King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

In another life, she and Matthias might have made their home in a place like this. They would have argued about how close they should live to a city. Nina would have longed for people and excitement; Matthias would have grumbled for quiet. They would have found a way to compromise. They would have argued and kissed to make up. But where would they have ever felt safe together? In Fjerda? In Ravka? Was there anyplace they would have truly been free and happy? Another life, another world.

It’s time, Nina. Return me to my god.

Nina drew in a long breath and said, “I’ll need two days to take him where the water is clean.”

Saying the words was like feeling her heart split, the heavy swing of the axe, the blade sinking past bark to the soft white wood.

“You shouldn’t go alone,” said Adrik without enthusiasm. He sounded like he was contemplating putting on a sodden pair of socks.

“I can go by my—”

A noise sounded from somewhere below. They stilled, bodies tense, waiting. Silence, and then a shout.

“The meadow,” whispered Nina.

Adrik started down the hill and signaled for them to follow, his glum demeanor vanishing in an instant as the hardened fighter emerged. They kept to the shadows, moving with care, creeping closer.

“Soldiers,” hissed Leoni, peering through the branches.

A group of young men in gray Fjerdan uniforms were gathered around the stream, shouting at one another. Two were on horseback; the others had dismounted and were trying to calm a horse that had somehow gotten spooked and thrown its rider. Nina could see the soldier’s boot had caught in the stirrup and he was being dragged through the stream as the horse cantered back and forth in the shallows, barely missing the soldier’s head with its hooves. All it would take was a single heavy strike and the boy’s skull would be crushed.

“We should help them,” said Leoni.

“We should get back to the safety of the town,” said Adrik. “They’ll manage.”

“And that’s one less Fjerdan soldier to plague us,” Nina said beneath her breath.

Nina.

Adrik and Leoni stared at her. Adrik looked like a mourner in search of a wake, and even Leoni’s usual sunshine was clouded with worry.

She didn’t approve. Adrik didn’t approve. Hell, in her heart, Nina didn’t approve either.

But since Matthias had left her—been taken from her—Nina had lost the part of her that cared. What was the point of it all? You saved one life only to see another taken. The good perished. And the bad? Nina looked at the young Fjerdans in their uniforms, killers in the making. What right did they have to survive when her Matthias, her beautiful barbarian, was gone?

Nina.

She wished she could clap her hands over her ears and tell him to leave her alone. But that was the last thing she wanted.

Must you insist I stay human? she complained silently.

I know how strong you are, Nina. My death will not be the thing that defeats you.

“What are we even supposed to do?” Nina said aloud.

“I know my way around horses,” Leoni offered.

Adrik rolled his eyes. “Here we go.”

“It will ingratiate us with the locals,” insisted Leoni, already pushing through the trees. “We could use some soldier friends.”

“Soldier friends?” Nina asked incredulously.

“Come on,” said Adrik. “If we leave Leoni to her own devices, she may invite them to a slumber party.”

“Gedrenen,” yelled one of the soldiers as they entered the clearing. Strangers. He sounded like a child.

“Can we be of help?” Nina called in Fjerdan.

“No!” he cried from the riverbank. “Stay back!”

That was when Nina realized they weren’t men at all—they were young women dressed as Fjerdan soldiers.

Nina held up her hands to try to make peace. “Let us help your comrade. My Zemeni friend knows horses.” She really hoped that was the case and not just Leoni’s optimistic take on I once pet a pony.

Leoni walked to the edge of the stream, making a low nickering sound and murmuring in Zemeni. She moved slowly left, then right, arms spread wide.

“I need rope,” she said quietly, without looking away from the horse.

One of the riders came forward. She had to be six feet tall and was all wiry muscle. Her skin had the warm, tawny brown cast that usually indicated Hedjut ancestry this far north, and a few wisps of russet hair were visible beneath her army-issue cap. Now that they were closer Nina could see their uniforms were all too big, ill fitting. Stolen.

The tall girl’s chin jutted forward. She was around Nina’s age, and whatever fear she had at being discovered, she was hiding it well. She tossed the rope to Nina, who passed it to Leoni, keeping her distance. What were these girls doing? Women didn’t serve in the Fjerdan military. They didn’t ride often, and when they did, they certainly didn’t ride astride. They didn’t even wear trousers, just heavy skirts intended to preserve their modesty.

The girl caught in the stirrups moaned, struggling to right herself in the shallows. She had straw-yellow hair that had come loose around her shoulders, and she was bleeding badly from a cut on her forehead. But she was alive and her skull was still in one piece—for the moment.

Leoni kept her eyes fastened on the horse as she twisted the rope into a lasso. She swung it in gentle, lazy loops, her voice continuing that low, soothing murmur as they all stood watching. Then, without breaking her rhythm, she tossed the lasso in a gentle arc. It landed perfectly over the horse’s head, and the beast reared with a high whinny. Leoni moved left and right again, turning the rope, leaning back, using her strength but not fighting. At last the horse settled.

The tall girl who had given Nina the rope stepped forward, but Leoni gave a quick shake of her head.

“Let her be,” Nina said quietly. A flush spread over the girl’s sharp jaw.

Leoni approached the horse slowly and rested her hand on its neck, stroking its mane down to the withers. “Something scare you?” she said in Zemeni, cautiously making her way around the horse’s flank. She bent to the stirrup but gestured to the girl lying glazed-eyed in the water to stay still. She didn’t want to risk the horse shying again. Nina hoped the girl was conscious enough to understand. “Nothing to worry about,” murmured Leoni.

She released the girl’s boot from the stirrup, then quickly tugged on the rope and led the horse away.

For a long moment the fallen girl lay in the water. Then she released a sob and pushed herself up. Her companions ran to her, pulling her from the stream.

Leoni brought the horse to where Nina was standing with the tall girl. “Any idea what spooked him?” she asked in Zemeni.

Nina translated, but the tall girl didn’t respond, she just narrowed her coppery eyes. “What are you doing out here?”

“Other than saving your friend’s life?” Nina replied mildly.

“I hardly think she would have died.”

“No? Just bled until she passed out from her concussion or until that horse trampled her into a coma?”

“We had it under control,” she insisted. Then she glanced up at the trees. “You came from the northern woods. There’s nothing up there.”

“So we soon learned. We’re new to these parts. Is exploring considered a crime in G?fvalle?”

“There’s a vantage of the factory up that way.”

“Ah!” said Nina, and turned to Adrik and Leoni. “The building we saw was some kind of factory.” Best to keep to their ruse in case any of these women spoke a little Zemeni. She turned back to the tall one. “We thought it looked a bit like a fort. What is it they make there?” she asked innocently.

“It isn’t my business and I doubt it’s yours. You’re staying at the convent?”

Just how much did this girl know, and why was she so hostile? Maybe she was a soldier’s sister, raised to be suspicious. Nina’s hands twitched, and she felt the bone shards shift. She didn’t want to hurt this girl, but she would if she had to. The last thing they needed was someone running home to talk about the strangers in the woods who had been spying on the factory. Then the tall girl clenched her fists and said, “I … Will you not tell the Wellmother you saw us here?”

Suddenly, the girl’s defensiveness made more sense. The stolen uniforms. The excursion into the woods in the middle of the day. She had been trying to go on the attack, but she was legitimately frightened of being discovered.

“You’re novitiates?” Nina asked.

“We’re all being educated at the convent. Some will marry. Some will become Springmaidens and give their lives to Djel.” She didn’t sound like either prospect excited her.

Nina adopted a more serious mien and realized it was Matthias’ manner she was mimicking. “Riding astride, wearing trousers, cavorting in the woods with no chaperone … It would be irresponsible for us not to say something to the Wellmother, especially given the generosity of our hosts.”

The tall girl turned ashen, and Nina felt a stab of guilt. If she really was close to Nina’s age, she was too old to be a novitiate. All of them were. Were these the outsiders, then? The girls who hadn’t been chosen for brides? What happened to Fjerdan women who didn’t find a place as wives or mothers? Ravka was broken in many ways, but at least there Nina had been allowed to train as a soldier, to become what she was meant to be.

Free to fight and die alongside your men?

Yes, Matthias. Free.

What would he have made of these girls in their stolen clothes?