Sh’ra scrambled up the rocky slope. She needed to get higher. The tide continued to come in through the night. Two patrols had passed along the shelf above already. They had seemed in no rush, so probably not seeking her out, but finding her would no doubt bring a level scrutiny she wanted to avoid as long as she could. She needed to find new clothes. Hers were torn and tattered from the wreck and the sharp shore. She made slow progress to the north crawling over the boulders and maneuvering around debris. It would go much faster as soon as the peninsula widened and she could risk the high ground. Perhaps she could find a local fisher’s hut, someone willing to take her in without asking too many questions. Her stomach rumbled.
She froze, hearing footsteps above her. Another patrol. Were they becoming more frequent? Even as she avoided them, they brought her comfort as well. The more patrols, the more sure she became that U’ri had been found, that her friend was some place warm and dry, even if it was a cell. She peered out from her hiding place. The light from the patrol’s lanterns remained motionless above her. What were they doing?
The light remained still for a several more minutes. Sh’ra settled in, planning to wait it out. Forced into stillness, the cold ocean breeze swept through biting easily through her meager coverings. Her clothes were mostly dry, but she was not prepared to spend the night in these cliffs. A wave crashed below her, coating her in a cold damp mist. This was not going to work.
She ventured another glance up the slope. The light had not moved. Over the sounds of the wind and the surf, she caught fragments of a conversation, but could not make out the words. She crept upward, careful to keep herself shielded from view. As she drew closer, she could see men camped in a small alcove on the trail that buffeted them from the wind. The light came from a small fire. The scent of roasting fish drew her in. Her stomach rumbled again. The food within her sight sent her hunger from a dull ache to a sharp pang of desperate need. She crept closer, crossing the narrow path to place just outside of the alcove behind a pile of rocks. She could almost reach out and touch one of their packs. Could she steal some of their supplies without being noticed?
The shadows of three men played across the roof above them as they sat looking into the fire.
“D’ya hear ‘bout that down the coast?” Said one of the men as he took a bite from a skewered fish.
“Your gonna make yourself sick. That fish ain’t done yet.”
“Raw fish is good for yor innards. Me ma always said so.”
“Yeah, and didn’t the dysentery take her last year?”
“Now, come on now. Don’t go shitting on me mum’s grave.”
All three laughed at that, and resumed eating in silence. Sh’ra leaned in as close as she dared, willing them to continue the conversation.
“Ay, I heard about it. Nasty business.”
Continued the man on the left after swallowing his mouthful of fish and taking a swig from his canteen. The others nodded, still with mouths full.
“What makes a person do that, ya think?”
“How‘m I supposed to know? Crazy things get in those girl’s heads.”
“So ya reckon she jumped?”
Terror gripped Sh’ra's throat, threatening to strangle her.
“Course she jumped. How else d’ya think she got down there?”
“There was a ship! I saw it off the coast.”
“And what was you doin’ looking off into the coast yesterday? Weren’t you on latrine duty?”
“Now, don’t go changing the subject on me. I saw it. I say that girl were on it and they were sneaking her in to see the K’al.”
“Oh come on. Don’t tell me your buying all that shite about the Stonebearer having returned.”
“Course she’s returned! I got a cousin that was in the capital when they brought her back from those games. He saw her paraded though the streets!”
“That criminal that murdered her friends?”
“She weren’t no criminal! They set her up. It was assassin’s from the Air clan that did those boy’s off.”
“And yet she was on that boat somehow? Besides that girl they found, she wasn’t no stoner. They say she was a little horn girl.”
“Ah well, it’s too bad either way. Young pretty things shouldn’t be jumpin’. Fen’rah’s Ridge ain’t no place for them. That’s the place for sad ole men like us.”
The others nodded in agreement, resuming their meal. Sensing the conversation was about to move on, Sh’ra stepped out, cold fury coursing through her veins. These men. They were the ones who were supposed to have found her. They were supposed to have found her. They should have. They should have found her.
“What happened… what happened to the girl? Tell me!”
The three men startled back at the apparition that had suddenly appeared before them. In the next instant, they were on their feet with swords drawn. Then their wariness sagged as they registered Sh’ra, a young girl in tattered clothes, shivering in the cold.
“Fen’rah’s balls girl! Don’t scare a man like that! Come, warm yourself by the fire.”
The man to Sh’ra’s right sheathed his sword and took a step toward her, reaching for her arm.
“Stay back!” Sh’ra said, holding out her arm, fist clenched around the stone in her hand. “Tell me what happened!”
“Calm down girl.” He replied, with a cautioning arm outstretched.
“No. Tell me!”
“She’s dead girl. She gave herself to Fen’rah and he took her, as he takes all offerings.”
“No!” Sh’ra screamed at him.
She dropped her arm to her side and then swiftly brought it upward, spearing the man on a sliver of stone she pulled from the earth beneath him. Surprise showed in his eyes for a moment before he sagged into death. She turned on the other two who cowered before her, pressing their backs agains the rock wall behind them. She lifted her arm high, then jerked it down. The ceiling of the alcove obeyed her motion, crushing the men under its weight as it rushed downward onto them.
From behind her, she heard a cry. She whirled to see a man standing with a bundle of wood. As she turned on him, he dropped the branches and ran. He made it three steps before the path vanished below him, his final yell cut short as he struck the cliffs and then splashed into the sea.
Sh’ra walked north. She wore a soldier’s cloak and carried a soldier’s pack. A soldier’s spear was strapped across her back and her stomach was full of a soldier’s food. She saw few people along the trail as she went. No one tried to stop her. The local fishermen waved greetings. The other patrols saluted as she stepped back to let them pass. At checkpoints, she slept in a soldier’s bed. Whether it was the uniform or the look in her eye, wherever she went everyone assumed she was meant to be there. She did nothing to dissuade them.
She reached the edge of the Water clan territory two days later. The guard at the way station questioned her as to what business she had in the north. She stared at him in silence until he apologized for delaying her. She requested a refill of her supplies. He rushed to obey. She asked for a map. He scrambled to give her his own.
At mid-morning the following day, the trail turned away from the coast, heading inland. She stopped, looking out over the ocean. She closed her eyes, breathing in deeply of the sea air. Under her breath, she spoke a prayer. Then she turned, setting it behind her, the wind pushing her on her way.