Discover the first chapter of Silverlegs by Camilla Monk, available since 8/27/2019 as an ebook and paperback.
I didn’t think; I just ran.
I remember the forest, my sandals squishing the marshy ground, my mud-soaked dress, the musky scent of earth after the rain. I was taller than most girls my age and I ran fast. Even as a child I had no trouble catching up with wayward ibexes—and let me tell you those nasty little nutsacks could dash to the other end of a field in the blink of an eye, and you’d best step aside when they felt like ramming into something or someone. I never thought of my speed as a survival skill until that day, but I needed to put as much distance between the farm and me as I could. So, I ran, under the rain, past gray hills that faded in the clouds, down the road we took to go to the Bride’s Lake, and into the woods.
Back then I had the legs of a fifteen-year-old and the brain to go with them: a dry pea rolling around in my skull. I should have grabbed a loaf of bread before bolting out of the kitchen, or maybe I should have just gone to my mother and told her. Would she have listened? Would she have cared? Would the words have even come out, past the knot in my throat, in between exhausted breaths? Perhaps it was for the best after all that I was this blank slate, a being too simple to feel and think deeply. I only knew the burning in my leg muscles, the prickling pain of branches lashing at me. And that other pain, deep inside.
I didn’t even cry; I just ran until I couldn’t hear his howls, and I didn’t look back. I raced along the lake’s shore until I could no longer recognize any of the trees. I was far past the spot where my stepbrothers and I usually took the ibexes to drink, perhaps three leagues away from our house. At last I slowed down, feeling my legs shaking under me. I pressed a hand over the erratic drumming in my rib cage and leaned against the massive trunk of a sigillaria, finding some measure of comfort against the rough bark.
It was hard to tell with this gray sky, but the moons would probably rise soon, and night would fall. Already, on the other side of the lake, a few patches of crusamantes were starting to glow softly. Once it was dark, insects would be drawn to the frosty pink of their luminescent petals—the last thing they’d see before those eerily beautiful flowers snapped shut and digested them.
I drew a shivering breath and looked down at the brownish stains covering the coarse fabric of my dress. Mud and blood. Either my mother or one of the boys would have heard his screams and found him by now. I had little doubt whose side they’d take. Like a spear plunging into my belly and twisting my guts, I had the sick certainty that if they found me, the punishment would be my last. I could never go back there. A loud gurgle rising from my midsection reminded me that staying curled under this tree wasn’t much of an option either.
I gazed at a tangle of dead wood floating on the lake’s silvery surface, as if it might hold some sort of answer. A sign? I squinted my eyes at a grayish blot peeking through the gnarled branches. Horror prickled up my spine when I recognized a human face. The muscles in my legs coiled with the urge to run away from the monster floating toward me. I hesitated just long enough to realize that the features were bloated, yet peaceful. The strange mask of death.
I took a few cautious steps toward the water to get a better look at the shadow drifting my way, caressed by tendrils of milky mist as if he were truly traveling from this world to another, a place the living could never comprehend. There was something metallic on him that reflected the dying light, possibly armor. A soldier, then?
Like coins and good wine, we didn’t see many of those in our remote valley. I’d heard of entire legions, thousands of men marching to the war, whose powerful stride would make the ground shake under their feet, but they didn’t stop in villages like ours. They had camps outside of bigger towns. What we had was the odd pair of legionaries roaming the marsh—no doubt deserters, according to Servilius.
They always wanted something, and they always carried swords, so everyone was happy to oblige. A small group of them showed up to our farm once when I was little, long before my father died and Servilius took his place. He’d been given sweet meat by the wife of a neighbor in exchange for some kind of favor. Juicy beef, cooked for an entire day in honey, spices and wine—makes my mouth water just thinking about it. But it made the soldiers’ mouths water, too, so they asked for the pot, and we looked down at our toes and gave it to them. From that day on, I learned to dislike legionaries like everyone else did. I would have been hard pressed to provide a solid argument why, though, save for the fact that they took the sweet meat.
This one would never take anything from anyone again. He glided toward the shore, his bed of branches a funeral ship carried by the breeze. I couldn’t smell him from here, only the murky waters, with their trail of decaying leaves and fish. It was getting dark, but I couldn’t look away. I stared in morbid fascination until he hit a cluster of rocks not far from the shore and got stuck between the biggest ones. He stayed there, swayed by the faint current, a dead mass of branches and metal, of grayish limbs to which clung some shreds of dirty fabric—a dark tunic and trousers.
I crept closer and closer, until I could make out the rusty scales of his armor, his swollen eyelids, and one milky eye peeking through. In that moment, nothing existed but this mysterious horror. Where did he come from? I knew that ours was only a tiny part of the lake. Past the rocky corridor, whose entrance I could barely make out through the fog, was an unknown immensity that led to the eastern shores, and to Nyos—an actual city, more than a week’s walk from our village. Servilius would have wanted to sell his butter there, but the salt merchants carried rumors that the war had reached Nyos, and that it was under siege because it sat in the middle of the Eastern and Western Empire and both emperors wanted to claim it.
I didn’t really understand the finer points of this distant roar, but I knew that our empire was divided in half, West and East. The old emperor had split it between his sons before his death. They were supposed to be co-emperors, but our emperor, Manicus of the West, soon declared war on Varalius of the Eastern Empire, who ruled over the old capital of Loria. Those two had been fighting like dogs since before I was born, and their legions clashed on various battlefields around the Inland Sea… all the way up to Nyos?
It sounded unreal, that the storm of fire I envisioned might be so close to our little valley—mere days away. But the dead man did seem to come from the East, and with all those branches caging him, he must have been drifting for a while… I stared at him, wrenching a threadbare fold of my dress as I came to a resolve. He had a real sword and boots. Even more tempting was the large fibula fastening a ragged cloak to his shoulder. It was hard to tell under that layer of black and slimy silt, but maybe it was gold? I chewed on the inside of my cheek and stepped a foot in the cold water. No one would come at this hour. No one would know if I took it.
Once I was trudging ankle-deep, the smell reached me. Like bad meat and vegetables, coming in strong whiffs. The sweet and nauseating perfume of death. I hesitated, my stomach lurching from being so close to a decomposing body. But the fibula was shiny, and I had little left to lose at this point. I pictured myself selling the precious pin and starting a new life somewhere far away from the lake; it could probably pay for a vegetable cart, and even fine clothes.
I bunched my dress as the water rose up to my knees, my thighs, until I stood less than three feet away from him, enveloped in the suffocating smell of his rotting flesh. I extended my arm and grazed the sword’s scabbard first—cold, wet leather. My fingers skittered upward to the hilt. Emboldened, I gripped it and tugged hard. I nearly fell back in surprise when the blade came out of its sheath. I raised it in front of me with some effort, water dripping in rivulets down my forearms. It was much heavier than I’d thought, and unlike his armor, it wasn’t rusty, only dirty. Good metal then, steel maybe—it would yield a good price, I decided.
By then, I was no longer afraid; I placed the sword on the rocks and worked on unpinning that pretty fibula with its finely engraved eagle head and tucked it into my breastband. I shoved a big branch aside and discovered he had been carrying a satchel. I struggled to free it from his stiff arm, my eyes watering from the stench and the brief contact of my fingertips with his viscous skin. The armor looked too complicated to unfasten, but the helmet… I glided around to his head and tried to remove it. That’s when I noticed the hole. Something had sliced through the sturdy bronze with disturbing ease.
When the helmet came off with a splash of polluted water, it revealed a jagged gash in his scalp in that same place. I peeked in horrified awe at the mess of hair matted by blackened blood. I wondered if the greenish jelly was his brain and if mine would have looked the same—had Servilius been faster and managed to crack my skull open with the pitcher like he’d meant to. My heart rose at the back of my throat. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. About his blood. Mine.
I scratched my nose with the back of my hand and peeked up at the darkening clouds instead. Two orbs now glowed faintly in the sky; the eyes of the wolf, watching over our empire—two moons, hanging millions of leagues away from us in the sky, according to the astronomers who came up with complicated calculations to determine the distance. But I had no idea back then. In truth, I didn’t even know what an astronomer was.
In any case, night was falling 1fast. I needed to get the boots, too, gather my loot, and find someplace safe to hide until dawn. I set on wrestling the first boot off the soldier’s swollen foot. Hopefully the water hadn’t damaged the many straps and leather laces too badly. I was almost done with the second boot when a rustling made me freeze.
It could have been anything: there was never any actual silence in the woods, rather a soft background noise made of the wind breathing in the trees and the scurrying and skittering and calling of all the things that lived in the undergrowth—a melody through which the trained ear could easily filter suspicious sounds. And my ears were good enough. Damp wood creaked under someone’s footsteps, soon followed by male voices and a dog barking.
I pulled at the boot with all I had and crammed it into his satchel with its twin. I could carry the sword, but I had to give up on the helmet; I tossed it back into the water. With my loot now secured, I gathered my skirt and scrambled toward the shore, my breath coming in panicked gasps. I looked around frantically, catching a faint glint through the trees. A lamp … or a torch. And they had a dog… a search party, then? If I ran back to the woods, the trees might hide me, but the dog would probably smell me.
A memory surfaced in my mind, of the time we lost an ibex and Servilius said he found it drowned in a cave, farther east… I rolled my skirt up, tucked it under my belt, and did the only thing I was good at: I ran. Even through the fear blazing in my veins, there was that tiny part of me that loved the feeling of my feet digging into the wet gravel, the elation of springing forward as if I could fly.
The barking was growing closer, and the trees and lake became a blur as I raced to find the cave through the obscurity. At last, I glimpsed a black mouth in the rocks that seemed to swallow the oily water. I climbed a stack of rocks barring the way, nearly losing my loot in the process. But I didn’t want to let go of it. It was mine, all I had ever possessed in my life. The clothes on my back, and the soldier’s treasure. I let myself slide down into the water as quietly as possible and paddled toward the cave’s entrance, my heart a wild, desperate thing thumping in my chest.
I was cold, and my neck and spine hurt from the effort to stay afloat under the weight of my precious haul. At last, blessed darkness engulfed me and I felt grit under my toes. I progressed a little deeper inside and away from the moonlit shore. There, the water was shallow enough that I could safely sit, immersed waist-deep. I curled into a tight ball around my treasure and waited, my skirt ballooning around me like the sails of the small merchant boats that sometimes ventured all the way to our valley to sell salt and spices.
The dog’s bark echoed in the still night, answering voices. Panic swelled in my throat when I recognized the voice of Lar, my youngest stepbrother, and the deeper, scratchy slur of Mamarcius, our neighbor. “She’s here!”
I was aware of every beat of my heart, loud in my ears, and I willed myself just a little smaller, invisible. But there were no splashing sounds—they weren’t in the water, then—and the voices sounded muted, coming somewhere from outside the cave.
A slew of curses reached my ears through the incessant, maddening barking.
“Shut up, Tia!” my stepbrother yelled.
Then the silence. So thick I could feel it snake around me. All I could hear was the blood roaring in my ears as I tried to figure why they’d grown quiet.
“It’s not her…” Mamarcius grunted, the words coated with unease.
The soldier—Tia had led them to him. My mother sometimes said the dog was smarter than me. I hoped not today… Trapped in my cave, at the mercy of Tia’s sharp nose and brilliant intellect, I rolled my last dice; I joined my hands and prayed. My lips mouthed a silent plea to Picumnus, our village’s protector—who normally oversaw crop and childbirth, but I knew that someone important like Mother Earth Tellus or King of all Gods Lovis wouldn’t listen to scum like me.
The footsteps seemed to grow closer, crushing the gravel in tune with the patter of Tia’s paws. I prayed with renewed fervor and promised Picumnus an loaf of bread I didn’t have in exchange for my safety. From my vantage point, I could see the light of their torch dusting gold across the lake’s surface. Another step closer to the shore, another swipe of their torch, and they would see the cave’s entrance.
“It’s a dead end. She probably took the road. Let’s head back.” Mamarcius’s voice, breathless. That fat hog was probably getting tired.
I could practically taste the bile in Lar’s words as he replied, “All right. But I’ll return with Arun in the morning, and when we find her, I’ll fry her fucking face in boiling oil.” My teeth clenched so hard I thought they might shatter. I waited, petrified in the icy water. Until they were gone.