Excerpt of The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons.
My breath is sharp as a dagger, stabbing through my throat. It’s all I hear. Whoosh. Whoosh. In and out.
They’re here. The Trackers. They’ve followed Bian from the lowland village where he lives. The fool led them right to us.
The forest I know as well as the lines on my palms is dense and shrouded from the mid-morning light. I keep to the shadows, skirting around the bright open patches where the sunlight streams to the forest floor. My calloused feet fl y over the damp leaves and gray pebbles, keeping me stealthy as a fox.
I run a practiced pattern, just like my ma taught me as a child. A zigzag through the brush and trees. I never run in a line; their horses will catch up too quickly on the straightaway, and they’re not all I have to worry about. I know the Tracker hounds have picked up my scent too, but they’re scroungers, weakened by hunger, and not as nimble as me in these woods. I’m banking on their starving stomachs leading them directly to the bait meat in my hunting snares.
My thoughts jolt to the traps. There are six placed strategically around our camp. I know they’re good because I set them myself, and checked them only this morning.
In my mind I see a Tracker’s heavy black boots clamber over the loose branches, see him fall ten feet down into a muddy hole. Another might trip the spring of the rabbit cage so its razor-sharp teeth bite down through his leather shoe.
Trackers are cunning. But not as cunning as me.
I swing around a stout pine, locking my body in place behind it so that I’m absolutely still. The coarse bark imprints onto the naked skin of my shoulders but I hold my position. That’s when I hear it. The thunder of hoof-beats. A shot pierces the air. Gunfire. Someone yells—a man’s voice, strained, hurting. It’s either one of them or Bian. He’s the only man old enough to make a noise so deep. Tam’s not yet seven, and if he were caught, his cry would be shrill. Childlike.
Tam. I must find Tam and Nina, the twins. They count on me when they’re scared. Though when I conjure them in my mind—Tam’s black hair and button nose, Nina’s ever-watchful eyes—I am the one who’s scared.
I’ve prepared them, I tell myself. I’ve prepared them like my ma prepared me. They know the hiding place—the abandoned wolf’s den in the south woods. An image of it breaks through from my memory: the narrow, shale entrance and damp inner chamber, smelling of mold. The rocky floor lined with the brittle bones of squirrels whose souls have long since passed to Mother Hawk. At first it looks to be a trap in itself, but if you squeeze past the tapering stone walls, the rock gives way to soil, and the twisting roots of an old pine create a ladder to climb upward into sunlit freedom.
This has been our hiding place for my entire life. The twins know this. I’ve drilled them on this plan since my ma died four years ago, when I was eleven. Since they were toddling, crying in that cave for fear of the dark, and I had to carry them the entire way, singing their favorite lullabies, saying, you’re so brave, you’re so brave. Lifting them out myself, because they weren’t yet strong enough to climb.
I made them practice hiding even when Salma told me not to—that I shouldn’t “frighten them.” Stupid—readiness was how we’d survived two raids from the Trackers in our youth. But though Salma is two years older, she acts like a baby. She hates the mountains, and hates my ma, even in death, for stealing her away here, for giving her freedom. And why she hates that, I’ll never know.
Salma. I’ve lost sight of my cousin, and Metea, Bian, Tam and Nina’s mother. They’re my only family, the only ones who live with me in hiding.
Another shot. My hearing sharpens, hones in on the sound, and I alter my course. I have to see if it’s Bian that’s in trouble. In his panic I’m sure he’s run for the wolf’s den. If the twins are there, if Salma and Metea are there, he’ll give them all away.
I’m running westward now, aware of the heat and the moisture coating my skin. The trees spread, and I enter the clearing where the moss beneath my feet grows plush and soft as fur. Most days I love it here, but today this area is treacherous. There are few places to hide, and at any given moment I am exposed on all sides.
The hoofbeats have faded behind me, and the stillness makes me leery. Only a fool would think I’d lost them. No, they’re stalling, waiting to box me in.
I am less than a mile from our camp. For a flash, I debate running back to get a weapon. Any weapon—a bow, a knife, a steel pan. Anything that can be useful to defend myself, but I don’t have time. My usual obsidian blade is now in Tam’s tiny hands. I pray he won’t have to use it.
The sound of labored breathing, of something wounded, cuts through the trees. I skid to a halt, swinging myself onto a low branch so that I can get a better view of the surrounding area. Just north, thirty paces or so, I make out a figure crumpled over the ground.
His long, dark hair is matted with mud and leaves. His tunic—the one he trades his T-shirt for when he comes to visit us in the mountains—is twisted around his body and stained with an ink darker than berry juice. From the corner of his chest a spear nearly as tall as me juts out at an angle like a sapling after a windstorm. Weakly, he reaches for it with his opposite hand. Then his arm drops and he grows still. Too still.
I will not approach him. I cannot. My heart twists for the boy I have called brother all my life.
Silence. Even the birds are voiceless. Even the stream has stopped.
I must get closer. If he’s alive, I can help him.
I climb down, one painstaking step at a time, crouching low to sneak towards him. As I close in, I feel my blood grow slow and thick.
Bian is dead.
The spear is planted straight through to the earth. There is a wound in his leg where a bullet has pierced his jeans, and another in his chest. Dark blossoms of red are still seeping out across the sweat-dampened fabric. His mouth and his eyes are wide open in shock.
Still ten paces away and sheltered on one side by the thick, tri-split leaves of a wormwood bush, I fall to my knees. I don’t understand why they’ve done this—why he’s been shot and speared. Trackers carry guns, and for their grand prize, use nets. They don’t use the antique weapons of the upper class.
The answer pops into my mind as soon as I ask the question. These Trackers are not bounty hunters out on a slave-catching mission. These Trackers are hired thugs, paid for their services by some rich Magnate businessman looking for hunting fun. A bit of adventure.
It sickens me but I can picture it: The first shot, to Bian’s leg, was meant to slow him down, to fix the game. He’d stumbled, made an easy target for the men pursuing him. The Magnate managed to spear him in the chest, but the wound had not been fatal. So the Tracker had shot him again.
Poor Bian. Poor stupid Bian. Who never heeded his mother’s desperate pleas that he cover his tracks when paying us a visit. I hate him for bringing this upon us. I hate him more for dying.
Enough time has been wasted. There is nothing I can do here.
Find the twins. Find Salma and Metea, I order myself. But though the grief has dried, my feet are clumsier than before.
The woods are unnaturally silent. I doubt the Trackers have taken the Magnate home. They would have returned to collect his spear, and besides that, they haven’t gotten what they’ve come for. The real trophy.
Excerpted from THE GLASS ARROW © Copyright 2015 by Kristen Simmons. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Kristen Simmons is the author of the ARTICLE 5 series (ARTICLE 5, BREAKING POINT, and THREE), THE GLASS ARROW, METALTOWN, PACIFICA (coming March 2018 from Tor Teen), and THE PRICE OF ADMISSION (coming Fall 2018 from Tor Teen). She has a master’s degree in social work and loves red velvet cupcakes. She lives with her family in Cincinnati, Ohio.