The Metal Men came for them at dawn.
Kyla was woken, as were all the gypsy children inhabiting the foothills of the Moghoven Mountains, to the creaking and clanking of the iron soldiers marching into their tent village. The awful noises were new to her, but when her eyes fluttered open — her mouth dry, her heart pounding — she knew them at once.
How could she not? The sounds had been described to her countless times, gathered around campfires in the bleakest deserts, huddled in the darkest caves, always accompanied with the dire warning that if children should hear those terrible sounds, they had better run. It meant the evil Rendon Thorne had come to take them away.
“Kyla!” Mother cried, jostling her out of her sleeping cot. “Kyla, get up now!”
After leaping onto the cold dirt floor in her bare feet, the first thing Kyla did was to spring for the flaps of their patchwork tent — but her mother grabbed her bare arm before she made it there.
“No!’ she said. “No time!”
Her mother was a tall, stout woman, one of the tallest of the village — beautiful, to be sure, with long tresses of red hair and green eyes that glowed like the Liquid Lights of the Far North — but her beauty did not mean she was weak. She had been a warrior in her earlier days, one who’d ridden the dragons before they slept and tussled with the trolls before they vanished into the Vinderstahl, and her grip was as a strong as the steel traps they used to catch rabbits and other game. If she had hold of you, Kyla had learned many times, there was no getting free.
Still, Kyla couldn’t help resisting, tugging on her arm. Mixed with her fear was a growing rage. These were the ones who’d killed Father!
“I want to see them!” she cried. “I want to see—”
It was at that moment that the screams and shouts of their fellow gypsies rose up from the far end of camp, joining the banging and the tinging and the other stranger sounds — the grumbles and groans of rusty guts, the hissing puffs of steam from vents, the grating squeaks of swiveling arms and swinging legs. Those sounds, they were getting louder. Closer.
“Get dressed!” Mother ordered.
“I’ll fight them!” Kyla said. “I’ll fight them all!”
In the end, it was not fear of the Metal Men that got Kyla to cooperate, but the look on her mother’s face. With the gray light of dawn streaming through the tiny holes in their tent, a hodgepodge of green and brown rags barely held together with rathka string, the inside was still a shadowy haze. But even so, there was no mistaking the naked fear on her mother’s face. It was not something Kyla was accustomed to seeing — as far as she knew, Mother was not afraid of anything — and it froze her on the spot.
In a flurry, her mother tossed Kyla clothes and boots, then hastily stuffed the worn gray knapsack with what little food they had — a bit of dried fruit, half a loaf of bread, three strands of black ragaroot. When her mother saw that Kyla stood mutely clutching her clothes, she slapped her hard on the face.
“Now!” she shouted.
The stinging blow brought tears to Kyla eyes, but she fought them back, hurrying into her cold clothes. The boots still felt damp from the marshland they’d crossed previous afternoon, and her shirt and pants smelled of mud. By the time she’d slipped on her boots, her mother had the knapsack on Kyla’s shoulders and was tightening the strap. Outside, the awful sounds of the struggle were almost on top of them. There was something else now too — a smell, the terrible stench of sulfur that burned in her nose and scorched her throat.
Then, only seconds since she’d woken, Kyla was hustled to the back of the tent. Her mother snatched the small dragontooth sword under her cot, with its black gleaming blade and white bleachwood handle, and with one swift motion sliced an opening down the middle of the fabric.
Chill mountain air streamed inside. Her mother pushed back the newly made flap, peering into the gray gloom of morning. Kyla looked beside her.
There were no Metal Men, though they could even feel their approach now, the pounding of footsteps that made the earth tremble. There were no tents either — just the tall trunks of the Moghoven Firs mixed with smaller oaks and maples, the ground a muddy mush of leaves and pine needles partially hidden beneath a web of fog. Her mother always made sure their tent was at the farthest edge of camp, which always irritated Kyla because of the long walks to Gathering it entailed, but for once she was grateful.
“Go!” Mother urged. “Run for the trees!”
“But what about you?” Kyla said.
“I’ll be right behind you! I just need to make sure you get away first!”
“Kyla, there’s no time!”
She pushed Kyla through the opening, into air that was thick and moist on Kyla’s face, then she started for the front of the tent before suddenly turning back and thrusting the sword into Kyla’s hands. Kyla was surprised at how light it was, like dry tinder. Before now, Mother had never allowed her to even touch it.
“Take this,” Mother said. “If anything comes at you, strike hard and fast.”
“It was your father’s,” Mother said. “It will bring you luck.” Her eyes suddenly glistened. She dropped and clutched her daughter fiercely against her chest. On her knees, her mother was practically the same height; folded in her long arms, Kyla felt small indeed. “Oh my little girl,” Mother whispered, “run as fast as you can. Run as fast as you can for the trees, and if you can imagine getting away, you will! Nothing’s impossible if you can imagine it. Nothing.“
With that, her mother pushed Kyla farther into the chill, then turned and ran for the front of the tent. Kyla meant to call after her, but her throat seized up, so she watched, paralyzed, as her mother rushed through the opening into the approaching melee. She hadn’t taken a weapon of any kind, still barefoot and dressed in the simple brown smock that she wore only when she slept, her red hair loose and flowing.
The metallic maelstrom was deafening, so loud Kyla could barely hear the occasional screams that rent the air, but even so there was no mistaking her mother’s piercing battle cry. It was the same sound her mother made when she felled a deer or seized a willowhawk in midflight. Even though Kyla had heard the battle cry many times, it still sent a tremor of fear through her — as it was intended.
To Kyla’s right, in the uppermost branches of the pines, a flock of startled red birds with yellow feathers sprang for the gray sky. The Black Brothers, the tallest of the Moghoven Mountains, rose over the forest and the blanket of fog like a pair of massive fists. This was the moment when Kyla knew she should have run for the trees.
But she couldn’t.
As far as Kyla was concerned, only cowards ran.
Brandishing her dragontooth sword, she crept around the tent, the mud sticking to the bottom of her boots. Her heart beat a steady drum in her ears. She was determined to do her part to fight off the Metal Men, but when she edged into the open, blinking away the moisture to get a clear view, all she could do was stare.
At first she didn’t see her mother, only the dozens and dozens of iron soldiers wreaking havoc. They were taller than she’d imagined, ten feet maybe, though they were also more spindly and ill-proportioned than seemed possible for such feared warriors. With their stick-like arms and legs attached to thick, barrel round torsos, they made her think of big potatoes with pine needles protruding from them. She didn’t even see how those tiny legs cold support the weight. Instead of fingers or toes, they had U-shaped clamps.
Spindly as they were, there was no denying their power as they ripped tents asunder or snatched up fleeing gypsies, holding them aloft like trophies.
Their hard metallic skin was a deep, dull black, a color that reminded Kyla of the Royal Express when she’d chanced to see the train. The iron had that same dusky quality, as if someone had painted it with black chalk. Compared to their torsos, their domed heads were miniscule, like little turtle shells they’d decided to use as hats. Peering from under these shells were pairs of yellow eyes that glowed like the embers of a dying fire.
The chaos in the clearing was almost too much for Kyla to take in at once. As the Metal Men rumbled about, with stutter-stepping jerkiness, black plumes vented from their ear holes. The smoke formed a low lying haze around the tents, and it was the smoke that made the air stink of sulfur — a foul, rotten-egg stench.
In this smog, Kyla’s fellow gypsies both fled and fought — some shrieking as they ran, others striking the Metal Men with whatever objects were handy. Mallets. Pots and pans. Mossy stones. None of it made much of a difference as the villagers were snatched up and carried to a number of six-wheeled prison carts. Kyla saw a few of her friends inside, white-faced and trembling, kids she’d play hopstones with only the previous day.
It was her mother’s voice, but at first she thought it was coming from the Metal Man who’d lurched into the open, his massive shadow falling upon her. Black smoke curled around him like a cloak. She thought how odd it was that he had hair, then she realized it wasn’t his hair at all. Her mother rode on the Metal Man’s shoulders; she was still barefoot, her legs caked with mud, both arms gripping the iron soldier’s head.
She was wrenching the head from side to side, all the while dodging the Metal Man’s flailing arms. He was doing everything in his power to get his hands on her.
“Mother!” Kyla shouted back.
“I told you to run!”
“For once in your life, obey me!”
If Kyla had fled right then, things might have gone very differently, but even after her mother’s stern command she still paused a few agonizing seconds before turning toward the forest. It was during those seconds that another Metal Man circled the tent to Kyla’s side, stepping into her path. She managed only a single step before one of the U-clamps seized her around the waist and hoisted her into the air.
Kyla was so surprised that she dropped her sword. All she could do was beat helplessly on the clamps, which might have appeared spindly from a distance but were actually as thick around as her legs.
As she raged against her captor, each blow stinging her hands more than they damaged the Metal Man, Kyla also raged against herself. If only she’d listened to her mother, she would have escaped.
It was then that Kyla heard her mother’s battle cry, followed by the terrible shriek of wrenching metal. The Metal Man lifting Kyla gazed over her at the source of this sound — right as he was hit squarely in the chest with a boulder.
Not a boulder.
An iron head.
The blow knocked Kyla’s own captor back a step. It was not enough to cause him to topple, but enough, in his surprise, to get him to loosen its grip. Kyla slipped through the clamps and landed with a thud on hands and knees, lunging to her feet despite the wincing pain.
Her mother, wreathed in tendrils of black smoke, crouched victorious on the headless Metal Man. This would come to be the defining image Kyla had of her, the one she would call upon in the days ahead whenever she woke with a start to the creaking and the clanking that would haunt her dreams — her mother, the fearsome warrior, atop this headless soldier as clouds of smoke poured from its neck, her eyes bright with an inner fire.
This time Kyla obeyed, snatching up the sword as she fled. The Metal Man who’d been stunned by the blow from his fellow soldier’s head had recovered, and was reaching for her, but this time Kyla dodged. Another Metal Man, also circling the tent, lunged for her, but she eluded him too — sprinting as fast as her legs would carry her toward the safety of the trees.
Halfway to the forest’s edge, she glanced over her shoulder. Her mother sprang from the headless Metal Man and set to running as soon as her bare feet touched the ground. This lifted Kyla’s spirits, for her mother was as fast the wind. Watching her dart around one Metal Man, then another, Kyla had little doubt her mother would get away.
But a third Metal Man, emerging around the tent, did not try to grab her. Instead he picked up the head that lay at his feet and hurled it with great force at Kyla’s mother.
“Look out!” Kyla cried.
The warning came too late. The head hit her mother squarely in the back, knocking her to the ground. Her fall was terrible to behold — a rolling tumble of arms and legs, head crumpled at an awkward angle, an awful thud.
Remarkably, the fall only stunned her mother for a few seconds before she staggered to her feet, but it was all the time the Metal Men needed. One grabbed an ankle, another a wrist, and though her mother struggled mightily, there was no getting free this time. They raised her, kicking and flailing, into the air. Behind them, the prison cart, packed with prisoners, was hauled in her direction. The village, only moments before teeming with fleeing gypsies, was now empty.
“No!” Kyla shouted.
She darted toward her mother, but then the Metal Men were everywhere. All of them turned their flickering eyes toward her, glowing yellow through the smog like the eyes of cats. They filled the clearing from one end to the other, a solid wall of black metal that lurched — creaking and clanging — in her direction. Smoke plumed from their ears. Hand clamps snapped at the air.
Kyla had only seconds to make a decision. As she watched her mother being shoved into the prison cart, she knew that as much as she wanted to help there was nothing she could do in this moment to save her. If she tried, she would be captured too, and what would be the point of that?
She told herself she was not a coward for running.
She told herself she was doing the smart thing, what her mother wanted her to do, and by running she was keeping hope alive.
She told herself, as she fled into the trees, vanishing into the shadows and the fog, that no matter how long it took, no matter what dangers she had to face, she was going to get her mother back.
And Rendon Thorne would pay for what he had done.
The first time Grandon met Kyla, he was face down in the mud.
Even worse, it was raining harder than any time he could remember — a steady pounding, ice cold and as painful as nails on the back of his neck. The rain had started late in the morning and hadn’t let up for even a second as morning blurred into afternoon and afternoon melted into night. He lifted his weary head, spitting the bitter muck off his lips, blinking furiously to clear his eyes, just as a huge shadow fall across his body. Behind him, he heard the boisterous laughter of the men who’d tossed him outside, their boots thumping on the wooden deck as they retreated into the inn.
His head was so foggy he couldn’t even remember how he’d insulted them.
At least, he assumed he’d insulted them. That’s usually how he ended up in this predicament. He may have been young, hardly more than a child in the eyes of his own people, but he’d already developed quite a knack for saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible time.
The shadow, cast from the lanterns hanging on either side of the inn’s door, stretched so far — nearly to the smear of pine trees at the edge of Grandon’s sight — that he felt a tremor of excitement. Was it a Tall One, come to claim him at last? If so, this was not the best first impression.
Yet when he rolled over, raising his hand to ward off the pelting rain, it was not a Tall One he saw. It was a child dressed in a gray cloak, and a small child at that; only the child’s distance from him had created the enormous shadow.
What a fool he was. While the child stared, face cloaked in shadow, the twangs of the piano inside the inn started up again. Soon all the occupants were belting another drinking song.
All the child’s staring was getting annoying. “Can I help you with something, little one?” he said sharply.
The child watched him silently for a few more seconds through the rainy mist, then finally approached. There was no sign of nervousness. The strut of little boots through the mud was almost arrogant, really, which Grandon found quite odd. Usually after people saw just how big and muscular he was, they weren’t so eager to approach. If it hadn’t been a child, this alone may have gotten a rise out of him.
Now he was just perplexed.
The light was at the child’s back, so it was not until he reached Grandon’s side and turned so the wavery glow from the lanterns lit his face that Grandon realized the child was not a he at all. It was a her — a girl with tawny brown cheeks and hair as ruby red as the apples he used to pick from his uncle’s orchard. She was tiny and young — and if not for her eyes, he would have dismissed her as just another human child.
It was her eyes that set her apart. It was not just the color — a startling shade of green that seemed to glow even in the gloom — but the fire that burned behind them. There was an intensity of purpose, a focus, that Grandon had seldom seen before, and never in one so young.
“You’re kind of small for a giant, aren’t you?” she said.
If Grandon had been impressed thus far, the insult quickly dissolved the feeling. Grimacing, he brushed off as much mud as he could manage, then rose to his full height. Towering over her, twice her height at least, he gave her his most menacing stare, the one all Tall Ones were taught before they were allowed to walk among other races. Compared to her, he was as massive as the Great Pines of Moghoven and she was nothing but a rabbit. A rabbit pup, no less.
“Excuse me?” he said. Even without trying, his voice was quite deep, but he dropped it even lower for good measure.
Since he’d been expecting the girl to flee, he was sorely disappointed. In fact, she didn’t just hold her ground; she stepped even closer, her gaze unwavering. Closer, he saw the downy lining of her cloak, the colorful beads around her neck, and the thin tandlehyde boots worn by only one kind of people. Gypsies.
“I said you’re kind of small for a giant, aren’t you?” she said.
“I heard you the first time,” Grandon said.
“Well? Aren’t you?”
He blinked away the rain dribbling into his eyes. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kyla,” she said.
“Well, good for you,” Grandon said. “Did your gypsy parents teach you to be so rude or does it just come naturally?”
“I’m not a gypsy.”
“Ah. Well, you could have fooled me.”
“I just lived with them for a while.”
“I see. Very interesting.” He thought of telling her that he wasn’t a full grown Tall One yet, that he might still have a bit of growing to do, but what would be the point? It would just make her ask more questions, and it wasn’t the real reason he was on the short side anyway. Holding his hand over his eyes to block the rain, he gazed at the inn, debating whether they’d allow him to stay for the night or whether he should just shove on to the next inn. It all depended on how much he’d insulted them. “Well, as I have better things to do than to argue with some little girl in the rain—”
“I’m not little,” she insisted.
“Hmm. Well, you’re kind of short for a human girl, aren’t you?”
Those bright green eyes narrowed to slits. It pleased Grandon to no end. If there was something he liked more than anything else, it was turning a person’s insult back on them. He had a knack for it, too. It was also a knack that often got him into trouble.
He was waiting for her to come back with some kind of retort, but she surprised him again: “Well, maybe I am,” she said, “but I don’t let it stop me. Anyway, I want to ask you a question.”
Grandon was cold and miserable, with no desire to stay in this cursed weather even one more second, but he couldn’t help being a little intrigued. “Oh? And what question would that be?”
For the first time, he saw what might be nervousness from her — an ever so slight swallow.
“I want to know,” she said, hesitating, “whether I can hire you.”
The rain chose that moment to pick up its pace, a noisy patter on the mud and leaves, so Grandon wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly.
“What’s that?” he said.
“I want to hire you,” Kyla said.
“You want to hire me?”
“To do what exactly?”
“To help me rescue my mother,” she said.
“To help you . . . Ah. I see. Right.” He peered past her at the inn. The music had stopped and he thought he heard snickering over the unyielding drizzle, though it may have just been his imagination. “This is a joke, right? Someone put you up to this. A good one, yes. Now run along and earn your two coins. A fine little actress. You should be in be in the Royal Theater.”
None of this fazed her in the slightest. “This isn’t a joke,” she said.
“Uh huh. And where is your mother?”
“She’s been captured by Rendon Thorne. By the Metal Men.” He voice caught but she pressed on gamely. “They took her away. I want — I need to get her back. I will get her back.”
“But that’s not all,” she added.
“Oh? I was thinking it was sounding a little too easy.”
“I also plan to kill King Rendon Thorne.”
“And destroy his empire.”
Grandon glanced around uneasily to see if anyone else had heard. It was well known that Thorne had spies everywhere. Though he saw no one hiding in the bleary shadows, he still wasn’t going to put up with such nonsense. “Assuming what you say is true—”
“— you’re either very brave or very stupid. Actually, you’re definitely stupid even if you are brave. People have been separated from their heads for talking like that.”
“I don’t care.”
“Being a child won’t save you. Thorne has no mercy.”
“So? I don’t either.”
Grandon laughed. The girl didn’t. The rage in those eyes of hers burned all the brighter. She certainly had spunk, he’d give her that. Regardless, it didn’t change that he was standing in the cold rain for no reason other than simple curiosity.
“Well,” he said, stepping past her, “I really do wish you all the luck. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
“So that’s a no?”
Grandon didn’t stop, heading for the inn. “Sorry.”
“Fine. I figured you’d say that anyway.”
“You should have trusted your instincts.”
“Not everyone is brave, I guess.”
Grandon stopped dead, boots sinking into the mud. This, finally, was too much to ignore. Calling him short was one thing. Calling him a coward was quite another. No one, no one, ever questioned his courage. He turned slowly, glowering at her, hating that she was keeping him in the cold. And a child at that!
“You want to say that again?”
“I said not everyone is brave.”
Not even a pause. He shook his head, astonished she had so little regard for her own safety. Still, Grandon had done many foolish things in his life and was sure to do more, but he would never hurt a little girl. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
“But I feel I should teach you something. Indifference is not the same thing as cowardice. People often make that mistake about me. Usually they feel my fist when they do.”
She stared at him with simmering anger. “I don’t know what that word means.”
“Ah. It means — well, it means not caring.”
“Oh. You mean you don’t care about my problem?”
“Child, I don’t care about anyone’s problems. I just want to be left alone.”
She appeared to contemplate this. Even if he was still outside in this awful weather for no good reason, her reaction pleased him because it was the first sign of humility from her. Maybe she wasn’t completely hopeless.
“Seems like the same thing,” she said.
“You know, not caring about anything. It’s kind of like not being brave.”
Of course, he should have expected she’d destroy any positive in the moment. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said tersely. “You’re not making any sense at all. It’s not even remotely the same.”
“If you don’t care,” she said, “it just means you don’t want to try. Maybe because it’s too hard or something. That’s kind of like being afraid, I think.”
This time, Grandon really did have to keep himself together. She was finding new and better ways to irritate him. “That’s nonsense!” he bellowed.
“So are you going to help me?”
“It’d probably make you feel better about yourself,” she insisted.
To stand here and be lectured by this child, this little miscreant, was beyond insufferable. How dare she! He was losing a battle of wits with a gypsy toadstool who didn’t even reach his knees. Clenching his teeth, he stomped over to her, and was even more irritated when she didn’t so much as cringe.
“You think you’re so smart,” he said.
“Not really,” she said. “I just know what I’m going to do.”
“Right. And let’s say, pray tell, that I decide to help you. Rescuing your mother sounds insane enough. I don’t know where she is, but if she ended up in the mining camps it will be almost impossible to get her out — especially for a little girl who doesn’t know her limits. But why in the name of Rymadoon’s Makers would you want to try to kill the king? Why isn’t rescuing your mother enough for you? Really. Enlighten me, please.”
Grandon expected a flippant reply, something equally sarcastic as his own diatribe, but instead the girl took a long time to consider. Beads of water glittered on her hood like diamonds. When she spoke, it was not in anger or in jest, but with a kind of quiet earnestness of someone who spoke from the heart.
“I thought about this a lot,” she said. “It would be easier just to rescue Mother. But I realized it would just happen again. He’d just take some other kid’s mother or father. I don’t — I don’t want them to feel like I feel. Not if I can do something about it.”
Despite his wounded pride, despite his insistence about not caring, which was completely and totally the truth and had nothing to do with cowardice, somehow, in spite of all this, in spite of the miserable dark and the cold rain and mud the sticking to his face, she still managed to get to him. It was impossible to hear such total honesty, borne from such genuine empathy for the suffering of people she did not know, without being touched in some way.
He also felt more than a little shame. His throat tightening, he cast his gaze toward the darkness.
“Well,” he said, “there’s lots of things we’d all change if we could.”
“But we can.”
“I wish that were so.”
“It is. It really is. All you have to do is believe—”
Despising himself, but not wanting to prolong his own self-loathing any longer than necessary, Grandon headed through the downpour for the solitude awaiting him in the trees. Forget the inn. He’d sleep outside and return for his belongings in the morning. Hopefully the owners would have forgotten his boorish behavior by then.
“All right, fine, goodbye,” Kyla said tartly. Though he tried not to look at her, he saw through the corner of his eye that she was heading toward the inn.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“To find somebody who’ll help me.”
He stopped, watching her march toward the inn. “In there? I wouldn’t go in there. It’s no place for a child.”
“It’s full of thieves and drunkards and — and — and other bad sorts! You’ll be sorry!”
Not heeding him, she stepped on the platform, her boots leaving muddy prints on the slick wood. He kept waiting for her to drop her bluff, for her to throw a tirade at him for not yielding to her demands, but as she reached for the iron door handle she didn’t even look at him. As if in response, inside the raucous laughter rose to a roar. He thought about the girl going in there and all he could think of was a tiny tanglefish dropped into a pool of ravenous shankle. She didn’t have a chance.
“What you want is impossible!” he declared.
Hand on the door handle, she glanced at him over her shoulder. In the darkness of her hood, and with the rainy mist separating them, it was difficult make out her face, but he still caught the glint of her green eyes. Saw the resolve there. The determination.
“Nothing’s impossible if you can imagine it,” she said.
Then she opened the door.