I’m not yet used to the sound of waves crashing against the rocky beach. We’ve only been on the coast for a day, and everything still seems foreign, so far from Dimmingwood. Sand and pebbles cover the ground where there should be green grass, and there are few trees, just miles of water on the horizon. The breeze is briny instead of smelling like pine and earth. The only birdsongs are the cries of gulls, but they’re mostly silent now that the sun has gone down.
There’s a full moon out, and combined with a sprinkling of stars overhead, it gives enough light for me to see my footprints leading from camp, where my companions are sleeping. But I don’t want their company tonight. I’ve traveled far these past months, and with farther still to go, I need time alone to stop and think about where I’ve been…
As I sloshed my way out of the cool stream, I felt cleaner than I had in weeks. Sixteen days on the road with Terrac and Hadrian had not allowed me much private time for luxuries like bathing. So as I waded ashore and wrung the water from my long silver hair, it was a relief to draw a deep breath and find I now smelled like nothing worse than creek water and moss.
Clambering up a nearby boulder, I lay out on the warm rock to dry in the sun. It was early morning, and there wasn’t a soul around to break the stillness. My traveling companions back at camp probably weren’t even awake yet.
We were all growing spoiled on this journey, I reflected, squinting up at the puffy clouds scuttling across the bright sky. We were away from home, away from the usual responsibilities. After battling the Skeltai savages from across the border and winning, I had a whole year of freedom ahead of me now, a chance to travel and see how people lived beyond my home province of Ellesus. I tried not to think of what would happen when my time was up and I had to return to the Praetor’s service.
A soft breeze stirred through the clearing, raising goose pimples on my bare skin. Even though I was still damp, I scrambled down from my perch to drag my warm clothes off the shrub where I’d left them hanging. Despite how far I’d come from Dimmingwood, I still wore my customary forest costume of tunic, leggings, and leather jerkin with deerskin boots. I continued to keep a dagger tucked down one boot and a pair of smaller knives up my sleeves.
I had just finished dressing and was tucking all those knives into place when a sharp cracking sound, like the snap of a stick, broke the stillness of the clearing.
Habit made me drop immediately into a crouch. I scanned the shady grove surrounding the stream, but all was still. There was no sign of any threat, yet I had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched by unseen eyes.
“Terrac?” I called into the trees. “Hadrian?”
I strained outward with my magic sense, trying to pick up the presence of an intruder. Of course I felt nothing. I had felt that same empty nothingness ever since my magic was burned out during my recent escape from the Skeltai shaman of the Black Forest. But still I reached for the magic, and still I felt surprise and regret when my grasping came up empty.
I shook my head. I was getting paranoid lately. This wasn’t the first time I had felt I was being watched only to discover there was no one there. More than likely, the noise was only made by a wild animal hiding in the shadows. It had more cause to fear me than I it.
I went to retrieve my belt from the shrub. And felt the breeze of something whistling past my cheek to imbed itself with a thud in the trunk of the tree beside me.
It was an arrow.
If I hadn’t turned when I did, it would not have missed me. Or maybe it hadn’t missed me anyway. A burning, stinging sensation crept up the hollow, fleshy place between my neck and shoulder, and wet blood trickled down my skin.
There was no time to think. Dropping to the ground and rolling behind a nearby tree stump, I tried to get my bearings, tried to figure out what direction the shot had come from. Was it from the tree line directly before me? Cautiously I peered over the stump, and my hand, midway through the motion of drawing one of my throwing knives, froze.
I could see him there, a tall, black-cloaked figure framed by the trees. His hood was back, exposing the gaunt face of a young man not much older than I. His flinty gaze returned my stare for only a second. But during that time, I was struck by a powerful sense of recognition. It was impossible, but I knew him. And it was that knowing that held me immobile.
He visibly hesitated and backed into the shadows before turning to run. I imagined I caught a brief glimpse of the longbow in his hands, and then all I could see was his cloak billowing behind as he disappeared into the trees.
I was too dazed to give chase. For the space of a few heartbeats, I struggled to make sense of what I’d seen, feeling that I had met an apparition from the depths of memory. Then the throbbing of my wound drew my urgent attention. The arrow had barely grazed me, but it must have nicked an artery because an alarming amount of blood was soaking through my tunic.
I ripped off my sleeve and used it to try to slow the bleeding, but fresh blood continued seeping through. Running back to camp pumping out more blood with every step was the last thing I should do, but I didn’t have any choice. I needed help, and I would get none here. My attacker could return at any time to finish what he had started. I could not guess what had driven him away.
So I abandoned the unprotected clearing and lost myself in the trees, pushing on in the opposite direction from that my attacker had taken. The wound throbbing and my head feeling strangely light, each step was an effort. Roots rose to trip me, and sharp branches scratched at my face and exposed skin as my vision grew too blurred to avoid them. The morning sunlight faded, and the world grew dark before my eyes, but I couldn’t stop to rest. I pressed on, trusting that some part of me knew which direction to go.
Bleeding and confused, I finally stumbled into camp.
Terrac was still sleeping in his blankets, but the priest, Hadrian, was awake and cooking breakfast. He stared as I burst from the thicket. I tried to speak but only managed to mumble something incoherent before collapsing at his feet.
* * * * *
“We should go after him,” Terrac urged, pacing up and down.
Hadrian didn’t look up from the bandage he was applying to my throbbing shoulder as he said, “He’ll be long gone by now. Anyway, until we know whether this person is working alone or has evil companions lurking nearby, the worst possible thing we could do is split up.”
“So we pretend nothing happened and just wait around for him to come back and take another shot at Ilan?”
It warmed me to hear the concern in Terrac’s voice, but I wished he would sit still. I had only returned to consciousness a few minutes ago, and his rapid movement to and fro was making me dizzy again.
“Will you stop flapping and come to rest?” I asked. But I made my tone softer than my words, because I had seen the fear in his eyes when he thought I was lost to him.
As Hadrian pulled my bandage tight, I added through gritted teeth, “Whoever or whatever tried to kill me is long out of our reach by now, and I don’t think he’ll be coming back any time soon.”
“What do you mean, ‘whatever’ it was?” Hadrian asked. “Is there some reason to suppose he was more or less than human?”
I hesitated, remembering the flinty eyes in the hauntingly familiar face. “Maybe. I don’t know.” I could not bring myself to voice what I really thought, that I had seen a ghost from my past.
Hadrian said, “Then we will treat this as a random attack by some roadside brigand. Doubtless he thought he could snatch your purse and escape unseen, but you caught him in the act and startled him into violence. These highway thieves are cowards at heart. They don’t look for a fight, only easy prey.”
At the irony of his words—for not long ago we had been simple brigands ourselves—I exchanged a glance with Terrac. Or tried to, but he seemed distracted, and I couldn’t catch his eye.
“You two can believe this was some random encounter if you want,” Terrac said. “But I do not. I am going back to the stream to have a look around. Maybe this dangerous stranger will have left something behind, some clue to his identity or his intention.”
Before Hadrian or I could protest, he grabbed his sword and stomped off into the trees, calling, “I won’t be gone long.”
“That boy has more courage than sense,” Hadrian muttered.
I said nothing as he finished his work on my injured shoulder and began packing away his healing supplies. I couldn’t disagree with Terrac. I too knew there was nothing random about what had happened out there. That cloaked man had been out to kill me. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about it.
Giving in to the nagging dizziness, I lay down across the clean blanket Hadrian had spread for me and closed my eyes against the glare of the rising sun. The memory of my attacker’s unearthly face played across my eyelids, the last thing I saw as I drifted into a shallow sleep.
* * * * *
It wasn’t until midmorning that I stirred again. Something had awakened me. A soft rustling from the near trees. I blinked up at the pale sky and tried to think why I was resting at this hour. The sun was high above, and the morning’s chill had left the ground. All seemed peaceful.
The gentle scratching noises of quill on parchment fell upon my ears, and I was vaguely aware of Hadrian’s shadow over me. He scribbled away inside the pages of a book balanced across his knees while simultaneously keeping watch over my slumber. Why should I require his watching?
Sudden awareness of the burning sensation in the hollow between my neck and shoulder brought the memories back in a rush. An arrow piercing my flesh. An unknown menace, whose deadly intent could not match the chilling familiarity of his eyes.
There came another rustle from the trees, accompanied this time by a soft footfall. I bolted upright, instinctively reaching up my sleeve for a knife. But I relaxed when I saw it was only Terrac returning to the camp. And he did not come empty-handed but carried the two halves of a shattered arrow.
“I found no sign in the woods of the villain,” he said. “I searched for more than an hour, but he left as little trace as a ghost. When I realized he had covered his trail, I went back to the river. There, at least, he was careless enough to leave behind physical evidence.”
He dropped the broken arrow pieces at my feet
Hadrian set aside his ink-stained quill and his book, saying, “There’s no mystery in the would-be killer’s easy disappearance. A forest thief knows how to cover his trail. You two should know that. Luckily, we are too near our destination to be likely targets of that villain again. I doubt we’ll see more of him.”
I stopped listening, my eyes drifting to the remnants of the arrow that had so nearly taken my life. It was a fascinating object, not merely because there were dried flecks of my blood spattered across the tip but because there seemed to be some strange, invisible quality surrounding it.
Magic? Surely not. I stretched out my consciousness, seeking to touch the mysterious essence that lingered like a scent over the arrow. But my magic was as elusive as the aura of the arrow, leaving me to wonder if I was only imagining it. To my eyes and to the touch of my fingers, the arrow appeared ordinary in every way.
A discussion was taking place over my head.
“I care not how near our destinations lies.” Terrac sounded irritated. “We cannot travel now, not until Ilan has a full day to recuperate.”
He rested his hand on my shoulder, maybe out of sympathy or possibly as a silent nudge for my agreement. Either way, it was my injured shoulder and I flinched at his clumsy touch.
“There’s no need for this fuss,” I told both men. It’s my shoulder that’s taken a scratch, not my leg. I’m as fit to travel as either of you.”
Terrac looked like he wanted to argue. Ever since our relationship had taken its recent turn from the friendly to the tentatively romantic, his attitude toward me had changed. He could be at once overbearing and annoyingly protective.
I cut him off before he could begin. “No arguments. We’ve wasted enough of the daylight. If our next campsite is as close as Hadrian seems to think, I’d like to reach it before nightfall.”
That settled them, and within the hour we broke camp.
* * * * *
I had thought I could be at home in any woods, but the forested hills of Cros were nothing like what I was accustomed to. The terrain here was increasingly uneven. We always seemed to be climbing sharply upward or plunging down into valleys. The ground was rough, our path littered with rocks and lined with boulders. The grass was thin and sprouted only in occasional tufts between rocks. The spindly trees with leaves sparse on their branches were so different from the lush green canopy of Dimmingwood that it seemed faintly wrong to call them trees at all. Here was no pleasant scent of pine or elder. Even the songs of the local birds were foreign to my ear.
We did not break for our afternoon meal but ate as we walked to make up the lost hours of the morning. I was filled with nervous energy anyway and would not have rested easily. My eyes were constantly on the watch for a dark form moving among the shadows or for the end of a black cloak disappearing behind a tree. But I saw nothing suspicious. I had only the pain in my shoulder and the broken arrow carried inside my traveling pack to prove my encounter with the would-be killer had ever occurred at all.