Sometimes, when Amiri was bored, she considered all the ways she could have died over the years. Not that she had any desire to analyze them strategically, as one companion had suggested. Nor to contemplate the inevitability of death and its philosophical implications, as another had asked.
Mostly, she found it oddly soothing to know that death lurked so near, waiting for a step to the right instead of left, an undercooked bit of meat, a tent pitched under the wrong overhang. Death could come because of a mistake, a miscalculation, a failure—but it could come as easily from fortune's slightest whim.
She couldn't decide which sort of death this one was—error or chance. She debated it groggily in her mind for a few seconds before realizing that the fact that she was thinking about it at all probably meant she wasn’t actually dead.
The cold and all-too-familiar kiss of a blade at her throat, though, suggested that such luck might not last long.
She blinked grit from her eyes, but it didn't help much with the view. She lay on her side, her lower body half-buried under rocks and dirt, facing a rough stone wall a foot from her nose. One arm was pinned awkwardly under her. A hand held her by the hair, and another held a knife to her neck.
"Oska, what do you think you're doing?" a low voice asked. The boy.
"Don't you know who this is?" his sister replied.
"You're not going to slit the throat of an unconscious woman," he said, sounding much surer about it than Amiri was.
"I'm not unconscious, if it helps," Amiri grated out. The girl let out a startled oath, scrambling back. Amiri's mouth felt like it had been packed solid with dust. She coughed and tasted blood—hopefully from biting her tongue, not anything internal and annoyingly dire.
Amiri twisted onto her back, bringing herself around as best she could. Her legs remained trapped in place, but at least now she could look over at the two young hunters. The girl clutched a dagger like a claw, teeth bared and eyes wild. The boy hovered nearby, expression nervous. It was thanks to him she could see anything at all—the weak, steady light filling the cavern emanated from a small crystal held in his hand.
Up close, she guessed the two of them were maybe 15 or 16, but theirs was the battered kind of youth that came of dangerous places like this. The girl might have been pretty in a dull kind of way, but the scars on her cheek and arms rescued her, made her interesting. The boy had a lean, half-starved look, with hollow eyes and a frail energy around him.
“Well?” Amiri said, breaking the silence. “If you’re going to kill me, now’s the time. It’d spare us all the trouble of digging me out, at least.”
“I have to say, I’ve been called lazy more times than I can count, but I've never murdered anyone to avoid work," the boy said with nervous humor. "Oska. Come on, drop the knife."
The girl—Oska—stared at Amiri, unmoving. Her chest heaved with labored breaths. Amiri flexed her legs, shifting them a fraction, trying to loosen the earth that held her lower body trapped.
"You're Amiri," Oska said through gritted teeth. "Of the Six Bears."
"I am Amiri," she replied, low and steady. “I have no clan.”
A brother and sister with red-gold hair. That dimple in the girl's chin that made her border on adorable, and that she probably hated. Didn't Amiri remember a pair like that? A girl who crouched and watched Amiri train, a boy always huddled close to the fire or in his sister's shadow?
"Oska," she said, repeating the name, trying to place it. Her eyes flicked to the boy. "And you're Branum, is that right?"
He gave a quick, convulsive nod. Oska and Branum. Their mother was Kina, with the copper hair and sweet voice, dead years before Amiri left. And their father—their father was Maruk. Champion wrestler, champion drinker. He was dead, too.
He died the day Amiri left.
She glanced around, casual as she could, searching for her sword. She spotted it, half-wrapped in Branum’s cloak, well out of reach.
“You killed our father,” Oska said, all bile and hatred. Ready to strike.
Amiri illustration by Wayne Reynolds
Amiri had never denied the things she’d done. Not to herself or anyone else. “That’s right,” she said, voice steady. Oska let out a strangled sound of fury and grief and surged forward a step—just one.
Even pinned, Amiri knew she wouldn’t lose that fight. But it wasn’t one she much liked the thought of winning, either.
She pushed herself up on one elbow, glaring at Oska. “I killed your father,” she said. “But whatever I’ve done, girl, your father was my grandmother’s favorite nephew. We’re cousins, you and I. Kin. And that’d make you a kinslayer, just like me."
"Can the kinslayer's kin kill the kinslayer? Or will the kinslayer kill the kinslayer's slain kin's kin?" Branum rattled off. Amiri stared at him. He offered a crooked smile, spread his hands. "Sorry. I can't help it."
Oska snorted. She held still, every muscle tense, for several long seconds. Then, at last, she lowered her dagger. "I'm no kinslayer," she declared, backing away. Amiri let out a breath through her teeth as the tension left her.
Amiri levered herself up higher, still trying to work her legs. The rocks blocking the entrance shifted at her movement, and she froze. There was enough stone blocking the entrance that bringing it down on herself would be very stupid indeed.
"I think we can get you out clean if we move a couple of these rocks and pull you straight out," Branum said, as if following her train of thought.
Oska looked at him askance. "What are you talking about? I'm not helping her."
Branum shrugged. "If you aren't going to kill her, seems like helping her is the other option."
"We could just leave her here."
"She's in the way of the exit," Branum replied. "And I'm not sure we can dig our way out without squishing her, which we've just agreed not to do."
"I wouldn't be killing her, the rocks would be killing her," Oska said sweetly. Amiri glared at her. She glared back.
Had Amiri been this infuriating at this age? Surely not. It had taken at least a little while longer before her clan tried to arrange her death, and surely if she was this annoying they wouldn't have waited.
Oska sighed, surrendering. "Fine. We'll move her out of the way first. Which rocks?"
Branum pointed confidently, and Oska moved without questioning him. Amiri helped as best she could from her awkward angle, obeying Branum's strict instructions not to move her legs at all, lest she disrupt the pile and bring it down on all of them. Well, both of them, since Branum was staying well back for a "better vantage point."
Bit by bit, they eased her out, until finally she was able to clamber to her feet. Her legs were all pins and needles, her feet half-numb, but there was little pain. Nothing broken or too badly bruised, she thought. She'd been lucky. For certain definitions of the word.
"Now, let's get this cleared and get out of here," Oska said.
Branum put a palm to the rocks. Frowned. Got that distant look in his eye of people seeing something they had no natural business seeing. Then he shook his head. "No good. There's a solid few feet of stone in the way. Too much for even you ladies to budge."
"What's the alternative? Die gasping down here?" Oska asked.
Amiri stared at the two of them. Youths of the Six Bears clan. Two stray cubs. So this was what the witch had wanted her to find, then. Maruk's children—who didn't have any better sense than he once had, if they were hunting that peryton on their own. Then again, if Maruk had hared off on a hunt like this, she would have been right on his heels. Or sprinting past him, never mind the risk.
"What were you thinking?" she said, and realized as the words left her mouth that she wasn't sure who she was talking to. These cubs? Maruk's ghost? Or maybe she meant herself.
Oska turned on her. "That beast has been driving out anything bigger than a rabbit, and its fledglings eat all the rabbits. As long as it's here, hunting is scarce."v
"So go hunt the lowlands," Amiri said dismissively.
Oska's jaw flared. Branum shifted uncomfortably.
"She's not—" Branum started.
"Branum—" Oska warned.
"—supposed to be hunting," he finished. His sister looked ready to throw him in a lake. He was lucky there weren't any nearby. Branum sighed. "We're on our own these days, and the only thing I know how to catch is a cold. But Oska's not meant to be hunting, so we have to go where the others won't see us. With everyone in the lowlands it's harder."
"Why aren't you allowed to hunt?" Amiri asked, baffled.
"You might have noticed we share a gender," Oska said, one hand planted on her hip.
Amiri shrugged. "Never stopped me. Never stopped anyone I knew from taking a hare or a doe when they needed meat."
"Things are different now," Oska said.
Amiri's brow furrowed, but before she could ask what Oska meant, she felt something—the whisper of a breeze against the back of her neck. "There's fresh air coming from somewhere," she said, stalking toward the back of the cave. There, a narrow crack ran from floor to ceiling. Amiri waved Branum closer and borrowed his light, but the retreating shadows only revealed more stone. The passageway turned. No way to say how far it went or how narrow it got.
"That's quite a squeeze," Branum said.
"Shouldn't bother you, though," Amiri noted.
"Benefits of being a twig," he agreed, shrugging.
"It's not like we have another option. We'll have to see where it goes," Oska said. "But the kinslayer goes in front."
"Think I'm going to stab you in the back, do you?" Amiri asked, chuckling darkly. "Trust me, if I kill you, you'll know it's coming."
"Is it supposed to be a comfort to imagine that my father knew he was betrayed, the moment before you murdered him?" Oska snapped.
Amiri's anger was a lash of fire through her veins. "They were the traitors," she snarled.
Oska's hand wrapped around her dagger's hilt. Her lips skinned back from her teeth. "Liar. Killer. You—"
Branum stepped between them. He put a hand to Oska's shoulder and lifted the other toward Amiri—holding it close to his body, as though he thought she might bite him if he brought it any closer.
"Close quarters make for quick tempers," he said. "We can fight under clear skies. For now, keep focused."
"I've got no quarrel with that," Amiri said. "If your sister keeps her blade pointed elsewhere."
Oska spat at her and wheeled around. She stalked as far away as she could get, which was all of a spear's length, and made a show of checking her gear. Amiri shook her head. "All right. Let me get my sword, and let's get this over with."
"About that," Branum said, and Amiri's heart sank. He bent, lifting aside the fold of his cloak, which had concealed the blade of the massive bastard sword—and hidden where it had broken, snapped to a jagged end halfway down its length.
"What did you do?" Amiri demanded, crossing the distance in two steps and shoving Branum aside.
"We didn't do anything. It broke in the rockslide," Branum said. "Saved your life, though. You were shielding your head with it, didn't get caught by that one." He pointed to a large boulder, wedged inside the entrance. It had taken out a solid chunk of the cave wall on its way in.
"It's just a sword," Oska said.
"Why is it that people think that word has so much power?" Amiri asked.
"What word?" Oska asked, puzzled.
"'Just.' It's just a cut. Just a prank. Just an arrow in your belly. Just a dragon. Who needs magic and weapons when you have 'just' to solve all the world's ills?"
Just a sword. Except it wasn't. It was everything she'd done to get it, and everything that had happened after. A friend had once pointed out to her it was a bit literal, carrying the weight of her sins on her back. She'd shoved him into a bog for it. It wasn't about the weight. It was about the purpose. Each time she used this blade, it was one more thing she'd done with it that wasn't the first thing.
Her deeds were not a drop of blood in water, to dissolve and vanish. It wasn't about making the past disappear. It was about being more than that one moment.
That's what she told herself, at least.
She wrapped the blade carefully in Branum's cloak, minding its edges, and bound it with twine. Her pack had been lost somewhere in the rockfall, but she made a bundle she could carry one-handed.
She'd get out. Find someone to mend it.
Keep adding to its list of deeds.
About the Author
Kate Alice Marshall is the author of young adult and middle grade novels, including I AM STILL ALIVE, RULES FOR VANISHING, and THIRTEENS. She lives outside of Seattle with her husband, two dogs named Vonnegut and Octavia, and two kids. They all conspire to keep her on her toes. See katemarshallbooks.com for more information.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.