Beyond the Third End

The Midgard Born Series

Chapter 1

Siri stretched out her arm, leaned down and grabbed onto Mo’s hand. Their palms slapped together harder than she’d intended. It hurt, but that couldn’t be helped. There was no time for finesse when you were trying to escape. She ignored the fleeting pain and heaved, her muscles taking the strain with ease. Lifting Mo up onto the wall was not a problem. His frame was slight, his bones almost bare, and her body was much stronger than it looked. She hardly felt his weight. At any other time, that fact would have made her sad.

Mo’s sandal dropped from his left foot onto the dusty ground as he scrabbled to gain purchase on the last arm’s length of the wall, but they didn’t try to retrieve it. Time was of the essence. Their lives were at risk. She could hear the angry voices of the traders bearing down upon them — a group that was growing by the moment with anyone who enjoyed a chase, or cheering on the pursuers.

The fear of getting caught caused her body to shake from head to toe. This was no way to live a life.

They ran as fast as they could along the uneven surface of the decaying bricks, balancing with their arms, accidentally kicking loose particles with their feet every few steps. Mo didn’t falter or slow down even though it must’ve been agony for him with the jagged surface digging into his bare foot. This wasn’t the first time they’d been in this kind of situation. They knew what they were doing. But it still made her proud.

The voices of the traders began to fade into the distance, their own youth giving them the advantage over the men and women whose stodgy bodies had been fattened by wealth, but that didn’t mean they were safe. Traders were cleverer than they looked. Almost as clever as those who stole from them. Just because they couldn’t easily be seen, didn’t mean they weren’t there. Just because they couldn’t be heard, didn’t mean they weren’t around the next corner. The traders could’ve scattered in all directions, hoping that she and Mo would think they were safe. But her brother and her, they knew all the tricks. And there was one thing they knew for certain. They were never safe.

So they didn’t stop. They didn’t slow down. They didn’t even look behind.

When they reached the point at which they’d entered the town, they jumped off the wall, using the old, discarded wooden chest they’d already upended to halve the distance to the ground, and began to run across the wide-open expanse of rock-hard soil that made up the plains. The plains that covered half the landscape of their world and were places of death, rather than life. They needed to reach where the dusty ground gave way to a slightly greener landscape, if anything could be called green in the constant twilight of the Days of Dark. Not green, no. A different intensity of grey? No matter. The trees and bushes, however sparse, would help to hide them from the view of anyone still looking.

There would still be people looking.

Siri glanced up at the sky. The slight hint of light they called day was beginning to fade. Soon it would be properly dark. True night. Inky black when the moon didn’t grace the space, which was often. Then, the traders would stop the chase. Then, she and Mo would have other things to worry about.

Mo stumbled and fell to the ground in front of her. Without stopping, she leaned down, grabbed his hand and whisked him upright until his flailing legs could take over.

“Not long,” she said.

He didn’t reply. He needed his breath.

When they passed the first bushes, Siri ducked down behind them and looked back. She scanned the horizon as best she could. There were no burning torches that she could see, only the hint of glowing fires from within the town’s boundary.

“They’ll be setting up the defences now,” Mo said, “They won’t be coming after us.”

“I hope you’re right.”

He probably was. A town like that wouldn’t want to be overrun by bandits and beasts alike. They would have guards along the perimeter. They would have defences. At night, there were many things worse than petty thieves to deal with.

Siri turned full circle, still keeping her eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. In the far distance, she could see the tiny flicker of a campfire, too far away to worry about. Apart from that, the scene was now night dark.

The keen scents brought on by the cold tickled at her nose. She couldn’t discern anything bad.

“Hey,” Mo called.

In his hand was one of the scraps of material they always used to mark the place. She walked over to the bush, looked up to the sky to orient herself with the stars, and began to pace.

Always the same combination. Fifty paces south, ten paces east. If the landscape didn’t fit, they found a place that did.

They both removed their hand picks from their pockets and began to dig. A short period of toil was nothing for the knowledge that your belongings were safe and it wasn’t so bad. The ground was still soft from where they’d dug it before.

They pulled out their things. One tattered blanket. A single change of clothes each. One cooking pot. Two battered bowls that also served as cups. A small comb with several teeth broken along its length. A few tools, including a solitary hunting knife that she was practised at throwing. A carving of a wolf that their father had once given to her, and that she’d now passed onto Mo. It wasn’t much, but losing any of it would be devastating.

It was all there, though every time she held her breath until the clutch of items poked through the soil.

Again, she looked back toward the town.

“We’re too close to risk starting a fire.”

Mo nodded.

Siri took out the strips of dried meat they’d managed to grab from an unobservant trader, while Mo crept down to a nearby stream with the pan. She carefully divided it up into meals, the minimum they could survive on until they found something better. It struck her that a mouse needed more to live on than they had, but it was something and they ought to be grateful. There were many days they’d sat by a stream filling their empty stomachs with nothing but water. She wished she were better at hunting anything larger than a piglet.

When Mo returned, they tore at the strips with their teeth and washed the dry scraps down with gulps of the water. The meat was tough. It hurt her jaw to chew so much before she could swallow, but hunger was enough to make any food palatable.

“We moving on tomorrow?” Mo said.

“I think we’ve outstayed our welcome here.”

Her little brother likely nodded, but she could barely see his outline. The clouds had come over and obliterated any remaining flicker of light. Not even starlight was available to light their gloom.

She shuffled closer to him, flicked out the blanket for them to huddle beneath and hoped that they might survive another night.

“You go to sleep now,” she said, and Mo snuggled in next to her.

“Wake me up when it’s my turn to be lookout,” he said.

It was a ritual perpetuated for comfort.

They both knew she wouldn’t.

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