cut myself.” Anna held up her right hand and fought to ease the shaking. There was a smear of blood beneath her ring finger. “See? Just a small cut. I’ll bandage it at home.”
“You never cry.” His next teardrop rolled until Anna wicked it away with a trembling thumb. “Are you scared?”
No, little bear, she wanted to say, even as the teardrop stung her skin, everything is all right. She opened her mouth, but the words vanished.
Cracking twigs burned away her breaths.
It all seemed so foolish now. Even if she reached the raft, she didn’t know where to go. The tanner’s son never specified which direction she had to travel to reach Lojka, nor how far. And what good were her salt clusters if she conflated pinches and grabs, and had never asked how much to pay for anything? Some of the local boys even said that the northern cities didn’t take salt as payment. Was she even going north? How far could they go without food?
The longer she stared into Julek’s eyes, the less such things mattered.
“Give me your arm,” she commanded. Julek obeyed with hesitation, and Anna took hold of his wrist with one hand and seized a wad of his tunic with the other, dragging the thin boy to his feet and bracing his body against hers. “Just like the fields, okay?” She dropped into a narrow squat and allowed him to lean forward, bearing his full weight across her back and meshing his hands beneath her chin. “I’ll keep you safe, little bear.”
On any other day, Julek would’ve been considered light. Most of his muscles were atrophied from years of housework and bed rest, and unlike the other boys—indeed, unlike Anna—his daily meal was a mug of boiled kasha. Their father could still lift him with a single arm. But today it was all wrong.
Anna had been too nervous to eat for days. She’d traveled a league in total darkness, and another two in marshlands. Her feet were waterlogged and bleeding, her legs threatening to buckle with every step.
Lukewarm sweat beaded along her brow and stung her eyes. When she stopped listening to the wet pulse of her own heartbeats, she heard boots stomping through the brush behind her, quickening as they drew closer. With every exhale, her ribcage constricted. Stagnant air burned in her lungs as she emerged from withered grass and into the mire, hemmed in by drowning trees.
Her boots sank into the muck, squelching as she fought to move on. Flickers of memory, rusted trapper’s teeth and bloody bear flesh and desperate animal thoughts, exploded into her awareness. Escape. But every step pulled her deeper, swallowed her boots to the ankle. Julek’s weight damned them. Anna worked to free her boot, her legs cramping with the effort, but it remained trapped. “Julek,” she said, still pulling, “if I let you down now, could you walk?”
He made no response.
She repeated the question, tugging at the boy’s trouser leg. “It’s very important.” The calm of her voice died with the crunching of nearby branches. She knew they were within sight, but she couldn’t afford to look, especially with Julek clutching her. The boy’s muffled prayers fed the dread in her gut. “Julek,” she whispered to the shuffle of unbearably
close steps. “I want you to stay beside me, no matter what. I know you can do that.” Anna bent at the left knee, struggling to remain upright as Julek swung himself around and dangled freely. She reached down to pull his limp legs from the water, but the boy clutched her tighter. “Don’t worry. Just hold onto me.”
Her knees gave way, and she toppled to the left. But before she could feel the lukewarm water she collided with moss and termite-ravaged wood. Her pale arm slid into the notch between branches and exposed her own cuts, much deeper and brighter, running down leaf-littered skin from elbow to palm. But her flesh was bare, devoid of the sigils she saw
on everybody else. A scribe carried no essence, they said. No protection against the bloodshed from which they spared others.
“It’s okay,” Anna whispered. Boots thumped nearby.
Julek stared up at her with wide, swollen eyes, his grip tightening around her neck. He was trying not to cry, trying to be like her. “Home, Anna. We need to go home.”
Behind her the screeching that once seemed so distant was now deafening. It was a guttural moaning, no doubt muffled in some way, communicating starvation that only trackers could put into their beasts.
Flesh wasn’t enough to satisfy it now. It needed violence.
In spite of the blood, Anna’s mouth went dry. She stared at Julek as her vision blurred, and the tips of her ears turned cold. Before long the crackle of leaves overtook her ragged breaths.
“You’re quick,” said a passionless voice, no more than ten paces away.
“You must be exhausted. Set him down, rest against the tree. There’s no need to hurry.”
In Anna’s mind it was a simple thing to retrieve the hunting blade tucked into her belt. But it seemed impossible to move her hands. When the beast growled behind her, close enough to rustle her trouser leggings with its hot breath, she lost her nerve.
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