Chapter 1 1
Tell and Wren, Seka’s two children, had no idea of the risk he was about to take for them. They were far away on the mountainside, hunting for dinner. And dinner had just served itself up, if they could catch it.
In a jumble of boulders above them, the very tip of a narrow ear flashed pink for a moment, backlit by the low sun. There! That was all Tell needed to see. He already had an arrow nocked to the string because he always did when they were out hunting.
Just below him on the path, Wren knew by the way her brother stopped and curled his scarred fingers to the bow that he’d seen something worth taking. She had a good idea what it was. When he turned to her, she wiggled two fingers above her head, making rabbit ears. He shrugged yes. Wren pulled a face. Ugh! Mountain jackrabbits were lean and tough, like every living thing up there, including themselves.
Wren tapped her chest, pointed upward. Tell nodded and took off up the path, as silent as smoke. Even at fourteen, he was one of the best hunters in the village and brought in most of the meat they ate. He could’ve taken the jackrabbit by himself, but this way was quicker. Also, they liked working together.
Instead of circling back along the trail, Wren climbed straight up the low cliff separating them from the terrace above. The way she scaled the rock wall made it look as easy as walking, and for her it was. She was born to it. As a baby, she’d climbed the stone walls inside their hut as soon as she was old enough to pull herself upright. She had long, strong fingers, plus a jagged scar on her leg from a fall when she was just three. But then, everyone in their village had scars of some kind.
Wren was barely breathing hard when she slid up over the cliff edge onto the rocky terrace. She stayed on her belly until she heard the grinding sound of the jackrabbit chewing on a mouthful of spiny grass.
She stood up slowly and calmly, looking everywhere but at the jackrabbit, because all animals can feel eyes on them, especially animals that are hunted regularly. Then, not bothering to muffle her footsteps, she walked across the terrace—not toward the jackrabbit, just away from the cliff edge.
The jackrabbit stood up on its back legs, instantly alert. Wren sighed. This one was particularly skinny. A gamey old male. She could tell by the shape of his underslung jaw, even with just one fleeting sideways glance.
Because she wasn’t looking directly at it, and because she wasn’t getting any closer, the jackrabbit didn’t flee instantly; it stayed upright, alert and ready to bolt if necessary.
Not alert enough, not ready enough.
The hiss-thud of an arrow let her know that her brother’s shot had found its target. She finally looked directly at the jackrabbit as it succumbed with hardly a twitch.
“Not a bad shot,” Wren teased.
“I like it when they don’t know what happened to them.” Tell nodded. He knew a good hunter made sure his prey didn’t suffer. Plus, the meat tasted better that way.
There was no question they were brother and sister. They shared the same generous mouths and prominent, fine-bridged noses, a very visible part of their family inheritance. They’d been teased endlessly when they were younger. Is that a mountain peak or your nose? Be careful of that blade on your face; it might cut somebody! But as they grew older and bigger, their noses became less of a landmark and more just… interesting.
“Are you coming back down?” Wren asked as she slung the still-warm animal around her neck and tied its feet together with a twist of grass.
A familiar scowl settled across Tell’s angular face, one that had been there for almost two years. He pointed up the mountain, away from the village. “I’ll try for more,” he said, then set off without looking back. Wren sadly watched him go. She knew that hunting was just his excuse to stay away, especially that day. But she had no such excuse.
She headed back fast, leaping from rock to rock until she reached the edge of the canyon. She paused to look down at the village directly below, her entire world, her entire life so far, all twelve years of it.
This was her favorite view, and in truth she scarcely had to look, she knew it so well and it changed so little. About thirty or so familiar stone huts were arranged along both walls of the canyon, at a place where it widened slightly and an ice-cold spring gurgled from a crack in the rock. The huts faced each other at various angles, depending on the vagaries of the rock, and they’d been built in all sorts of shapes. Her village had many rules, but none about the shape of your house. The rock determined that.
The huts all leaned against the canyon wall for the strength to withstand winter’s heavy snow. With the canyon behind them, thick rock walls all around, and slate roofs above their heads, theirs was a life lived in stone, most of it cold. No trees worth the name grew this high. The timbers that supported their roofs had been carried up the mountain one by one long ago and were by far the most valuable part of any home.
Wren and Tell’s was a sturdy rectangle on the high side of the village. Seeing it always gave her a solid feeling. It got more sunlight than any other, especially late in the day, and Wren was proud that it was considered one of the most comfortable and well built in the village. The small summer garden she’d started years ago with her mother had gone to seed and, looking down on it, Wren made a mental note to gather the seeds before the first snow arrived. It would be soon, she knew, and once it arrived, their world of rock would become a world buried in snow and ice.
Voices bounced up the rock from below, clear as bells in the thin air, and Wren recognized every single one, no matter their age. Little kids were yelling or crying as they played one of their endless games, which usually ended when someone threw a stone and someone else didn’t duck fast enough. Women were shouting at the children and across the canyon at their friends. Or enemies. There was an extra edge to their voices today. They should’ve rung with excitement and urgency because the mules were being readied for the long journey down to Halfway, but instead, Wren heard frustration, anger, and envy in the women’s voices, and she knew exactly why. Because, for the second year in a row, they weren’t going.
As for the men, she didn’t hear any of them; it was too early. But their mules were tethered outside every door, ready for loading. Small, strong, sure-footed, and mostly mean mountain mules.
Except for Rumble. Wren smiled when she saw him waiting outside her own door—the oldest mule in the village and, by far, the smartest. He wasn’t tethered. He didn’t have to be. He knew what was about to happen. He knew where he was supposed to be, and why.
Her eyes traveled automatically up the canyon to where it bent away from her. She couldn’t see around the bend, but she didn’t have to. She knew what was there: the reason for their existence, the origin of their name—the vein of black glass that some forgotten ancestor had found long ago. So much of it had been carved away over the years that the glass now lived at the end of a gleaming tunnel inside the mountain.
Movement! Small as an ant, the first of the men came around the canyon bend and headed quickly down the path back to the village, carrying the last of his season’s haul, in a hurry to wrap it for the journey.
Without warning or hesitation, Wren stepped forward into thin air and dropped from sight, leaving no sign that she’d ever been there.
But she hadn’t jumped to her death. Arms wide, her strong, slender body under control, her knees bent, she hit the steep scree beneath the canyon edge and rode a wave of small stones down to the floor with dinner bouncing on her shoulders: her own personal little landslide. It was dangerous, it was fast, and it was thrilling. It also got her back to the cooking fire well before her father arrived.
But Wren needn’t have hurried. Seka stayed later at the mine face than almost all the others, waiting for the quiet needed to try for the sorcerer’s glass. To the People of the Black Glass, the vein was like earth’s dark blood frozen forever. It belonged to them and them only, guarded by their remote, harsh location and their reputation for savagery.
A few men lingered at the mouth of the tunnel, but Seka finally had the mine face to himself. He removed his pika fur coat, folded it, and put it on the ground below the vein to cushion the piece when it fell. He took a few breaths to focus himself, then raised his hands and snugged his antler chisel into the promising crevice, angling it just so. He drew his hardwood mallet back all the way. But instead of turning his face away before striking, as he had been taught and taught to others and always did himself, he looked full on to the chisel and held his one-eyed gaze there, so that he could use all his strength for the blow.
“Guide my hand,” Seka prayed to the gods of the mountain. He struck hard, and the last thing he saw was a perfect slab peeling from the vein, just before a stray sliver the size of a wasp’s sting shot into his good eye. He dropped to the floor next to his fur coat, screaming in pain, instantly blind, knowing he was as dead as if the sliver had taken him in the heart.