THE SPLINTERING OF BONE
Branum and Oska muttered to each other as Amiri prepared. She did her best to ignore them. She couldn't understand them, anyway—they were talking in an odd, garbled tongue, and suddenly she remembered that, too. The twins with their private language, infuriating Maruk because he thought his children were making fun of him. He'd always been going on about how his son was going to be as mighty a warrior as Maruk himself.
She glanced sidelong at Branum. He was shivering in the cool air of the cave, and his sister tossed her own cloak over his shoulders without comment. So much for Maruk's ambitions. He hadn't lived long enough to be disappointed in the boy.
Amiri turned on her heel, leaving the thought behind, and made her way to the back of the cave. A squeeze indeed. She hmmed, hand against the rock.
"Something wrong?" Branum asked.
"Just wondering how many ways to die there are, shoving yourself into a crack like that," Amiri mused.
"I could list them, if it helps," Branum said.
She gave him a flat look. "It really doesn't," she said. She turned sideways and slid into the gap.
Amiri wasn't afraid of tight spaces, as a rule, but a space this tight, it worked its way into the back of your brain, where all the deepest, most primal instincts hung around to tell you what was going to kill you. This was a killing space. A grasping, crushing, suffocating space. There wasn't even room to set her feet flat on the floor—she had to brace her legs at odd angles, push her way through with her calves and shoulders and by pulling with the tips of one outstretched hand. Behind her, Branum was praying. Behind him, Oska muttered to him or to herself, Amiri couldn't tell. She couldn't turn her head to look. It was like having ghosts at her back, whispering unseen.
Then, suddenly, she was free. The walls of the squeeze released her, and she stepped easily out into a wider tunnel. She worked her limbs, flexing to bring some feeling back into them.
"Made it through," she called back. Branum thanked a half-dozen gods and other entities, and the sounds of scraping and huffing intensified as the twins hurried to join her. From there, the trek was easier, though hardly swift going. Without the sun to track time, it was hard to tell how long they traveled, clambering over shelves of rock and backtracking when they hit dead ends. They hadn't found an exit yet, but they hadn't run out of cave, either.
"I can smell fresh air," Branum said at last, sniffing theatrically.
Amiri stood next to him and tested the air. "This way," she said, setting off down a side tunnel. She only made it a few steps before the tunnel abruptly ended in a small, round chamber.
The floor was scattered with bones.
She reached for her dagger, cautioning the others back. The bones looked animal—mostly. Half a deer lay in the middle of the floor, blood dried black but flesh not yet rotted away. Its blood had spattered half the chamber.
But it wasn’t the deer that held her gaze. Amiri’s eyes were fixed on a human skeleton sprawled across an outcrop of rock toward the back of the room. Bits of desiccated flesh and moldering clothes clung to the bones. A few scraps of leather armor still adorned its hips and chest, stamped with a pattern of paw prints and swirling lines, almost impossible to make out after so many years. But Amiri remembered them perfectly.
"Who do you think they were?" Branum asked, moving cautiously into the chamber. "What were they doing down here?"
"Does it matter?" Oska asked. "Something's been eating things in here. We shouldn't stick around."
Amiri tightened her jaw. "It matters," she said. "That's Erskar. He was wearing that armor the day I killed him."
Oska hissed between her teeth. Branum looked alarmed, straightening up. "I knew he was with Father that day, but his body wasn't found. Some people thought you'd run off together."
Amiri snorted. "With Erskar? Not on your life."
"So he survived? Snuck off on his own for some reason?" Branum mused.
"None of those men would have abandoned their clan," Oska spat.
"Certainly not without most of his guts. Erskar was dead. They were all dead," Amiri said, and as always, the image was as fresh and real in her mind as the day it happened. They brought it on themselves, she thought. They'd meant her to die. They'd weaseled their way out of calling it murder, but they'd brought her there to meet her end.
"Then how is he here?" Branum asked. Then, "Oh!" He pointed to Erskar's chest, and Amiri saw at once what he'd spotted. She'd left Erskar gutted on the ground. But the skeleton's legs were splintered, one arm broken clean through. And his ribs had been shattered, pried apart.
Illustration by Emile Denis
Perytons preferred live prey, but in lean times they scavenged, just like everything else. So the peryton—or its parent, maybe—had taken the corpse for a snack, flying up into the peaks with it. It had eaten its favorite part of the body, and apparently not gotten around to the rest. But no peryton would roost in these caves, even if it could fit.
"No tunnels out. But what about up?” Amiri mused.
Branum nodded and lifted his crystal, peering up toward the ceiling. And there it was. A chimney leading up out of the tunnel. Wider than the squeeze, at least. Wide enough for the corpse of a large man to tumble through and be forgotten, rotting away year after year.
“That’s our way out,” Amiri said.
“Looks like it,” Branum concurred.
“You know, if the peryton’s meals are falling down here this frequently…” Oska began.
Amiri nodded. “It’s eating up there. Which means that’s probably its nest.”
“Oh. Lovely,” Branum said.
“It’s our only option,” Amiri said. “So we’d better get climbing.” She’d take fighting the peryton over sticking around here with these cubs, that was certain.
“Not yet,” Oska said.
“You getting fond of the place?” Amiri asked her, but Oska glanced sidelong at Branum—who was trying to hide the fact that he was limping and out of breath, and pale as the belly of a fish.
“We should rest a while,” Oska said.
“I won’t make it up with or without rest,” Branum said, grimacing. “If you can get up and secure a rope or something…”
“We all go up,” Amiri said. She wasn’t going to leave the boy behind. And she certainly wasn’t going anywhere alone with his sister. Keeping Branum around was the only way to be sure one of them wasn’t going to end up dead.
“We’ve got rope. We can secure it as we go, help you up,” Oska said. “But I’d rather do that with some rest and some food in my belly.”
Amiri’s stomach rumbled on cue. “I hope you brought something to eat, because that deer’s long past being appetizing,” she said.
Oska gave a curt nod, and against their united front, Branum gave in. Oska set down her pack and pulled out salted fish, mashed and dried berries formed into a leather, and a handful of nuts. She broke the fish into three shares. Amiri expected to be handed a smaller one, but Oska had portioned them evenly. Even if she did drop it into Amiri’s hand like she was afraid of touching her.
“That’s all you brought?” Amiri asked.
Oska shrugged as she handed her brother his share. “It’s all we had. Like I said, game has been scarce.”
“You’re young yet. The clan shouldn’t be letting you go hungry,” Amiri said, troubled. “Not Maruk’s kids.”
She’d spent her years of exile thinking often enough of that last day—and less often of the day before. It was painful, remembering the way her clan had jeered and mocked her behind her back, had discussed her death with gleeful anticipation. But that pain was twinned with anger, and anger was an ally.
It was the earlier memories that were harder. Remembering not how Maruk had laughed at her, but the times they’d laughed together. Remembering not the way he’d died, cleaved limb from limb in the face of her rage, but the times they’d raced and wrestled and bickered. She’d made Maruk laugh a lot, she remembered. His wife had always thought her a bad influence. She’d thought he was one of the few that truly didn’t see her as a woman who ought to know her place, but as a warrior who’d earned it.
“It was like that a while,” Branum said. He sat with his legs splayed before him, picking at his food. “We had everything we could ask for. Everyone was always telling me how I was going to carry on Father’s legacy. Be a great warrior, like he was. And then I wasn’t, and they lost interest.”
“Someone had to provide for us,” Oska said. She hunched over her food, not meeting Amiri’s eyes. “But that only made it worse. Turned near everyone against us.”
“For feeding yourselves? I know it’s not common for a woman, but—"
Oska looked up, eyes alight with hatred. “It’s not just not common anymore. Not for the Six Bears. After what you did? ‘Look what happens when you let a woman think she’s a warrior,’ they said.”
“You think I didn’t hear that, too? ‘Watch out, or you’ll end up like Amiri,’ they’d tell the other girls. I never let it stop me,” Amiri said. She’d always taken it as a point of pride. Like Amiri meant strong, capable, unstoppable. She didn't want the things it denied her—the husband, the children, the days spent tending the fire and tanning another hunter's hides.
"And look what happened," Oska said dully. "You think that any girl in the Six Bears is allowed to even look at a sword, after you proved what a curse it is, to let a woman fight? I can't even feed myself and my brother without skulking around in secret. Maybe you should have let it stop you. Slow you down. Maybe the next girl would've had an easier time of it."
Amiri grunted. "I won't make myself less than I am. Not for anyone. Being what the clan wanted me to be would have killed me."
"Then leave," Branum whispered. They looked at him, surprised. He hadn't spoken this whole time, just stared off into the distance, but now his gaze was intense. "You could have just left."
"My kin, your father, arranged to have me killed," Amiri growled.
"They never did anything to you. Just let you do it to yourself," Branum said.
Amiri shook her head. "They wanted me dead. They betrayed me. And I—"
"Could have left," Branum repeated. "You weren't in danger. They were no threat to you. You could have walked away and lived a life to prove them wrong."
He was wrong. Someone else could have walked away, but Amiri couldn't. She was going to die that day, or they were. There was never going to be another path.
"We should go," Oska said roughly. She brushed crumbs from her fingers and stood. She put out her hand to help her brother up.
Amiri didn't know how she could explain what had happened in a way that the two would understand. It wasn't that Branum was wrong. She hadn't been defending herself. And it had been her own foolish pride and boastfulness that had made any of it possible.
For her kin to betray her. Humiliate her. Take her home from her—for how could she return, no matter the outcome, once she knew what they had intended? They wanted her dead or broken.
And she couldn't walk away. She couldn't. Someone else might have. Would have. There was nothing to stop her except herself. Her rage. Her grief at everything that had been torn so brutally from her in those horrible moments.
She should have walked away. But Amiri of the Six Bears couldn't.
Maybe she could, now. But Amiri of no clan was not the woman who had been lured into those mountains. She was not the woman who had left. And she could not go back to that moment, and stand in the place Amiri of the Six Bears stood, and make her choices for her.
She could only move on.
Only move up.
She could only keep climbing.
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.