The David Gemmell Award-shortlisted author of Age of Iron, Angus Watson, returns with The Land You Never Leave, book two of West of West, an epic fantasy trilogy in which a mismatched group of refugees must battle animals and monsters, an unforgiving land and each other as they cross a continent to fulfil a prophecy.
The Reluctant Nurse
Luby Zephyr was pretty sure that her nursemaid Caliska Coyote was going to kill her.
They hiked through fragrant woods busy with wildlife and across grassland abuzz with insects and shining with pink, blue and yellow flowers. The lovelier it was, the sourer Caliska’s mood became. She spoke only to insult Luby, left camp-building and cooking to her and seemed to have forgotten about the unguents that the warlock Yoki Choppa had given her to aid Luby’s recovery. When Caliska did deign to look at her patient, she gripped her throwing-axe handles and twisted her face like a parent whose child has walked fox shit into the hut for the third time that day.
Luby sympathised. Owsla captain Sofi Tornado had promised Caliska she’d be forgiven for her part in the attempted coup if she escorted the injured Luby back to Calnia unharmed. If Luby was harmed, Caliska was to be executed and have her soul destroyed by being eaten.
Sofi might officially forgive, but she wouldn’t ever forget Caliska’s plotting, so her place in the Owsla would never be comfortable again. Caliska would probably have a much better life if she abandoned Luby and set off south to hawk her alchemically enhanced fighting skills to some jungle emperor. Allowing Luby to live would leave a trail, so Luby had to die. It was what any stone cold killer would have done, and Caliska was about the stoniest and the coldest.
Now, six days after the Owsla mutineers had whacked her on the head with a stone axe during their short-lived attempt to assassinate Sofi Tornado, Luby had almost recovered. However, she was feigning sluggishness so Caliska would think she was an easier target. She was almost disappointed when her ruse worked. She’d fallen behind, as always, because Caliska did not have the patience to dally for the infirm. Rounding a corner on the woodland track, she found Caliska waiting for her, throwing axes in hand.
“I saw a bear.” Caliska was scanning the dark woods. “I think it went round there and—” she gasped. “Behind you!”
Luby span as if she really believed there was a bear behind her, and dropped. A throwing axe whizzed overhead. Luby dived off the path, came to her feet, checked as the second axe flashed past her face, then rolled, bounced and swerved away through the undergrowth, as silently as her zephyr namesake.
Caliska’s skill was the ability to throw with extraordinary power and accuracy. Luby Zephyr’s skill was stealth. Given a suitable environment, stealth beat throwing power every time. And the middle of the woods was about as suitable as it got. Caliska had missed her chance.
Luby wasn’t going to give her another one.
Caliska walked back to retrieve her axes, peering into the undergrowth. “Sofi doesn’t love you, you know!” she shouted. “She was using you. She’ll be with someone else by now. Probably Paloma Pronghorn. She’s much more beautiful and—”
There’s no need to shout, I’m much closer than you think, thought Luby as she dropped from a tree. Caliska turned. Luby slashed her first half-moon obsidian blade across her thick neck and the second blade across her exposed midriff, then dived back in the bushes and stole away silently as the dying Caliska stumbled after her.
Caliska had failed to follow Sofi’s orders, the punishment for which was meant to be execution and soul death. So Luby should have lit a fire with an Innowak crystal, cooked Caliska and eaten some of her flesh to kill her soul. However, Caliska had brought her this far.
So Luby built a normal fire, burnt Caliska’s body and, instead of eating part of it, shed a few tears.
* * *
Luby walked south, bow on her back, half-moon obsidian blades at her hips. Slung over one shoulder was a small leather bag containing a waterskin and the alchemical supplements and healing salves that Yoki Choppa the warlock had left with Caliska.
She walked a long way that day and further the next. She expected the rest of the Owsla warriors to catch up at any moment, returning south after dispatching the Mushroom Men, but there was no sign of them. She wondered what could have happened. Had they met a superior force or been tricked into their doom?
Worrying, however, detracted from her enjoyment of the walk, so she banned negative thoughts and decided that the Owsla’s mission must have taken them further than expected. Their quarry had probably fled west away from the lake. Sofi, Paloma Pronghorn, Sitsi Kestrel and the others had surely followed them, killed them, then taken a more westerly path back to Calnia where they’d be waiting for her.
The following morning she awoke and breakfasted. She stretched, felt her pre-injury power fizzing in every muscle, and knew that she’d be able to run back to Calnia that day if she wanted to.
But she didn’t want to.
In her years growing up in Calnia, then becoming Owsla, Luby Zephyr never had any time on her own. So she walked, slowly, taking detours to enjoy the view from small hills, to discover waterfalls and to investigate anything else that caught her interest. She told herself she was lingering to allow the rest of her squad to catch up, but knew it wasn’t true. She was as happy as she could remember being, wandering through the world alone.
She paced along, her head in the air and her feet on the ground. She inhaled the scents of the wood and moseyed along to the music of its creatures. When she started walking every day, worries flew in and batted at her mind, but soon it seemed that her troubling thoughts fluttered away, mingled with nature and returned, combined with the rhythms of the land and its animals. After a couple of miles she was just another creature making her way across the earth; a minuscule but valuable part of a huge, teeming system.
She hunted, foraged, ate, washed and slept, elated and cushioned by a peace so deep that she felt she could sink into it and stretch right out.
* * *
She arrived back in Calnia’s immediate territory fourteen days after she’d left and seven days after killing Caliska Coyote. She hadn’t realised how loud the background chatter of animals in the woods and grasslands had been until she emerged from the trees into Calnia’s farmland and the world fell eerily silent.
Luby Zephyr was fully recovered from her head wound and sad to be home.
Up ahead the Pyramid of the Sun shone high and gold. Farmers looked up from their work and hallooed cheerfully. She hallooed back, unsure if she’d met any of them before. After the Swan Empress Ayanna, the women of the Owsla were the best-known people in Calnia. Strangers would walk up and start conversations as if they were old friends. Some of the Owsla were seriously irked by this unsolicited chat. Morningstar, Caliska Coyote and Sadzi Wolf had all punched people for talking to them unbidden. It didn’t annoy Luby – she could have used her stealth skill to walk around unnoticed if it did – but it was disconcerting, because she had a bad memory and was never sure if her interlocutor was a childhood friend or a presumptuous unknown.
As if responding to her thoughts, an elderly farmer-looking fellow walking in the other direction stopped and opened his arms: “Luby Zephyr! Well I never. What are you doing out here in north Calnia? How are you? Do you need anything?”
“Hi, I’m fine. How are you?” Why were his arms open like that? Did he expect a hug? She settled for opening her own arms in a sort of wa-hey! greeting.
“Mustn’t grumble,” he said, closing his arms, apparently satisfied.
Did she recognise him?
“I suppose not,” she said. “Unless you’ve got something to grumble about?” She peered at him and tried to look as if she wasn’t. He did look a little familiar.
“You’ll hear no complaint from me.”
“Good. Any news in Calnia?” she asked.
“How long have you been away?”
“Well well, yes, I should say there’s some news. A lot of news!”
“Such as . . .?”
“Empress Ayanna had a baby yesterday. A boy!”
“A boy? That’s great.” Was it great? What were you meant to say? She wished she’d never left the woods.
“Yes, it nice to have some cheery news, given the war.”
“Oh, of course, two weeks away, you wouldn’t know.”
“Wouldn’t know what?”
“We’re going to war. With the Badlanders.”
“The Badlanders? Those sadists? Why?”
“Dunno. But they’re nearly ready to go. Biggest army ever, that’s what they’re saying. I’ve had to give a quarter of my stores. I was promised payment of gold and porcupine quills but I haven’t seen them yet and I’m not holding my breath.”
“Do you know where the rest of the Owsla are?”
“They’re not with you? Last I heard, which was yesterday, they were still missing. There are rumours. Some say they’ve joined the Badlanders.”
“And Yoki Choppa?”
“The warlock’s with the Owsla, so they say.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“Of course you have! It’s been wonderful talking to you, Luby Zephyr.”
She ran towards the city wall and, after about twenty heartbeats, remembered who the farmer was.
Luby’s parents, a teacher and a wall engineer from Calnia, had been pretty clear about what they thought of Emperor Zaltan choosing their daughter for the Owsla. Like the rest of the Owsla, she’d been chosen for her looks at least as much as for her athletic ability. “We are ashamed of Calnia, and of you,” her mother had said as she’d left their hut with a small bundle containing all her possessions.
She hadn’t seen her mother or father, nor heard from them throughout the gruelling training. It had been an agonising few years, physically and mentally, and some parental input might have been a comfort.
Then the Owsla had won a few battles, defeated some powerful enemies and bolstered Calnia’s standing in the world. Opinion had turned. By the time the captive-killing displays began in the Plaza of the Sun, infamy had become fame. The people who hadn’t been able to say the word Owsla without spitting now thought that the ten-strong squad of alchemically enhanced women warriors were the greatest thing since mashed corn. Some would cheer as they walked by. Some would try and touch them – which resulted in more than a few broken fingers.
After years of silence, Luby’s parents reappeared and threw a party to declare their love and unflagging support. All their friends and extended family had turned up. Luby had gone along with a smile plastered on her face and had the most excruciating afternoon of her life. That was where she’d met the farmer before. His name was Eeyan and he was her mother’s cousin.
Cursing herself for not recognising Eeyan, Luby Zephyr ran to the Mountain of the Sun and bounded up the log steps. Behind her the Plaza of Innowak, the place where she and the other Owsla killed enemies to entertain the citizens of Calnia, was covered in collapsed skin tents, piles of spears, heaps of stone axes and other campaign provisions. The Low milled around, marshalled by the higher orders, enlarging ordnance piles and generally moving stuff about.
Luby had always relied on Sofi Tornado, captain of the Owsla, to tell her what was going on. The next person she’d have gone to was Yoki Choppa, then maybe Chamberlain Hatho. With the first two missing and Chamberlain Hatho killed in the Goachica attack that had been the cause of their mission to the north, the only option was to talk directly to Empress Ayanna, even if she had just given birth.
* * *
She walked across the top of the pyramid, nodding confidently to the guards. A couple took steps towards her then seemed to think better of it. She was Owsla. One did not mess.
As she passed the sweat lodge, a voice from the bathing pool called out: “Luby Zephyr!”
The voice belonged to a young woman – a girl – who was immersed in the cloudy, mineral-rich water of the steaming bathing pool, with only her head visible above the silky surface. Her hair was plastered to her small head as if she’d just risen from beneath the water. She had a pert nose and her eyes twinkled.
Who could the girl be? Only the empress was allowed in this pool. And why was there so much steam? It smelled herby, almost intoxicating.
“Who are you?” Luby asked when it became clear that the girl was just going to carry on smiling at her as if she knew all her secrets and found them amusing.
“You’d like to see the empress,” replied the girl. “She’s asleep with her baby. You’ve come a long way and you’re tired. Why don’t you slip off those dirty, worn clothes and wait in here? You can tell me all about your adventures while I soothe your weary feet.”
The girl was confident and persuasive and Luby really was tired now that she thought about it. And the steam smelled lovely. “Who are you?” she asked again.
“I’m Chippaminka. I’m the new head warlock.”
“What happened to Yoki Choppa?”
“He’s fine. He’s just not here. You were separated from the Owsla nearly two weeks ago and cannot know what happened to the rest of them.”
“Yes, but how do you . . .?”
“I’m a warlock. Take off your clothes and step in. I promise you’ll see the empress as soon as possible, ahead of all the other people who’ve been waiting a good deal longer than you.”
Luby Zephyr did as she was told. She removed her clothing and lowered herself onto the submerged wooden bench opposite Chippaminka. She sighed. The hot water was wonderful.
“Give me your foot.”
She lifted her leg. The girl clasped the Owsla woman’s foot and directed it gently but firmly onto her slick lap. She squeezed her thumbs into its road-beaten sole and kneaded. Luby could not help but sigh again. The girl’s touch was even more soothing than the water.
“Do you know,” Luby asked, “where the rest of the Owsla are and why we’re about to march on the Badlands?”
“I do,” said the girl, with a smile that made the breath catch in Luby’s throat. “But why don’t you relax for now?”