The misty light of dawn drifted through the shutters of Tisha's room, falling across her eyes and making her groan. She had no idea how long she had lain awake wondering if she had made the biggest mistake of her life by staying here. Logic told her she must have slept, but it did not feel like it. Her muscles were tense despite the comfortable bed, and exhausted heat prickled at her eyes.
It felt wrong. Here she was, safe and warm and doing nothing while her father was who knew where facing things she could not begin to imagine. Last night, she had decided to stay with the Realm Riders, but now she was not sure she had made the right choice. If she'd had the courage to walk out into the city and the brains to get over the Wall, she could already be looking for him.
Or she could already be dead.
Throwing off the blanket with a huff of annoyance, Tisha wrapped the sheet around her naked body as she sat up. The time for doubt had passed. She had to make the most of her situation, and she could not do that by lying around and fretting over events already set in motion.
Night-time gloom had lifted to the soft silver of a new day, illuminating her new bedroom. The furniture looked as if it had been around forever; the passage of the years had given it an air of respectability. The bed and trunk at its foot were carved from black wood, and a red rug splashed its colour across the floor. Simple oil lamps – dark now but for the spells warding them against breaking – were placed on the desk by the window, and a large wardrobe stood at the far wall.
A tapestry of a rearing horse hung above the bed, and Tisha stared at its weave for a moment before getting to her feet and heading for one of the two doors set in the wall. She had checked it out last night and was surprised to find a toilet, a sink, and a sunken bath for her use. Most people in Relic had indoor plumbing, except those who lived in the slums, but she had not expected a private bathroom. It was a guilty luxury, but Tisha could not deny that she needed to rub away the sweat and filth of the previous day, so she filled the bath before dropping the sheet and slipping into the water.
Tempting as it was to linger, Tisha knew it would not be long before someone came looking for her; she should probably hurry. A basket of soap and shampoos had been left at the bath's side, and she reached out, taking one of the soaps and working up a lather as she began to wash herself. Calloused fingertips chased away the lingering scent of sweat and fear, sweeping over the smooth edges of scars and the softness of her skin with quick movements. Before long, the last of the grime was gone, and she grabbed the shampoo.
Her hair was a tangled wreck, and she scrubbed at it fiercely before ducking her head under the water. Brown tendrils waved across her vision like bubble-shrouded seaweed, and she found herself staring at the swirling colours of the soap foam. She had always thought it was pretty until what she had seen yesterday. Now the glassy hues atop the water reminded her of the breaches: dangerous and hypnotic.
She broke through the surface with a gasp, grimacing as the wet tresses stuck to her shoulders, arms and back. Steam rose from the water, and the cool air of the bathroom raised goosebumps along her skin as she hauled herself out and reached for some towels, wrapping one around her head as she dried herself.
Last night, she had stripped out of her kitchen uniform in disgust, and now she padded through to the bedroom and nudged the heap of cloth with her toe. The black was faded and splattered with mud from yesterday's race through the streets, but at least it was hers. Wearing her own clothes would make it clear to everyone that she did not belong to the Realm Riders. Not yet, anyway.
Tisha allowed her gaze to slip towards the pile of clothing she had noticed the night before. On the trunk at the foot of the bed lay a neatly folded stack of black and forest green. Soft hide boots rested on the floor nearby; they looked a hundred times more comfortable than her tattered old shoes, and Tisha hesitated, torn by indecision.
In the end, the thought of clean clothes outweighed the symbolism of any choice she made, and she reached for the fabric on the trunk, carefully unfolding the thick, soft trousers and long sleeved tunic. A packet of essential undergarments – close enough to her size – rested on top, and she tried not to think about who might have guessed her measurements as she slipped into them.
The black cloth of the top and trousers clung like a second skin to her body and legs. It covered her from head to toe, and the sleeves reached down to her wrists. It was ideal fighting gear, without any extra material to become tangled or caught on a weapon during combat. Still, it did not leave a great deal to the imagination, Tisha thought as she looked down at herself.
Reaching for the deep green tunic, she slipped it over her head. The hem fell to mid-thigh while the slit sleeves stopped at the elbow. A belt rested comfortably around her hips, and by the time she had slipped on the boots, Tisha had to admit the Realm Riders had good taste. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed what she suspected: apart from the towel turban on her head, she looked the part. No one in the street would think she was anything other than a Rider.
Tisha filed that conclusion away for later. She might have decided to give the Commander and her men a chance, but her mind still conjured up back-up plans at every opportunity. She was getting through the Wall, legally or otherwise, and dressed like this, Tisha realised she was more likely to succeed. Pitching the towel aside, she took a comb to her hair, trying to calm the whirl of her thoughts as she worked the tangles free. She had to take things one step at a time, and right now that meant walking out of her bedroom door ready to face whatever the day threw at her.
She rummaged through the sheets and searched the floor for any hairpins that had survived yesterday's chaos. She found four, enough to keep her hair up and out of the way, and Tisha draped a swathe across her blue eye before fastening it in place. It was not as good as the patch, but it would not garner as many questions as the bandage Malerna had given her yesterday.
Finally, she made the bed and spread the towels out to dry, trying to make the room as tidy as she had found it. In the back of her mind, Tisha knew she was putting off the inevitable, but she needed to feel she was still in control of her life. Slipping under the command of the Realm Riders – never to be free again – would be too easy. She had to remind herself that, ultimately, she was still in charge of her future.
Tisha rubbed her hands across her face, taking one last glance around the room before heading for the door. She did not know what awaited her, but Cayle had promised to save her a seat at breakfast, and the thought of her friend and a good meal was enough to stifle her uncertainty.
Pulling open the door, she gasped in surprise, almost colliding with the commander, who had her fist raised to knock. They both stared at each other until Althea took a step back and looked Tisha over with a smile. 'I know you probably don't want to hear this, but that suits you.'
The commander's soft words were meant as a peace offering, and Tisha narrowed her eyes as she considered her options. Stubbornly, she wanted to resist efforts of respect or friendship, but being childish would not help her father. She had to remember that Althea was not an enemy, no matter what it felt like. 'It's better than the dress,' she admitted eventually. 'Thank you.'
Althea ducked her head, watching Tisha from beneath a thoughtful frown. 'To be honest, I wasn't expecting you to still be here. No one in the common room thought you would stay.' She stood aside, gesturing Tisha forward and waiting for her to shut the door to her chamber. Yet she made no move to walk away as she scrutinised Tisha's expression. 'What changed your mind? Last night you made it clear you didn't want anything to do with us.'
Tisha frowned, hating the disapproval in the older woman's voice. 'And you told me I didn't have a choice. Don't get excited; I'm only helping you because of my father, and I haven't made any promises yet.'
She could see the argument boiling up in Althea's eyes. This was a woman not used to being told “no”. A faint scent of leather permeated the air, and Tisha took a step back, bumping into the door of her room as the invisible wave of Althea's magic tickled her senses.
It was enough to break the tension, and the commander blinked before murmuring an apology. 'That wasn't a spell; it was -' She waved a hand, at a loss to explain, and she blinked in surprise when Tisha nodded in understanding.
'I know,' she said flatly. 'It was ether. To me, some mages constantly smell like magic.' She frowned as she realised something. 'Although not here.'
Althea nodded, motioning for Tisha to fall in at her side as she began to walk. 'We're well-trained. They don't let us outside the Wall until we can control ourselves. Most Riders believe the breaches appear when we use magic.' She reached the end of the corridor, and Tisha could hear the chatter of dozens of people. The chime of cutlery on plates suggested breakfast was in full swing, but Althea led her away in the opposite direction, reaching into a pouch on her hip and pulling out some food wrapped in paper.
'Eat that,' she ordered, and Tisha bit back the urge to tell her she was not the boss. 'No time for breakfast. We need to get going.'
Tisha paused in unwrapping the bread, frowning in confusion. 'Going where?'
'Outside the Wall. That's what you wanted, isn't it?' Althea looked at her with a smirk. 'What else were you expecting?'
'I thought there'd be some training or something,' Tisha muttered, taking a bite of the sandwich and trying to chew and swallow while butterflies thrashed in her stomach. 'Tests or trials or some other rubbish.'
'Not yet.' Althea gave her a long, steady look. 'We're not going to waste time and money on you unless we know you're a good investment. Everyone else comes here practically overflowing with magic, but we only have your word for what you can do. We'll take you out there and find out what you can really see.'
Their footsteps echoed along the hallways as they made their way out to a smooth paved courtyard. Dred was already waiting on a horse, as was Falco. They were all wearing armour, and a frisson of uncertainty raced through Tisha as she wondered how dangerous this was going to be.
'Something wrong?' Althea asked, swinging her way up onto a well-groomed bay and settling in the saddle. 'Let me guess. You don't know how to ride?'
Tisha shook her head, looking at the creatures with distrust. They turned their heads to stare back at her, nostrils flaring and hooves still as they patiently waited.
'Can't you count?' Dred demanded, shaking the reins in his hand and nudging the horse forward with his heels. 'There isn't one for you. Get up behind Falco and hold on. He won't let you fall.'
'Probably,' the young man murmured, smiling a little to take the threat out of his words.
Tisha looked up, trying to work out whether he could be trusted. The anger from the day before had vanished, and his expression was teasing and curious inside the shadow of his helm. 'I don't know how to get up,' she growled in annoyance.
Falco looked like he was trying not to laugh, and Tisha glared at him as he removed his boot from one of the stirrups. 'Put your left foot in there and haul yourself up. It's easy.'
She did as she was told. For a breathless moment, she almost slipped right off the horse, but she grabbed Falco's shoulders, spitting out a swear word that made him laugh.
'You on?' he asked. 'Because if you end up on the ground I'm not turning around to pick you up again. Just hang on to the horse with your legs. You'll be fine.'
Tisha struggled to find any grip on the strange, light plate armour encasing his torso. In the end, she settled for digging her fingernails into the scale-like seams on either side and surrendered the stirrup back to him in answer. 'Don't go fast,' she begged. 'I'm no good to anyone if my neck's broken.'
She tried not to panic as the horse set off at a steady, calm gait, following the lead of the others. Tisha expected to slip off at any moment, but the large, uncomfortable saddle she shared with Falco gave her some security. Step by step, her confidence grew, and she breathed out a sigh of relief as they moved out of the compound gates and onto the street.
It was hard to believe that, only yesterday, she had sprinted almost the exact same route to go and meet her father. Now, though, the carters moved respectfully out of their way to let them pass. Men who would have rather cuffed her around the head than give her the time of day touched their foreheads in salute, and no one even dared to block their path.
Up ahead, the Wall ribboned the horizon, tall and unyielding. Tisha could only stare at it as they got closer, unsure whether she was more excited or afraid. Yesterday she only caught a glimpse of the bleak world beyond, but was that really all that was out there?
No, she reminded herself. Her father was somewhere on the other side, too. This was not about adventure or satisfying her curiosity; it was about getting him back.
The sway of the horse was almost soothing, and Tisha shifted her grip around Falco's waist, staring blankly at the metal in front of her face. The top of her head was about level with the nape of his neck, meaning her entire view consisted of a broad, bland backplate. She straightened up, trying to get a look over his shoulder, but all she could see was the back of Dred and his horse, which was not a pretty sight.
'I'm sorry for last night. I mean, I shouldn't have snapped at you.'
Tisha blinked at the back of Falco's head, surprised by his apology. He had not bothered with such niceties when he had practically kidnapped her from the Wall, but he sounded sincere enough. Tisha shrugged, then realised he could not see her. 'That's okay. I suppose you might have had a long day or something.' She pulled a face when he snorted in disbelief. 'What?'
'Don't you think you might have deserved it, just a little?'
'No,' she snapped, trying to ignore the little flutter of acknowledgement that he was probably right. 'My dad had been taken away by some thing, and you'd cast a spell on me and dragged me away to a strange place. To make matters worse, people started telling me what to do and that I had no choice!'
Falco sighed, and she could sense him reaching for his patience. 'Cayle's right. You are the most stubborn, contrary person in all of Relic. Can't you ever admit you might be even partially to blame?'
She made an inarticulate sound of annoyance and smacked her hand into his side, feeling a smidgeon of satisfaction when he grunted in surprise. 'No, especially when your bad mood was not my fault! And don't listen to Cayle.'
'Why not? Afraid of what he might say about you?' Falco asked, guiding the horse down the wide approach to one of the gates. The Watchers called out orders to each other, and the heavy clank and clatter of chains being wound filled the air. Inch by inch, the massive wood panels – taller than any building in the city – parted to reveal a landscape wreathed in pearl-white mist.
Tisha craned her neck around Falco, blinking owlishly as she stared out into the wilderness. Yesterday, from the peak of the Wall and in the thrash of battle, it had been a mere backdrop, but now, as they rode through the high arch, she felt the keening emptiness of the place. The land was craggy and wrecked, covered in clinging scrub-grass. A few trees struggled to survive, but their branches lanced into the sky like broken bones, leafless and stark.
It was eerily quiet. The city was always full of noise, both animal and human, but out here it was almost silent. Only the huff of the horses stirred the air, and Tisha shuddered as she hunched behind Falco, acutely aware of the swirling fog that could be hiding anything from view.
'We'll head out of the valley to the clear air,' Althea called back. 'If anyone senses anything, then they're to speak up immediately. Breaches aren't normally this close to the city but, after yesterday, I'm not taking any chances.'
They slogged their way along the uneven terrain, taking it steady. Tisha listened as Falco began to explain that the last thing a Realm Rider needed was a horse to turn up lame. 'They're the quickest way to get across the land, and speed matters,' he said. 'Besides, horses aren't easy to come by. The stock's limited, and even with some of the spells they use, most of Relic's horses are too inbred to cope with the job.'
'So where do these come from?' Tisha asked in confusion. 'I thought Relic could sustain itself.'
'In the essentials, yeah. Plenty of fish come down the river, and they've been careful to make sure the population doesn't grow too fast, so unless we have a bad winter there's enough food. Horses, however, need a lot more than grass and water.' Falco grinned at her over his shoulder. 'Not all Realm Riders do this.' He waved in emphasis. 'Some of them – normally those good at animal magic – go out on foot looking for wild herds. It might seem quiet, but plenty of animals are out here. We take young ones, a couple at a time, and train them up. Some people think the horses are more valuable than the Riders, anyway. Especially some of the hybrids we're finding.'
Tisha looked down at the dark back of the creature she was riding. It looked normal enough: glossy, healthy and horse-like. 'Hybrid?' she asked with a grimace.
'When we get back, I'll show you Bane. He's got–' Falco stopped suddenly; his body tensed as the horse whinnied and did a shuffling sidestep. A groan of pain escaped Tisha as the air turned thick and heavy, wrapping around her chest like coiled rope and starting to squeeze. A sharp, acid scent tickled her nose, and the taste of tin burned across her tongue. Strangest of all were the drums. At first she thought it was the throb of her pulse in her ears, but it was too slow to match her racing heart.
'What's that?' she gasped, leaning her weight against Falco's back and pressing her forehead against his icy armour. 'What's happening?'
Beneath them, the horse gave a nervous twitch, and Falco's voice reached her ears as if it were coming from a great distance. 'Breaches are normally around here at the end of the valley. You're feeling what we sense every time we get close enough to one.'
'I think she's feeling a bit more than we do,' Althea replied, wheeling her horse around and pulling up alongside. 'Tisha, are you all right?'
Tisha managed a nod, but her next breath was a stutter, and her head throbbed so hard she could barely think. 'Don't feel so good.'
'Dred, help her. I didn't stop to think what the breaches might do to someone so sensitive to magic.' Althea shook her head as if she was angry with herself, moving aside to let Dred near. 'Be gentle,' she added with a scowl. 'We need her in one piece, remember?'
The man gave a grunt, tugging off his gauntlets and resting them on his saddle before he reached across. Tisha flinched away, but a warning noise from Falco held her still. 'Stay put. Dred's spells can be unpredictable. I don't want to be picking up pieces of you from here to Relic.'
'Ignore them both,' Dred ordered. 'I only kill enemies, and you're not one of those yet.' He let his hands hover above her shoulders, and Tisha barely heard the whispered word of power before the overwhelming stench of sweat and blood slammed into her. She gagged and shuddered, but tried to stay still as the magic filled her like molten fire, burning away the bands constricting her chest and banishing the pain.
'Better?' Althea asked when Dred pulled back, smiling in satisfaction when Tisha uttered a grudging “thank you”. 'Perhaps training you first would have been a good idea after all. We need to make this quick. The spell will wear off within the hour, and it's probably best you're back in the city by then.'
Althea waved a hand at the land before them. 'Breaches have been here for at least as long as I've been a Rider. So tell me, what do you see?'
Panic clenched Tisha's heart as she stared around the bleak land, looking for anything similar to what she had seen yesterday. Mist and cloud blotted out the horizon, and water droplets clung to her hair, dripping onto her face. The land stretched around her, empty and grey, and she tried desperately to remember if she had done something unusual that made her see the breaches. 'Nothing here.'
'Told you she was a waste of time,' Dred muttered, leading his twitchy horse around in a slow circle as they waited. 'At least if she's as blind as the rest of us, it means I don't have to tutor her.'
'But yesterday I – I didn't imagine what I saw!' Tisha's voice was rough with frustration, and she dug her fingers through her hair, scraping it back and shutting her eyes in desperation.
When Tisha opened them again, she almost fell backwards off the horse. The slate monochrome of the world had vanished, drowned out by the stormy midnight black and electric blue swirl of the breaches that stretched away on either side. They rose like cliffs, extending the line of the valley's walls out across the plains and vanishing upwards into the fog. The previous day, the breaches had been tinted with crimson, but these were like bubbles blown from ink, far bigger than anything Tisha had seen during the battle.
With a blink, Tisha let her hair fall back across her left eye, and the vision vanished, wiped out as if it had been nothing but her imagination. A quick experiment showed that the same thing happened if she covered her right eye and revealed her left. She needed both to see the breaches. Of course, she would have some weird talent that made it impossible to hide the one thing marking her as different from everyone else.
Lifting her chin, Tisha freed a pin and tied her hair well away from her face before looking at Althea. 'There's a breach on either side of us, but there's a big clear path in between the two. You could ride several dozen horses down it side-by-side if you wanted.'
'Is anything coming out of them? Anything alive?' Falco asked, squinting as he tried to pick out anything from the murk. 'I can't see any threats, but that doesn't mean we're safe.'
'Half the things that come out of breaches aren't visible to the naked eye, lad. You know that,' Dred pointed out gruffly.
'But they might be to Tisha.'
Tisha knocked her fist against the side of Falco's breastplate, smirking as it clanged like a muffled bell. 'Not in all this fog. I can make out the breaches on either side of us, but I can't see too far ahead.' Glancing over at Althea, she added, 'These breaches don't look like they sprung up out of nowhere. They seem – old. I don't think whatever took my dad came through these rifts.'
'What makes you say that?'
'A hunch?' Tisha winced as Dred snorted in disbelief, but she did not back down. 'They don't look the same, and they're barely moving. The ones I saw were drifting, but these look like they're anchored in place. They're more like walls than anything else. Besides, have you ever had any trouble with creatures here?'
For a moment, no one answered her, and Tisha looked between Dred and the commander before turning to Falco. Beneath their helms, all three were ghastly pale, and she wondered if they had sensed something.
'Once,' Althea said at last, 'It was years ago now, when Falco was a new recruit. We were taking them out on a basic training mission, and we thought this was safe territory. I've never been that stupid since.' Her hands tightened on her horse's reins, and she bent her head as she murmured, 'We lost seven kids that day – all of them your age or younger. They weren't even taken by a breach; they were – annihilated.'
'The things that attacked us were dead,' Falco said flatly. 'A lot of them were mostly rotten, barely anything left but bone, but they were still strong enough to drag people out of their saddles.'
'What did they do?' Tisha asked quietly, dreading the answer all the more when Falco shook his head.
'Killed them; that's all you need to know. We retreated back to the city and came back the next day to reclaim what we could, but there wasn't anything left: No horses, no people, no weapons and no creatures. It was like it had never happened. There wasn't even any blood on the ground.'
Tisha shivered, swallowing against the greasy knot of nausea lodged in her throat. Realm Riders were braver than she had thought. If she had seen that happen, she doubted she would have ever been able to set foot outside the city again, yet Falco did just that whenever he was asked. He knew what was out here in all its horror, but he still rode the realm. Was that bravery or stupidity?
'We should head back,' Dred said, reaching out to tap the commander on the shoulder and disturbing her from her reverie. 'It's no good haunting the past. There are enough dead to do that for us.'
Althea drew in a deep breath, and Tisha watched her compose herself, wiping her face clean of emotion and straightening her shoulders. 'Fall in,' she ordered, turning her horse around to lead the way back into the valley. 'Tisha, your training will start as soon as we're back at the compound. We need you out in the field as soon as possible.'
'I'm fine,' Tisha replied. 'Can't Dred keep casting that spell? I need to be looking for my dad now – today, not tomorrow or next week!'
'Knocking a little girl like you into shape will take months,' Dred grumbled, looking over at her with hard eyes.
'Months?' Tisha shook her head, pressing her lips together as she scowled. 'We can't wait that long. Don't you understand? Every day we are sitting around doing nothing is another day he might be fighting for his life. We don't even know if he has anything to eat or drink –'
The commander's stern words cut through the air, bouncing off the hills and making the horses flinch. 'Enough! We don't even know if a life is there to save. Properly trained, you could be saving Riders and protecting Cayle, Falco, or any one of the other recruits from walking into a breach.' She looked over her shoulder, her eyes fierce. 'Wouldn't you rather shield the people you know still have a chance than go chasing the dream of getting back those who are already gone?'
'He's not gone!' Tisha's breath hitched in her chest, and she blinked against the sudden stab of tears behind her lashes. 'How can you grieve for the people who’ve been lost one minute and write others off as dead in the next? Do you really train your recruits so badly that you don't think they'd fight with everything they had to try and get home again? What if they're alive? How long are you going to keep them waiting for a rescue? How long's it already been? Weeks, months, years?'
In front of her, Tisha could feel how rigid Falco had become, and she thought of his sister, gone the same way as her father. They both believed that those they lost were still alive and waiting for rescue. Surely he could not be happy to hear Althea admitting defeat? His breaths were deep and calm, but she could see the line of his jaw working furiously as if he were struggling to swallow back angry words.
Althea had not answered her challenge, but Tisha could feel the weight of Dred's glare burning into the back of her neck from where he brought up the rear. A thick, unhealthy silence had settled over them, marred by the jingle of bridles and the horses' snorts. Tisha did not know what else she could say that would not be seen as childish defiance, but she was not about to give up hope on her father. If that meant leaving the Realm Riders to sort out their own mess and herself facing treason, so be it, but maybe it did not have to be that way.
'Let me start searching for my father tomorrow; let me keep looking until I find him, dead or alive, and then I'll join the Realm Riders willingly.' Tisha swallowed, trying to ignore the shrink of her heart at her own proclamation and the imaginary slam of a cage door that rang in her ears. 'That way, we both get what we want.'
That was not exactly true. What Tisha wanted was a life with her father, without any walls or restrictions, but she knew that was a dream she may never have. The best she could hope for was a compromise. This was about more than her personal freedom, and she would spend the rest of her days behind bars of duty and obligation if it meant she had her father back alive and whole.
Althea did not stop her horse or even turn around, but carried on in silence as she gave Tisha's proposal due thought. Finally, she drew in a deep breath and nodded her head. Beneath the annoyance and resignation in her voice was a grudging kind of respect.
'It's a deal.'