Free First Chapter.
N.S. Grimm is happy to provide a Free Sample of Aversions: book one of the Ramblers Series. Ramblers is a lesbian reimagining of the popular Snow Wars Series. She hopes you will enjoy the world of Ramblers.
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Iana sprinted up the narrow pass, her breath coming in gasping puffs as she rounded the corner. She’d been at a desperate full run for most of the last three hours, stopping only briefly to check the tracks she’d left behind in the newly fallen snow. She tried to scan for predators who might be watching or following her as she ran, but she had to hurry. It was getting dark, and a person didn’t last long outside once the sun went down. It was treacherous to run in conditions like these. Five inches of snow had fallen that morning, and even though she knew the path with her eyes closed, the snow could conceal dangers beneath that no one could predict. The blizzard-like winds pushed Iana around like a ragdoll, hampering speed and visibility through the snowfall. No one in her lifetime had seen what lay below the snowy frost on the ground. Iana assumed it was dirt or stone. The snow had always been this deep for as long as anyone could remember. In the summer, the snowdrifts were shallower and some bushes and snow trees would punch up through the frosty layers to reach for the sunlight, but there was always a constant layer of snow on the ground regardless. Large rocks broke the surface, marking the Hive’s path for those trained to the Rambler’s ways of tracking and hunting outside. Dangers of sudden sinkholes or hidden debris lay just underneath the surface, however, waiting to kill or maim the unwary.
As if the thought had triggered the event, Iana’s left ankle suddenly caught under the snow and she was slammed down and to the side. Pain laced through her ankle as it twisted, but luckily her tall snow boots kept her foot from breaking. Iana cursed the pain and rolled onto her back, grabbing her throbbing ankle with both hands. She looked up into the sky to judge the sun. She had maybe a half hour left before sundown. There was no time to stop or rest, so Iana pushed back up to her feet and started out again. Limping for the first few steps, she soon picked back up to a jog. She pushed the screaming complaints of her injury to the back of her mind and focused only on her job and the snowy cold path ahead.
She tried to stay close to the rocky surface of the hills, as much for protection from the cold blizzard as from any unwanted visual surveillance. Even trying as hard as she was to be careful during her reckless scramble home, predators might still be tracking her, even in this blizzard. Bringing something back with you was always the top concern for Ramblers, those few people who were allowed to leave the Hive and venture outside into the bright arctic tundra. Leading even one predator back with you was not only enough to have your Rambling privileges revoked, but it could also prove devastating to the entire community if they gained entrance into the Hive. The very survival of the Hive depended on Iana’s ability to do her job secretly and silently. But her fellow Ramblers hadn’t been silent today, and now she was the only one returning back to the Hive able to report.
The Hive entrance was just around the next hill; she’d done it, she’d made it back before dark. Just when her heart started to acknowledge relief, she heard a rustling sound behind her. She paused and crouched down low in the snow, silent as a ghost. She could feel the cold wet of the frost seep into the ripped seem of her pants, soaking her thermals underneath. The wind picked up the snow and swirled it around her body and over her head into the sky; it rippled the fur that lined her snow-white coat and clothing. Ramblers dressed in white for concealment on the snows. They’d dressed in white for as long as Iana could remember. Always like this in every way; nothing was ever allowed to change in the Hive. As she watched the snow swirl around her, a chill ran down her back. It felt as if the wind had reached into her soul with deadly fingers and froze there.
Ominous, Iana thought, but then she always thought this way when she went out rambling. She always expected it to be her last time out. It was a frame of mind Ramblers were taught early on. It was the best way to stay alive: to assume you are already dead. It was also the best way to keep the people around you alive.
The cold dug through her pants leg and into her knee. It ached like an old woman’s body ached in the morning. Except Iana was far from decrepit; she was no older than nineteen years. Listening carefully, she heard nothing but the wind and snow as it blew and puffed around her. Still, she remained motionless.
“Just two moments longer than you normally would,” she heard a deep rustic voice repeat in her head. Still nothing moved in the frozen landscape. Her fingers objected to the movement as she loosened her grasp on her knife. A special slit in the layers of her outer coat allowed her to grasp and pull her blade with lightning speed. Though her fingers were hidden deep in the insulating layers, the late afternoon temperature was still cold enough to freeze them where they grasped the rough metal blade. Her gloves were wet and they were now almost frozen against the cold hilt of her knife. She loosened her death grip on the blade but still kept her hand on the hilt. She would not release it completely till she was safely inside the Hive, with the door bolted behind her.
Just as Iana moved to rise and resume her path to the warm safety of the Hive, she heard the noise again. It was the low growl of a Raven Dog and the soft crunch of its paws in the snow behind her. Raven Dogs were dark in color, large, and held a healthy appetite for anything they could sink their teeth into. They hunted in packs, unlike most animals on the arctic tundra. Iana’s dad had told her they were named after long-extinct, black-winged birds of the past. Raven Dogs’ fur stood out like a nightmare against the snow. All Ramblers feared and avoided the sight of a Raven Dog pack. If you fell among a pack unprotected, it was certain death. Iana’s back straightened as she reached with her senses behind, toward the stalking Dog. It was unusual to see a pack so close to the door of the Hive. But Iana didn’t hear the echoing howls of a Raven pack. This Raven was alone. Probably sick or injured, Iana surmised. A poor lone Dog, run off by its pack in order to secure the health and survival of the others.
Not so different from how my clan and I live, she thought.
Iana’s eyelids felt heavy in her eyes and they took a distant dead look. For all her clan’s talk of conscience, ethics, and long-winded Hive Councils, she wondered—were her people really so different from the Raven Dog packs? Iana’s nostrils flared with the smell of the Raven Dog as it approached slowly behind her. The awareness of its existence was loud in her senses and she could all but taste it. She held perfectly still, waiting, wishing it closer and closer till it was in the perfect striking range. She had no choice but to kill; it was too close to the Hive entrance. She constructed the view of the Dog in her mind as it approached. In her mind’s eye she could see the layout of the land around them, the hound’s approach, and the approximate body size of the animal hunting her. She pre-identified what topography she could use as weapon or defense and pre-thought her angles of attack and counters. But mostly she just kept still and waited. It wouldn’t take long. This Dog was fueled with the strength of starvation and desperation, as was Iana.
Iana took a deep breath and slowly pulled the knife out of her coat. The metal of the long ten-inch blade caught in the sunset and flashed against the snow. She quickly pivoted so it wouldn’t advertise her presence if anyone was watching. She was too close to the Hive entrance to risk carelessly flashing one’s position. She would not only be fighting for her life with the Raven Dog in a few minutes, but protecting the Hive from the discovery of predator eyes at the same time. A Rambler always assumed a predator was waiting out in the snow, just waiting for a careless Rambler to make a mistake and lead them to the Hive.
As soon as she pivoted around, it would begin and the Dog would attack. She knew this; she was trained for this, but she was exhausted from the events earlier in the day. The Raven Dog had the advantage of terrain, speed, and the lack of a guilty conscience to slow it down. Iana slowly inhaled through her nose, the cold air burning her lungs. She’d lost her arctic mask early that day and only had time to wrap her scarf over her face as she ran back to the Hive for safety. Her mind involuntarily raced back to the day’s events. It had been so exciting to take off on a mission all together as they had this morning. Usually Ramblers worked in pairs. None of them knew how wrong everything would turn out a few hours later. Iana’s cheeks burned with shame at being the only one returning to the Hive.
Her memories cleared, her mind returning to the present fight as she tried to stay focused. The Dog had the advantage over her emotionally, so she would make herself like the Dog and take the advantage back. She cleared her mind of all thought but the kill. No conscience, no hesitation, no humanity—just the hunt, just the kill. And when the Raven Dog was all but breathing down the neck of her arctic coat…she raised her knife and turned.
Her knife was drawn and held before her as she pivoted around. The black face of the wild dog was only two yards away from her: easy jumping distance for a Raven. But it didn’t pounce as Iana had expected. It actually skidded back a few steps, as if her turning had caught it by surprise. She had prepared to use the momentum of the attack to drive her knife deep and end the conflict sooner than it had started, but the Raven hadn’t jumped. Iana was now exhausted and at a disadvantage. The dog bared its yellow, chipped teeth at her and uttered a deep low growl. She took three steps to the right, pivoting the Raven as it tracked on her. Normally she would keep the rock to her back, but in this case she wanted the setting sun to blind the Raven and give her the advantage. She thrust her knife forward in jerky motions again and again, testing the dog’s reflexes. The beast was skinny, at only half its normal size, and she could see an infected injury on its back flank—that was why it hadn’t attacked as expected. Even with so many disadvantages, it was still going to be a difficult kill.
With the sun to her back, the snow and wind hit Iana in the face, but she kept her eyes glued on the Raven. She checked the position of her wrist guards and pulled them closer to her hands in preparation. Mentor Heliconia had given the thin metal shields to her as a present after she completed hand-to-hand training as an apprentice. They might not protect her completely from the Raven’s sharp teeth, but they could help. She stopped her movements and held still to wait it out. She still needed the dog to make the first move. The snow made a whistling sound as it blew past her ears, and the falling white flakes danced against the animal’s dark fur as it flexed its muscles in anticipation. She could see the hunger in its eyes. It didn’t take long for the dog to attack.
With a heart-pounding scream, the dog lunged forward. Iana slashed in front of her face with her Rambler’s knife, hitting only air. The knife caused the dog to adjust midair, and Iana used the momentum to ram her shoulder into the animal’s midrange. Both bounced off each other unhurt. Iana moved to slash with her knife before the dog could recover its footing, but the beast was faster than she’d expected. It whipped its neck around and its rock hard jaw sank into her hand, tasting blood. Iana cried out in pain as the teeth punched through her skin. The wrist guard had saved her from much of the damage. Adrenaline coursed through her body, causing her legs to shake in the cold wind. She allowed the dog’s momentum to fall forward into her. She went down with the animal, positioning the knife at just the right angel under its head, as she fell. When the Raven’s full weight fell on her, Iana’s knife punctured up into its neck and fur. The beast thrashed back and forth a few moments, legs and arms scratching at the snow-covered rocks below them. Then it lay still upon Iana. She gasped for breath, her exhaustion sending small puffs of white steam out into the air. The weight of the Raven was crushing, but she had no strength to push it away. Finally she rolled the dead animal off, pried its jaws away from her hand, and pulled her Rambler’s blade free of the blood-sticky fur. She paused on her knees in the snow. With her head back, she faced up to the sky and gave a short scream of anger and despair to the setting sun. She was a Rambler, and despite everything, she was still alive.
Iana all but flew through the outer gate and around the corner of the hill into the sanctuary of the Hive. Sunset was gone now, but she had made it. Her left glove was missing and she had tied what was left of her scarf around her bloody hand. She already knew it was superficial, but the pain of the wound distracted her. The inner sanctuary of the Hive was well hidden, and the stone-carved walls of the buildings gave relief from the howling gusts of wind and snow. It was late; evening was just beginning. The sanctuary was empty of people and children who might ordinarily be out playing or gardening. Iana was relieved she did not need to worry about the blood on her Rambling clothes scaring any of the children. She loved this little courtyard; as children, she and her sister, Aster, had traded anything they could for chores that would take them outside and into the sanctuary of bitter cold sunshine. No surprise to Iana that Aster grew up to be a horticultdrone—one who tried to grow plants for the hive. It was mostly impossible to grow anything in the frozen landscape, but still the Hive continued to try.
Iana bounced up the cut staircase to the third-story door. She took the steps two at a time. Cracking the massive wooded door slightly, she reached one bloody hand slowly in to release the string booby-trap just inside the frame. Slowly pushing the door open another crack, she paused to be sure the spring mechanism was fully disarmed. Two months ago a Hunter was killed by a frozen spring giving way as they entered too recklessly. The door was meant as a first line defense should a predator make its way into the Hive. It might take out a slow solo predator, but that sort of attack wasn’t very likely in this cold terrain. It wasn’t very good as far as a trap door was concerned, but it was the best they had on this side of the Hive, the East side. Iana made a mental note to suggest an upgrade for the next Council meeting. She kicked the towel-log they used to block under-drafts off to the side and pushed through into the Hive. Closing the door behind her, she noticed the vestibule was empty and unmanned. It was the time for breaking of bread in the Hive and everyone would be in the main room eating together. She checked the slate board on the wall to be sure she was the last expected in and then slammed the huge crossbar down over the door with a defining sound, which echoed through the room. Iana kicked the towel-log back against the door jam, giving it an extra push to block the snow swirls that threatened to push inside. Tossing her bloody blade into the stone sink in the corner, she began to slowly pull her Rambler clothing off, letting the heat from inside leak gradually into her bones. Pegs lined the walls for hanging her garments and she used them gratefully. Her coat was ripped and stained with Raven blood and her outer pants were ripped from the fighting earlier in the day. A Mender would come by later and take her clothes to clean and patch them. Clothing would be either replaced or repaired by the time she needed them again. At least she hoped she wouldn’t need them any sooner.
A bell tolled deep within the mountain, the sound bouncing off the stone walls till the mountain itself felt like it was vibrating with the chimes. Iana’s head tilted up. It was too late now to meet with the Council before The Session was called. A cold sinking feeling entered her heart at the thought of reporting and the sad smile that crossed her face was a familiar emotion. She was surprised to find she could still feel anything after this morning, even the dread within her chest. After so long outside, the heat from the Hive was painful. Iana slipped out of her layers slowly and moved carefully, letting the heat dissipate evenly and circulate through her body. After several minutes, she still found the little heat in the entrance vestibule overwhelming. But the finishing song of the bell was marked by silence, causing Iana to look up again; Vespers had begun in the Hive. She crossed over to the basin and washed her weapon, drying it on her last remaining glove, which she then tossed into the recycle bin. She washed her face, hands and exposed body parts. Her hand screamed in protest to the water, but she grit her teeth through it and managed to remain standing till she was finished. Then she sat on the cold stone floor to rewrap her injured hand in the old bandage. She would stop by the Librarium for a fresh bandage on her way to Council. For now, the old scarf would have to do. Her forehead felt hot, and even though the room was cold, it was still too sticky for Iana’s liking. She leaned against the rock wall at her side and rolled her forehead against the stone to cool its fire. The beat up mirror hanging on the far wall was cast over in frost, the icy etchings skating across its surface. The room was cold, but Iana burned with a fire from inside her skull. It felt as if her memories were made of flames that burned her.
Voices could be heard now, echoing down the narrow stone hallways. Pushing to her feet, she glanced once at the barred door to the outside. Anyone left outside at this point, left outside without shelter, would be dead in a matter of hours. The Hive was shelter, family, and safety; it was the only hope for survival. She said a small prayer called “Rambler’s Lost” as she left the vestibule. Outside the room hung a small idol of Venus. Iana stopped to say the expected supplication and made the holy gestures. Not to conform to faith meant banishment from the Hive forever; not something Iana had any intention of risking. No one cared if your prayer was empty. They just cared that you followed along quietly as everyone before you had done and their family before them had done. Iana pressed her wet lips to her two fingers and then pressed them against the idol. She wondered if her empty appeals would be enough to keep her safe once she reported what had happened that morning. Would she be cast out into the snows without home or shelter? Or would she be cast a hero and praised by the Hive Council for her actions? She doubted the latter. She was never the lucky one in a group. Her luck always seemed rather bad when she thought about it. After all, she was the one left alive today.
The smell of charred mutton drifted down the snaking hallways. Iana’s stomach rolled with hunger, which she ignored. The one good thing about her injured hand was that the pain kept the hunger mostly at bay. She tried to walk quickly through the stone hallways. The passages throughout the Hive were a maze of sorts. It was hard navigating, even when you knew them like the nose on your face. Sometimes the passages were so congested with bodies that a person couldn’t get past even in an emergency. It wouldn’t take long after Vespers before the hallways would be filled with people again— something she wished to avoid if possible. The one bad thing about living in a little Hive was that everybody knew each other and everyone was always trying to get into your business. She still had to report, which meant she couldn’t dawdle if she wanted to reach the Council in time.
Iana came to the end of the first passage and entered into the main junction when she saw her. Danielle stood tall in the low hallway. She was still in good physical shape for being a Mentor. Her shoulders were powerfully broad and she could easily outrun any of the other Ramblers on the East side of the Hive. Her long brown hair was the same dull color of all Hive folk, but she always kept it pulled back in a neat tail when inside. Most people in the Hive wore their hair messy and down in their faces. Iana liked how Ramblers, men and women, kept their hair pulled back when inside; it allowed one to see the person’s face and eyes. Iana’s hand went absently to her own long brown hair, which hung loose around her. On the snow, everyone wore their hair down for warmth. She hadn’t taken the time to pull it back yet. She wondered if there was blood in it; that sight could scare people in the Hive. She should have checked the mirror before she left. But she hadn’t; it was just one more thing she hadn’t done right that day.
Danielle had deep brown eyes, almost black in hue. Many people found her imposing because of it. Her eyes were so dark that the pupils all but disappeared. The coloring could help hide her reactions in a situation. It also gave the impression of power and danger. Iana wasn’t scared of Danielle, but even she avoided looking her directly in the eye when she could. When she had looked in the past, she’d found herself trapped or lost within those eyes somehow. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling and was one that Iana liked to avoid when at all possible. Iana had met Danielle three years ago. She’d become the new East Hive Mentor and had taken over her Rambler training during that last year. The year after Jacob had died in the field. The thought of Jacob, her first Mentor, came speeding into her mind without invitation. She could still hear his voice calling to her from the grave, lecturing her again on one of her less favorite lessons. The scent of him drifted through the stone hallways, mocking her as it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared, leaving the room feeling twice as empty as before. She had loved the sound of his voice and the musky smell of him after a hard day’s work. He’d smelled of honest labor, oiled leather, and safety; he mostly smelled of safety. After Jacob died, nothing felt safe again. It felt just as it had been before, as if he’d never been in her life at all. Iana’s eyes glossed over with unshed tears at the memories. She cursed her weakness and wondered again why she must be constantly plagued with these thoughts of him. Jacob was the one who had taught her that memories of the past killed. He’d taught her to push them away and let them go. He’d been right then. Letting go of the past had helped her; it had helped all of her family. Yet, the memories of Jacob would not die within Iana. Try as hard as she could, she could not push him out of her heart. Jacob would not leave her.
Danielle was leaning against the wall with her back to Iana. The archway framed her tall stature as she watched Vespers below. She must have been unusually deep in thought because she didn’t hear Iana walking up behind her.
Or maybe she just didn’t care? Iana thought to herself.
Mentors did go out into the field with other Ramblers on assignments between training sessions. Danielle went out more than most Mentors. She claimed it was to keep an eye out for Ramblers who were no longer students, but now friends. But Iana suspected she went out because she secretly enjoyed being away from the Hive, just like Iana did. Perhaps they were similar in that way? Danielle was taller than most women in the Hive. Iana barely came up to her shoulder, which had always given Danielle an advantage when training in hand-to-hand. Iana gritted her teeth at the many memories of Danielle lecturing her about compensating for her small stature. She always thought Danielle disapproved of her as a Rambler: her criticism was always more exaggerated when it came to her and she never received the praise the Mentor gave to the other apprentices. If she thought her preference for other apprentices was obvious during training, she was totally unprepared for the complete indifference towards her once she passed her Bar and became a Rambler. She supposed it never occurred to Danielle that she would pass. Now, the Mentor only spoke to Iana when absolutely required and always in the most public context. She rarely conversed informally with Iana as she did with the other Ramblers. Her indifference to Iana was so obvious. If it mattered to her at all, the Mentor’s distaste might have been painful. Now that Iana was older, she realized that she would have despised any Mentor assigned to her in Jacob’s place. But Danielle had surpassed all her expectations in her ability to be annoying, resentful and frustrating. That first year, she had hated her more than she hated the predators who stalked and hunted the Hive. Her anger had made little sense, but at seventeen years of age, Iana hadn’t cared about sense. She just wanted to pour all the pain and anger about Jacob’s death towards something and poor Danielle was the unfortunate recipient. Iana had often wondered if it would have been different had they assigned her a male Mentor instead of a woman. Perhaps she could have bonded, instead of always bickering and rebelling.
Iana called to Danielle and the Mentor turned around to look at her. Danielle stood perfectly still, neither moving nor speaking, which wasn’t like her at all. She instantly took in every detail of Iana’s slight presence in the corridor. Something was very wrong, that was clear. Her expression was so strange, as if she were looking at a ghost. Iana found it impossible not to meet those deep brown eyes. Her right hand extended out toward Iana, slowly, as if afraid she would break a spell or that Iana would bolt like a wild snow hare if Danielle moved too fast. The Mentor’s usually guarded eyes were swimming with emotions but moving too quickly for Iana to catch any distinction.
“Iana?” she asked in a whisper, and when the Rambler didn’t dissolve or run away, Danielle slowly crossed the corridor to her.
She grasped Iana’s arm tightly, as if to confirm her existence. The Mentor never touched her outside of training exercises anymore. The familiar burning sensation of her hand made Iana’s breath catch. She wasn’t prepared for the old feelings the Mentor’s touch pulled from her. She’d secretly hoped that the last two years had tempered her reaction to Danielle, but she now saw that she still hated her so strongly that she had a physical reaction toward the Mentor. It made Iana sad to think that she’d not matured regarding Danielle since becoming a Rambler. If anything, her reactions had intensified in her presence.
“You’re here?” Danielle stated and then her attention darted over Iana’s head, down the hallway. The desperate longing in her eyes was so clear to Iana it made her chest hurt. She knew the Mentor cared about her Ramblers, but Iana had rarely seen her express feelings so openly. Of course, she was looking for the rest of the Rambler pack; she had no idea what had happened that morning.
Ian’s voice came out shaky and small; she hated herself for the weakness. Danielle’s eyes snapped back down to her. Iana cursed herself for meeting those eyes again—when would she learn? Danielle’s hand trailed up from Iana’s arm to cup her cheek and the Mentor’s eyes seemed to darken and intensify. Danielle had never touched her so intimately before and Iana wanted to run down the hallway and away from her. Iana’s skin, beneath the Mentor’s touch burned suddenly red hot and Iana longed to pull her body away from Danielle and cool her cheek in the cold snows outside. Iana wanted to go; her mind was screaming at her to run, but her body couldn’t move. The room seemed to narrow in focus till it centered on only the two of them. They stood there for a long moment, paralyzed. Then Iana inhaled deeply. She was suddenly starving for oxygen, which seemed to have disappeared with Danielle’s touch. Her injured hand was throbbing with pain and her sore ankle was renewing complaints. Both of which made her head begin to cloud over. She could see Danielle’s face, just inches from her own, flushed red with some hidden emotion. Iana felt the need to confide in her, as she would have during her apprenticeship under the Mentor, but she knew she couldn’t. She wasn’t an apprentice anymore and her confession was for the Council alone. Tears were threatening as her mind raced with memories of earlier in the day.
“I have to go. I’m late and I have to report,” Iana said, still not moving from Danielle’s touch on her cheek. She was confused and off balance by Danielle’s reaction. It was all so strange and seemed too sudden.
“You have to report?” Danielle asked her, repeating her words almost like a child trying to understand what was being said.
Iana nodded her head yes and dropped her eyes. Her movement broke whatever spell was cast between them. Danielle snapped straight as if she’d been slapped. She dropped her hand from Iana’s face. If Iana had been looking, she would have seen Danielle take a full assessment of her surroundings, as she did before a battle.
“A lot has happened today,” Iana informed the Mentor, taking a few steps away and toward the hallway that would lead her to the chamber she shared with her sister, Aster.
“I know,” Danielle said simply.
Iana stopped cold and her head caught up. A suspicious frown transformed her face and she looked Danielle directly in the eyes, her guard up. How could Danielle know? Her left foot tapped the stone floor as if to a silent noise or music that played only in her head. She bounced slightly with the rhythm, trying to decide if she should challenge the Mentor on what she meant by her statement. There was no way anyone could know what had happened to the Ramblers. She decided against it and left Danielle alone. She didn’t want to know anything more today. She didn’t want to be around Danielle any longer than necessary. Danielle hadn’t moved an inch. The Mentor was silently waiting for Iana, watching her to see what she would do next.
“I have to go report,” she repeated and began to leave.
“No, Iana.” Danielle moved toward her again. “You can’t do that,” she commanded her.
The audacity in Danielle’s voice, to command her to ignore her duty to the Council, stunned Iana. The old feelings of rebellion and frustration came flooding back to her from her apprentice years.
She still doesn’t respect me, even after all this time. Danielle thought she could treat her like a small failing apprentice and tell her what to do. A sudden fury filled Iana’s body. Danielle had no right to order her against reporting to the Council. The Mentor answered to the Council herself. Everyone in the Hive answered to the Council.
Danielle took a step closer to her and Iana changed her stance to that of pre-fight. Danielle suddenly stopped. She knew Iana’s moves enough to interpret the Rambler’s intent. Holding herself perfectly still, the Mentor tried to use words to persuade Iana,
“I only meant, there are some things I think you should know first. Things you need to know before you talk to them,” she added in a gentler tone of voice.
“No thank you. You know we aren’t supposed to talk to anyone before we report,” Iana reminded her strongly. “I’m going to report, just as soon as I clean up and take care of this.” Iana waved her injured hand silently to call attention to her wound.
Danielle made to say something more, but Iana cut her off. “You have no right to stop me.”
In the flash of an instant, Danielle changed. Her back straightened and she nodded to Iana once. She suddenly seemed more like the Mentor Iana had always known, aloof and distant. Iana was instantly soothed seeing her more as expected.
Danielle licked her lips and looked down the hallway, obviously hearing people beginning to file toward them. “You can’t return to your chamber if you want to report in time. You’ll have to use one of the honey-pots downstairs to clean up,” she suggested.
Iana looked at her suspiciously but said nothing so Danielle continued, “You go there and I’ll have a Librarian meet you to clean your hand.”
This is all very unusual, Iana thought to herself, but the pain in her hand had spread to her head, replacing all her previous anger with a throbbing that was hard to ignore. She was beginning to feel sick to her stomach, so she brushed her hair off her face with her good hand and agreed to the Mentor’s suggestion. As she left the corridor she heard Danielle grab a passing Runner to take the message to the Librarium.
Iana reached the dry-water honey-pot alcove just in time, as her stomach rebelled. After a few uncontrolled moments expelling the contents of her stomach, she pulled away and sat on stone floor. The honey-pot was halfway filled already and the vile smell hadn’t helped with her vomiting. Someone handed her a cold rag for her face and she accepted it gratefully. She looked up and tried to recognize the Librarian Danielle had sent for, but she couldn’t recall the healer’s name.
“Thank you,” Iana replied between deep breaths.
“You aren’t pregnant, are you?” the Librarian asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
Iana froze at the question. It was not the question she’d expected to be answering today. She expected her evening to be filled with very different questions and answers. The Librarian stared down at her from her perch at the dry sink, waiting for an answer. An answer Iana was not inclined to give. Instead Iana pushed herself up and crossed to her. She held up her injured hand, looked the healer in the eye and simply waited. After a few long moments of silence, the Librarian gave up. She released a long breath before bending over Iana’s ripped hand to begin her healing practice. Iana hadn’t noticed Danielle and a man standing at the door until she spoke.
“The hand?” Danielle asked Iana, motioning to her injury. The Mentor’s composure had returned to normal now, except for her attention to Iana, whom she would normally be ignoring. Iana kept her attention on her hand and the Librarian’s movements. Iana was determined not to cry out with pain in front of Danielle no matter how much it hurt.
“Raven Dog,” She answered the question in a clipped voice.
Danielle seemed surprised at this, as if she’d expected Iana to give a different answer. She pushed further for more information. “A Raven Dog. Just one this time?” she pressed the Rambler.
The Librarian was busy preparing the wash for Iana’s hand in the dry-water basin. She placed the stopper in the sink, then added a few drops of something that smelled like antiseptic, before finally pouring the clean snow-melted water she carried with her in an animal hide pouch. Iana licked her lips and prepared for what she was sure would be painful. She pushed the thought of pain away and focused on Danielle’s question instead.
“One Dog—just outside the bend, before you reach the Hive door,” she reported. At the words “just outside the Hive door” the Librarian paused for the briefest of moments and looked at Iana’s face. The thought of a Raven Dog at the door of the Hive scared her, Iana could tell. Danielle raised one eyebrow at the news but merely nodded at the information and didn’t ask any more questions. Iana didn’t need to clarify that the Dog was dead. In a confrontation with a Raven Dog either you died or the Dog died. Her being alive was confirmation enough.
Danielle kept her eyes glued on the small Rambler before her. There was a time, during Iana’s last year as an apprentice, that Raven Dogs had stalked her dreams and tormented her with nightmares. Iana knew what the Mentor was thinking. That she had taken one on, all by herself, just an hour ago and now reported it so nonchalantly spoke of a deeper trauma resting just below the surface. She was still in shock over what had happened earlier in the day.
The Librarian took Iana’s bloody hand and submerged it in her sterilizing mixture. At first all Iana felt was the stinging cold of the freshly melted snow, but then the sting of the antiseptic hit her and she gasped. She was determined not to cry out, and she didn’t. But her knees betrayed her and gave out for a moment. She quickly grabbed the rocky ledge next to the stone sink to keep herself upright. Her eyes closed and her breathing quickened as the Librarian swiftly cleaned the wounds.
“Do you need to sit down?” The Librarian asked her.
Iana shook her head and told her, “No,” in a sharp and angry tone that Iana did not mean. A rock solid arm reached around Iana’s waist and she was pulled tight to a sturdy body for support. Iana knew instantly it was Danielle. Even though she needed the support to stay upright, she struggled weakly to pull away.
“Don’t be foolish,” Danielle said, admonishing her like a small child, and Iana gave up her struggling. She had seen Danielle hold the hand of a fellow Rambler in the field while they passed from wounds too deep to heal. She told herself this was no different: simple attention a Mentor would pay to any Rambler. She was not used to Danielle touching her though, and she did not like the way it felt to have the Mentor so near to her.
“We’re almost done. I’m going to pour this medicine into the water now. This may hurt a little, but it will close all these small puncture wounds and stay any infection,” the Librarian told her.
Iana looked up sharply. “You don’t think it hurts already?” she asked the Librarian with a sarcastic look. “Why not just use the slippery-elm salve like we usually do?” Iana countered in earnest.
She was used to the cooling salve. Her hand was hurting enough already and the salve worked well; her wounds would be healed in a few weeks using the salve. The Librarian looked over Iana’s head to meet Danielle’s eyes; she nodded quickly one time at whatever she saw.
“There isn’t time,” the Librarian told her, taking Iana’s hand more firmly under the water.
Iana tried the shrug off Danielle’s arms again as she corrected the Librarian, “No, there’s plenty of time. I have the time…”
But the Librarian was already pouring a few drops of something pink into the bowl. The pain took away Iana’s breath as it shot through her hand, burning right up her arm before slamming into her head just behind her eyes. Iana gasped and rocked back into Danielle. She would have ripped her hand out of the water if the Librarian hadn’t been holding it with a grip of iron. Iana’s head went fuzzy and she heard someone cry out in pain, though she couldn’t think who was screaming. She distantly felt her legs give way and everything went bright around her, like the sun had exploded within the cave somehow. She could faintly hear a woman’s voice calling to her.
“Iana, stay with us; stay with me, Rambler.”
It was Danielle’s voice of course. When her eyes came back into focus she found all three of them sitting on the floor. The Librarian was drying her hand off; little white bubbles were fizzing in all the small puncture wounds in her skin. Danielle held her cradled in her arms on the floor. Iana wanted to push up and out of those arms, but her stomach was starting to rebel again so she laid her head back on the Mentor’s shoulder instead. She closed her eyes and tried to force her stomach quiet through sheer determination.
“Here, put this under your tongue.” The Librarian offered Iana what looked like a piece of bark. “It’ll keep your stomach from pitching again.”
Iana gratefully accepted the medicine. She’d already cried out like a baby in front of Danielle; she would do anything not to throw up in front of her too. By the time the Librarian had her hand wrapped in a clean bandage, Iana’s head had cleared and her stomach had settled. Danielle’s arms felt good wrapped around her. She felt warm and protected; it was not a sensation Iana was used to feeling.
“She needs to rest now,” the Librarian quietly told Danielle, concern in her voice.
“There isn’t time,” Danielle replied.
Iana had her eyes closed, but she could feel Danielle’s focus move to her face. She knew she should pull away from the Mentor, to push back up into the reality of the world and what she had yet to do. She needed to report on what had happened to her fellow Ramblers that morning. It was too late to help them now; she knew there was nothing she could do to help them. But she could at least report to the Council. She had sworn to make it back to tell their story—and to find who was to blame. But her hand was still throbbing with pain, her muscles felt unnaturally heavy for some reason and difficult for her to move, and Danielle’s arms felt so warm and protective.
She had lain in her Mentor’s arms once before like this, during the last year of her training. All the apprentices had been performing a survival training exercise. In true Rambler fashion it was a deathly dangerous course. It called for them to traverse rocky cliffs, freezing rivers, and clogged mountain passes filled with dangerous animals. One apprentice from each pack—East, West, North and South— raced against the others. The race was meant to prepare the apprentices for the day when they would prove themselves worthy of becoming Ramblers, by taking their Bar. Apprentice packs were always made up of six students and this would be the third run of her pack to traverse the course.
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