The ascent took longer than expected. Sh’ra used the stone a few more times to create foot or handholds for herself but did not dare to do more than that. The entire mountain was connected through the stone lines and she was not confident enough yet to know which threads were safe to pull and which would bring the whole thing crashing down on her head. It was easier than the descent, but it still took most of an hour to reach the final section. A short scramble across broken boulders followed by the crawl through a narrow passage and Sh’ra would be back in the cave. She could not wait to see the look on Shin’s face. She would try to not rub it in too much.
After that, they would return to the city in triumph. She, the first Stonebearer since the Scattering. Shin at her side, her champion and confidant. She would take her place on the vacant throne. With the help of the council, she would unite the clans once more - her family at the head as it had been, as it was meant to be.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself Shi. It’s a long road still to go.”
As she knelt to crawl through the last length of the tunnel, she offered up a prayer of thanks to the goddess who had brought her to this place as a child, who had shown her the way out back to her father, and who even continued to guide her steps. There were those who claimed Lo’rah was not real, that she never had been, that she was a myth created by an ancient people. They were wrong. Sh’ra would show them.
She lowered herself onto her stomach so she could fit under the low overhang. With her left hand she dragged herself forward, pushing off with feet. Her right hand held the stone tightly. She did not trust it to her pocket. Her shirt snagged on an outcropping as she pressed herself against the wall on her left. She heard the fabric tear and felt the stone scrape her skin - a sharp sting slicing across her chest.
Almost there. She could see light flickering ahead. Had Shin made a fire? That seemed unlike him. The light from that fire would a be signal beacon to everyone for miles around.
“Shin,” she said quietly. Then louder, “Shin!”
She was close enough now he should have been able to hear her, but there was no response. Terror dropped on her, heavier than the mountain, but all she could do was move forward toward whatever awaited her.
A hand grabbed her arm as she reached around the last corner. She was pulled forcefully from the tunnel, nearly tearing her shoulder from its socket. A boy, no older than she, threw her to the floor. He loomed over her, pressing a short spear into her chest where the fabric had ripped. She squirmed as the spear bit into her skin.
“Do not move.” His voice was quiet, but thick with hatred.
She grabbed the spear with one hand, seeking to relieve the pressure. She knew if she tried to move it, the downward force he was applying would push it right between her ribs.
“Release me! I have the stone. I won!”
Opening her hand, she offered it up to him as proof. The spear pressure on her chest increased as he leaned forward to snatch the stone from her hand, but his weight was no longer behind the shaft. She grabbed it with both hands and pushed upward sharply, rotating her body. Then she yanked the spear toward the space on the ground she had just occupied, pulling the boy off balance.
She rolled onto the spear, twisting it from his hand. He released it and stepped backward to regain his balance. She came up with the weapon pointed at him, panting hard, blood seeping into her shirt from the wounds on her chest. She thought she heard a chuckle from the other end of the cave. She braced herself for the counter attack, but the boy did not even look up at her. Instead, he examined the stone for a moment, smiling before placing it into his pocket.
“The Air clan thanks you for this generous gift.”
He raised a hand, gesturing to someone, then turned and walked away without giving her a second glance.
She screamed, lunging toward him, thrusting the spear at the back of his leg. He stepped neatly to his left, avoiding her thrust and flattening himself against the wall. She heard the thrum of a bowstring.
Instinctively, she dodged, trying to shield her body with his. The arrow sliced along her right thigh. She crumpled, crying out from the pain. And he was on top of her again, pinning her arms at her sides. He leaned forward, his mouth pressed into her ear, his voice a scornful rasp.
“Did you really think they would let you bear the stone? Did you think it coincidence that it has been five hundred years? Stupid girl. Your mother should have taught you better. Instead she let your idiot father fill your head with ambition. And now it falls to us to do what’s necessary.”
She bit him. He roared, tearing his head away, his ear streaming blood. He struck her across the face with the back of his hand. He struck again, catching her cheek with his open palm. Her vision swam, but she was aware enough to recognize the feeling of cold steel pressed to her throat.
“Lorn!” A voice said from the cave mouth.
“Yes, Brith?” Lorn responded, clearly annoyed at the interruption.
“That is enough.”
Lorn paused, his finger idly tapping the knife as he considered. Then he moved it away from her throat, placing it back in its leather sheath. He rolled her onto her stomach, binding her wrists and ankles together behind her back. Then kicked her onto her side. She flopped over, her shoulders straining from the bonds.
From where she lay, she saw Shin bound and gagged on the other side of a fire, his eyes bright in the flame. They flashed with anger at the sight of her. And something else. Was it shame? He looked away when she met his gaze.
Lorn rummaged through the back of the cave near her, searching for something.
“Where is the bow girl?”
She bristled at how he called her girl. He was barely a day older than her.
“What bow?” She replied obstinately.
“The bow! The one you took from my brother.”
“That was your brother? The man who killed Teth?”
“Yes,” he said flatly. “And you took his bow. I want it back.”
“I left it below. A bow used for murder must be buried for the goddess to redeem.”
Sh’ra did not know why the old passage popped into her head.
“Don’t cite your prophets to me! I know you intended to use it.”
He was right of course, but there was no reason to let him know it.
“No matter. I will use mine.”
Lorn walked to the entrance of the cave. He picked up a bow that looked an exact duplicate of the one Sh’ra had taken from Teth's killer, apparently this boy’s brother. She felt the pain of his loss, despite the situation.
He returned holding his bow and a single arrow. He laid them on the floor in front of her and then hauled her into a sitting position against the rear wall of the cave. At the entrance, Brith stood Shin up and walked him toward the cave mouth, his back lit by the flame. Lorn strung the bow and knocked his arrow, pointing it at her.
This was it. The day begun as her triumph would end in her death. Apparently it mattered that she was to be killed with a bow instead of a knife, though she could not figure out why. Soon, it would not matter even to her.
But, no, he would not have come to this end of the cave to fire the bow at her. Her eyes shot wide as it clicked. Lorn turned away from her he released the string. The arrow flew, sinking into Shin’s back. Shin looked down. He reached out, trying to grab Brith, but the man stepped out of his grasp. His legs buckled, suddenly bereft of their former strength, and he toppled forward out of the cave.