Talismans of Thunder Series: Volume 1
by Angela Dorsey & Marina Miral
Copyright 2017 Angela Dorsey & Marina Miral
Published by Enchanted Pony Books at Shakespir
Shakespir Edition, License Notes:
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Sola knew instantly that the stomping sound coming from the path near her home did not belong to Grandmother. Every footfall slammed into the earth like a sledge hammer, as different from Grandmother’s soft step as could possibly be.
She looked up from carving, her heart thudding. Whoever approached was still hidden by the trees surrounding their tiny cabin. She had mere seconds to hide.
Sola slipped from her perch on the top step of the porch and hurried behind a nearby tree. Too late she realized she’d left her newest creation on the stairs, along with fresh wood shavings scattered like fallen leaves. Hopefully the person wouldn’t take the carving as a clue she was hiding nearby, and would leave quickly. Then she could get back to whittling. For Grandmother’s sake, she had to get this piece right.
The stomper would be in sight of the cabin now. Sola held her breath. The gravel stopped crunching and thuds sounded up the steps.
Loud pounding on the door! Any faint hopes that the visitor was just some kindly lost traveler looking for directions, perhaps to the city, were dashed. That knocking held too much purpose to be a random stranger.
“Open up! I know you’re there!”
“Oh no,” Sola whispered, but quietly so their dwarf landlord wouldn’t hear. There was only one reason he’d come: the rent. And he was three days early.
“Open this door or I’ll break it down!”
What should she do? Grandmother always dealt with Landlord Stye, and she wasn’t home from Alantrax yet. Sola had never said a word to him in her life, but once she’d stood too close to him and he’d struck her across her face. Sola had given him a wide berth ever since, realizing he was a nasty tempered fellow who openly despised humans. His only saving grace was that he tolerated humans as long as he could make money from them, meaning he was one of the few landowners in the area who would rent a house to them.
In Alantrax and its outskirts, as in all of Shadowland, humans were considered the lowest of the low. Even the Scrimp Pixies were given more respect because they had some residual magic from the old days and could be hired to illuminate dark places. Humans, however, were only allowed to be servants, or if they chose, could eke out livings as Sola and her grandmother did, by their skills. Or rather, as Grandmother did. Sola had no skills.
“Do you want to be evicted?” Landlord Stye screamed, sounding angrier than Sola had ever heard him. Something had to be done, or they’d be homeless – and since Grandmother wasn’t there to appease him, she had to try.
Sola stepped out from behind the tree. “Landlord Stye. Sir?”
He didn’t hear her above his door pounding.
Sola cleared her throat, nervously. “Landlord Stye.”
The dwarf spun toward her, then rushed down the stairs, his face red and furious. “There you are, you little wretch! Why are you hiding from me? And where is that disgusting old-ling you call Grandmother? The rent is due right now, this instant, or you two are gone!”
Sola took a step back. “But Landlord Stye, Grandmother isn’t here. She’s still at the Alantrax market, and I don’t have the money to give you.”
Landlord Stye was barely taller than Sola, but his arms were as thick as small tree trunks. His foul breath gushed over her face, and it was all she could do to not turn away or retch. Then she heard the rumble of wooden wheels.
Grandmother was back!
A wide grin showed Landlord Stye’s few remaining rotten teeth to their fullest. He pushed Sola aside, sending her sprawling to the ground, and strode away from the cabin.
For a moment, Sola thought of slipping into the forest and watching from a safe distance. She knew that Grandmother would want her to hide. But what if she could help? How could she leave Grandmother to face Landlord Stye alone?
Sola climbed to her feet and hurried after the burly dwarf.
A small hunched woman crept toward them, dragging a handcart – a handcart heaped with carved furniture. Had not one piece sold in the market today?
This was bad.
Grandmother’s head was bowed, so she didn’t see Landlord Stye until he was right in front of her. When she looked up, her face was etched with worry and fatigue.
“Landlord Stye, how nice to see you,” said Grandmother, lowering the cart’s handles to the ground. “What can I do for you today?”
“I came for the rent.”
“Please forgive me, but isn’t the rent due on Sayday eve?”
“I want it now.”
Grandmother caught Sola’s gaze and twitched her head, her signal for Sola to hide. Sola backed a few paces, but slowly. A harder look from Grandmother. Sola faded into the shelter of another tree, but peeked out from behind the rough bark.
“Landlord Stye,” Grandmother continued. “I regret to inform you that I will not have the money until then.”
The landlord laughed. “Are you sure?”
“Then I regret to inform you that you must be gone by tomorrow. I have new renters who will pay me two hundred mitons for this lovely cottage.”
Sola scoffed quietly. Lovely cottage, indeed. The shack was infested with termites. But it was all they could afford, all they had.
“And if we chose to pay you the two hundred mitons?”
“The other family is dwarf. If you want to stay, you have to pay me two hundred fifty mitons.”
Grandmother straightened, and Sola was happy to see that unstooped, she was taller than the dwarf. “We will have two hundred fifty mitons for you by Sayday evening.”
Landlord Stye rubbed his hands together, not bothering to hide his glee. “Very well, until then,” he said briskly, then pushed past Grandmother and strode away.
Grandmother’s back curved again, and she sighed as she stooped to lift the handcart. Sola rushed toward her.
“Let me help.”
“Thank you, dear.” Grandmother forced a smile and wiped her brow. “Just put it next to the shop,” she added, as if nothing had happened.
Sola pulled the cart to the shop, a simple lean-to attached to the cabin. The cart was so heavy! Had nothing sold?
Sola counted the pieces. Three chairs with stags carved into their back panels. Two ornate side tables with carved ivy vines twining around their legs. One stool with a line of horses galloping around the edge of its seat. One stool. This morning, Grandmother had left with two.
Grandmother was reclined in her favorite rocking chair, eyes closed, when Sola walked into their cabin, her arms full of firewood. At least fuel to cook and heat their rented home was plentiful. Supper might be scanty, but it would be warm. And for tonight, they would be warm as well. Next week? With only one stool sold and even more rent to pay, they might have to huddle around a fire in the woods.
“It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.” Grandmother sounded more tired than usual.
“What did you get for the stool?”
Sola grimaced. It wasn’t nearly enough, not enough for their rent, not enough for the quality of the stool. Grandmother’s furniture was amazing. It should be worth a fortune, and would be if it had been carved by a Shadow Elf or even a dwarf.
“Don’t worry,” Grandmother said. “We’ve always come up with the rent money before.”
“But he raised it one hundred mitons, Grandmother. How can we find that much money in three days?”
“Have faith, child.” Grandmother leaned back again, her face infuriatingly calm. “How are your carvings coming along?”
A familiar wave of guilt made Sola turn away. She concentrated on dishing up soup for Grandmother, then carried it to the table. “I’ll show you.”
Sola walked out the front door, unhappiness like lead in her stomach. Shadows lay across the yard. Already, dark was upon them. Sola shivered. Lately, the days seemed to be getting shorter, abnormally shorter. It was barely late-afternoon, and yet just like every other day for the last two months, black clouds choked the sky. But no rain. It hardly ever seemed to rain anymore, and the plants were beginning to show it.
Her latest carving lay on the ground where Landlord Stye must’ve kicked it – and it certainly didn’t look like the swan she’d imagined when she started. After hours of struggling with that lump of wood and a whittling knife, all she’d proven once again was that she was nothing but a talentless drain on her grandmother, a burden. Why did she have to be so useless?
Sola carried the carving back into the house, and silently handed it to Grandmother.
The old woman squinted at the mutilated wood. “Oh my, that is terrible! I absolutely love it.”
Sola couldn’t stop a spurt of laughter. “You love it? You can’t. It’s hideous.”
“I wouldn’t say hideous. Um, what is it?”
“It was supposed to be a swan. And I just realized that it looks like a duck.”
“Well, I happen to be very fond of ducks. And swans.” Grandmother held up the carving again. “Especially slightly misshapen ones.”
For one blessed moment they laughed together, then the weight of their situation pushed down on Sola once more. “Can I go with you tomorrow?” she blurted. “I could help you, you know. I could pull the handcart.”
“You do help. You help me by keeping safe at home, and by practicing your carving. By finding wood I can use to make furniture. By cutting some of the pieces.”
“But I’m so bad at it, Grandmother. Maybe I’d be better at selling things.”
“You cut the legs for the stools very nicely.”
“No, I cut them all crooked. Remember that entire batch that you had to redo?”
“That was ages ago.”
“It was ages ago when you said I could soon help you in the city.”
Grandmother laughed. “You’re so stubborn, child.”
“I’m thirteen now, Grandmother. Thirteen. That’s not a child.”
Grandmother studied Sola. “When you’re my age, dear, everyone looks like a child, especially thirteen year olds.”
“Please. I just want to help. I need to help. How are you supposed to keep me safe if we get kicked out of this place? I’ll do anything. Maybe your friend Magilee could use me? Or the weaver you told me about? I could help untangle the wool. Just let me…”
“No.” Grandmother’s rebuke was sharp and forceful.
A knot clenched in Sola’s throat. There had to be something she could do that was useful – but she would never have the chance to find out. Never!
Sola raced from the cabin, aware of how childish she appeared, but unable to stop herself. She hurried between the trees and undergrowth, and when she reached the trickle that was once a dashing creek, she turned right, and strode deeper into the forest.
She didn’t stop until she reached the caves, or that’s what she called them. They weren’t true caves, more like depressions in the cliff behind their home. No, not their home. The house that belonged to Landlord Stye.
Even if they could somehow come up with the money to pay the rent next month, how long until he raised it again? Grandmother’s back bowed a bit more every day. Her thin arms could barely lift the handcart now, as she crept the miles to the market in town, to sell her beautiful furniture for a pittance. And yet she refused to accept help.
Sola stared out into the forest as the night deepened, watching the darkness consume the trees and rocks. What was she to do? How could she help someone who didn’t want help? Why was Grandmother so stubborn?
A tiny light between tree trunks, far away down the hill, caught her attention. Grandmother had lit a candle in their window, a tiny beacon of home and hearth that shouldn’t be there. What was she thinking? Having the candle last was more important than letting Sola know it was time to come home. Feeling like she needed a lot more time to think, Sola started back.
She brought more wood into the cabin with her, and, as she’d guessed, only embers remained in the stove. After stoking the fire, she retrieved the candle and carried it to Grandmother’s sleeping corner.
The old woman’s breath was shallow. Too shallow. She was pretending to sleep. Sola blew out the candle. Let Grandmother believe she’d been fooled. There was no point in talking anyway. Arguing wasn’t going to change either of their minds right now.
Sola found the bowl of thin soup and a piece of bread that Grandmother left on the table for her, and ate quietly in the near dark. After, she washed her bowl by the meager light escaping the wood stove, then felt her way to her bed.
The morning came, as black as the night had been. Sola woke to the sound of Grandmother rekindling the fire. Soon, the leftover soup would be warm. She rolled over and pulled her thin blanket over her head, her irritation still burning.
Why couldn’t Grandmother see this was important to her? And why wasn’t she allowed to go anywhere? Ever? Sometimes she felt like she wasn’t even a real person, like she didn’t belong in this world. Like it didn’t matter if she was even alive.
“Sola, it’s time to rise.”
Sola bit back her groan and climbed from her bed. They ate breakfast in silence, then headed outside. Without asking, Sola lifted the heaviest chair from the cart. Grandmother didn’t say a word, which could only mean she was relieved the cart wouldn’t be as heavy. And yet she wouldn’t have to pull the cart at all if she’d relent.
The sun was lighting the clouds to the east when Sola picked up the handles and pulled the load away from their cabin. Grandmother hobbled beside her, looking closer to eighty than sixty-two.
At the spot where Grandmother usually took over, she made no move to stop Sola, so Sola kept walking. They turned off the rutted trail from their home and joined the other early travelers on the gravel road, and still Grandmother said nothing.
Sola’s step lightened as they walked along the road. Had Grandmother changed her mind? Had she realized Sola could be of value at the market? If nothing else, Sola could pull the cart all the way there and back, saving Grandmother a lot of effort and pain. And while there, she could praise Grandmother’s furniture to potential buyers—
“Thank you, dear.” Grandmother tugged on Sola’s sleeve, the signal that Sola could go no further.
Sola blinked back tears as she relinquished the handles.
“It’s okay to be upset, Sola. I know it’s hard to always stay home. You’re getting older, and you want to do things, experience things.”
“I just don’t understand,” Sola whispered. “I know I always mess things up. But maybe I’d be better at sales than carving.”
“You don’t mess things up, dear. It’s not that.”
“But why else won’t you take me?”
Grandmother stared into space, biting her lip as she searched for the right words. Finally, she sighed and patted Sola on the arm. “Try to be patient, Sola. And have a good day. Work on your carving.”
Grandmother’s arms trembled as she straightened with the weight of the furniture cart, then she shuffled off down the road.
Sola watched until Grandmother disappeared around the corner, puzzled. Grandmother had been about to tell her something – something important – and changed her mind. Could she be wrong about the reason Grandmother didn’t want her company? Maybe it wasn’t because she was useless.
A heavy ox, pulling a wagon full of pumpkins, ambled past, led by a craggy-faced farmer. Moments later, a young man scowled at her as he slouched by, a heavy bundle of firewood tied to his back. She should get back to the cabin. Grandmother wouldn’t approve of her standing around on the road, being alone and exposed like this.
But her feet wouldn’t move. Or rather, they wouldn’t move back the way they’d come. They seemed to have no trouble moving forward. First one step, then another. Hardly believing what she was doing, Sola walked between the narrow furrows left in the gravel by Grandmother’s handcart.
She should turn back. She should honor Grandmother’s wishes. It was wrong to take matters into her own hands.
But it felt like the right choice in her heart.
Sola rounded the corner Grandmother had turned just moments before – and stopped short. The main road to the city lay in front of her. A thin crowd already travelled it, on their way to market, though it was barely dawn. Far ahead, Grandmother tugged her heavy handcart onto the road.
Now was the time to turn back, if she was going to. The choice was hers. Go back and be safe, go back and carve another unidentifiable figurine, go back and wait for Grandmother to return, more tired, more beaten, more worried than ever…
Sola shook her head. There was no choice, not really. Not now that they needed an extra hundred mitons. Not now that Grandmother’s health failed faster every day. She needed to prove she could do things right, that she was old enough, and this was the only way she could think to do it.
Sola started forward, her heart thundering in her chest.
She was thirteen years old, plenty old enough to handle a few unknown humans. As long as she kept her wits about her and her head down, nothing would go wrong.
Sola pulled her hood over her head as she walked slowly after Grandmother, careful not to get too close. It was easy at first, but as time wore on and the main road became more crowded, it became harder to go slow. Everyone seemed to be moving faster than Grandmother. A couple of times Sola had to shrink to the side of the road to avoid being bumped into.
If only she could rush ahead and take the handcart, relieve Grandmother of her terrible burden. But she couldn’t. Not yet. Not until they were closer to the city.
Even the slow ox cart and farmer finally passed Sola, and then went past Grandmother too, without a kind word or offer to help. A pair of women in worn skirts walked alongside Sola for a time, a young child straggling behind them with his arms wrapped around a basket of turnips. More hopeful vendors – though they didn’t appear hopeful. In fact, it seemed as if all hope and light had been wrung out of them. Even the child looked tired, as if a withered old man stared from his eyes. Is this what the city did to all humans? Would it do the same to her?
The dwarves didn’t have the same bleak existence as humans, and the few she’d seen seemed prosperous enough. But then, the dwarves could be almost anything they wanted to be. They could own land and start businesses. They could read books and attend school. They were free. And they weren’t shunned like humans.
And yet even the dwarves weren’t half as privileged as the Shadow Elves. They were the rulers, and from what she’d heard, they were all rich and heartless – and scariest of all, magical. Other than the magic remnants possessed by the Scrimp Pixies, the Shadow Elves had it all – and they used it to their advantage, without a shred of compassion for others.
Sola shivered. She’d probably see Shadow Elves in Alantrax. Her first ever. She had to be watchful and stay well away from them. Going unnoticed was the only way to remain unscathed around Shadow Elves.
The road became busier as time passed, and not only with wretched looking humans, but dwarves too, sitting on their wagons and scowling down on whoever dared get in their way.
Sola kept her head down, and willed herself to blend in, but it was hard. Everyone moved faster than she did. How did Grandmother face this every day?
Maybe Sola should have stayed home. Maybe Grandmother was right, maybe it was too dangerous for her here. So many things could go wrong. She could be beaten just for being human. Or worse. Without a guardian to protect her, she could be carried off to work the rest of her life as a slave. She could be—
Crack! A bullwhip snapped near her head.
Sola shrieked and nearly jumped out of her skin. Unfriendly faces turned to glare at her. Cold eyes assessed her.
A scruffy, ginger-haired dwarf stood high in his ox cart, his hand on a whip handle. Unsmiling, he laughed at her, the sound more like an axe striking wood than amusement. Then he cracked the whip over the back of his ox again. The poor creature threw its weight into the harness, and pulled the dwarf’s wagon past with a rumble of wooden wheels on stone.
Humans and dwarves turned their attention back to the road. A stout woman bumped into Sola. “Hey, watch it!”
“Get out of my way!” She shouldered Sola aside.
“Move,” a man snarled.
Sola spun away from this new voice, and ran straight into a solid body. Melons tumbled around her, landing on the road. Sola covered her head and screamed.
A new voice bellowed. “Now look what you’ve done!”
Someone shoved her, and Sola bounced from one pair of hands to the next until she fell to the gravel at the edge of the road. Sniffling, she regained her footing and brushed away the pebbles sticking to her palms.
A girl and boy barely younger than Sola put the last of the fallen melons into a basket on a tired-looking woman’s back. Other humans and dwarves flowed around them, like they were a rock in a stream. The girl, her dark hair tied back with a red ribbon, whispered something to her mother. The woman patted the girl on the shoulder, and then the three shuffled off, a tiny part of the living tide that swept toward the city. So many people. And they hadn’t even reached the city yet.
Sola realized suddenly it had been a while since she’d seen Grandmother. She searched the crowd. Though she couldn’t see Grandmother’s familiar stoop or the black scarf that covered her head, she recognized the stack of furniture wavering its way to market far down the road. And beyond?
Sola inhaled deeply, and yet felt oddly breathless. Alantrax! She’d been so preoccupied with what was going on around her that she hadn’t noticed the twisted black spire spearing the distant sky, so much bigger and more incredible than anything she’d ever imagined could be real. Though blacker than midnight, it somehow glowed against the heavy clouds, exuding a cruel, eloquent beauty.
Sola’s gaze shifted down to the white-walled palace of the Shadow Elf rulers, then swept across its heavy turrets and towers. Like a fortress within a fortress. Below the palace would be the houses, shops, and meeting places of the common citizens that Grandmother told her about, though she couldn’t see them because of the massive walls around the city. The market square where Grandmother sold her furniture was in the lower streets, situated near the north city wall, where the free humans were allowed to do business and sell their wares.
The spire caught her eyes again. It had been built by the Shadow Elves’ magic, and from stories she’d heard, similar ones loomed at the center of each of the city states in Shadowland, like a living entity that watched them all. Sola hugged her arms around herself, and forced her gaze away.
How long had she been standing there, staring at the terrible, beautiful spire and daydreaming? Her eyes scanned the crowd. No pile of teetering furniture in sight. Grandmother was gone!
For a moment, Sola struggled against the urge to race into the crowd, screaming Grandmother’s name. Surely she wouldn’t have to run far before she’d see the pile of furniture again. Yet her feet refused to move.
Self-disgust rose in Sola’s mind. How useless she was. No wonder Grandmother never wanted her to go to market. She was no help, only a hindrance. Grandmother faced these crowds, and braved the spire and city, everyday – and yet Sola couldn’t do it once. She didn’t have the heart.
Grandmother deserved a much better granddaughter. There were other children out there, some younger than her, and they didn’t seem afraid. The tired woman even had two children with her – but then, her children didn’t spill melons. They picked them up. They made surviving easier, not harder.
A burly man, striding along the shoulder of the road, shoved past her, and Sola nearly tumbled into the ditch beside the road. She moved into the crowd a bit, and started walking with the flow, looking for a wider shoulder to stand on, or at least one that wasn’t beside a deep ditch. If she could just get to the trees on the other side of the ditch, she could return home through the forest. Grandmother would never know she’d been followed.
“Move out of the way!”
A heavy body sent her stumbling. Yells of protest rose around her again. A cart rolled by, inches from her bare feet. Strong hands sent her spinning.
Sola slammed into a hard, warm body. A blast of air sounded around her, and then the warmth leapt away in a blur of shining red fur and long blonde hair. A dark shadow suddenly reared up. Covering her head with her arms, Sola raced for the side of the road. She didn’t have to fight the crowds this time. Everyone else was retreating too, as quickly as they could. A few yards away from the massive presence, Sola spun back.
Her entire world seemed to pause. The dwarves and humans around her became nothing but voiceless shadows. Only one creature seemed real, the glorious creature before her.
A horse. A real, living, breathing horse. Freedom and grace and beauty embodied in an animal.
A frightened animal.
The red horse went up on its hind legs again, becoming impossibly tall. Its flaxen mane swirled around its ears and head like billowing gold silk. Its blonde tail, high and long, streamed behind.
Sola clasped her hand over her heart in a vain attempt to stop it aching. She could feel the creature’s fear, feel its panic. And she had caused it by running into it.
The horse landed hard on its front legs and went up again. A black and white bundle tumbled from its back. No, not a bundle. A Shadow Elf. He’d been riding the glorious creature, and had fallen to the ground. One of the Shadow Elves riding with him leaped down from his mount, a big freckled horse, and knelt beside the fallen elf.
The red horse with the mane and tail of gold danced toward Sola, the thick crowd reluctantly scattering before it, and then past her. Without thinking, without hesitating, Sola followed in the horse’s wake, running with all her might as it began to canter. Thankfully, the press of dwarves and humans stopped it from going faster, as if they wished to stop the creature, probably for a reward from the Shadow Elves, and yet they were scared of it too.
Not Sola. She’d felt the horse’s fear, and now she could feel its desire for freedom like the longing was coursing through her own blood, like they were somehow connected.
And suddenly the horse was flying through the air. Sola stopped short. The horse had jumped from the side of the road and over the ditch, something she couldn’t do.
“Come back!” The words felt wrenched from her heart. The horse didn’t stop, didn’t even hesitate. Did she alone feel their connection?
Sola didn’t think. There was no decision made. She scrambled and slid down into the ditch, slipping into the thick mud at the bottom. Up to her knees in muck, she clung to the side of the ditch and looked up. No one seemed to have noticed her descent.
Shouts drifted down into the ditch from the road. Someone was horribly angry, probably the Shadow Elf. Sola leaned against the bank, immeasurably relieved that she had followed the frightened horse. But she couldn’t stay in the ditch forever. Someone would notice her sooner or later.
Every step through the sticky mud – and the things she imagined living in it – was painfully slow. As she moved, mud sucked at her every step, threatening to unbalance her, and mud-stench rose around her. She covered her mouth and nose with her hands, but it did no good whatsoever. Shallow breaths seemed to help, but after a few seconds, she got lightheaded and had to breathe more deeply. The only way to escape the toxic sludge was to go faster.
Mud clung to her legs as she climbed out the other side of the ditch, and looked around. There, on the other side of a hummocky meadow, glowing by the treeline like a ray of light cast into a gloomy world: the red gold horse.
Confusion still buzzed from the crowd behind her, Shadow Elves still ranted and yelled, but Sola hardly heard them. Nothing mattered except the beautiful creature pulling her forward, step by step.
Halfway to the trees, pain rasped her ankle. She looked down to see a mud leech trying to break through her skin. Grandmother had taught her about mud leeches. They looked horrific, of course, with their slime and teeth, but really weren’t very dangerous. Almost feeling bad for the leech for being abandoned so far from his home, Sola scooped him off her ankle and tossed him as far back toward the ditch as she could. Maybe it could crawl the rest of the way and survive to suck someone else’s blood.
That’s when she noticed the quiet. Fearing the worst, she stared back at the crowd on the road. Everyone was looking at her, including the Shadow Elves, their eyes like shiny black marbles in their pasty, pale faces.
Sola ran to where the horse had lingered, though only trees remained there now. She reached the first tree, a big fir, and ducked beneath the branches.
It was like entering another world, one in which she was totally at home. She’d grown up surrounded by the trees that crowded round their tiny rented cabin. She even considered some her friends. This forest was no different, with its firs and cedars, its hemlock and pine and maple giants, covered with moss.
There in a patch of dirt: a strange rounded track! Sola hadn’t really noticed the shape of the horse’s foot when it reared over her, but she’d never seen a track like this in her own forest. And it looked fresh. It had to be made by the horse.
“Come back!” she yelled into the forest. “I won’t hurt you!”
Crashing sounds came from her right. Something as big as the horse couldn’t move through this thick undergrowth without making noise. The crashing sounds quieted as the horse moved quickly away from her.
Sola darted through thick underbrush toward the noises. From now on, she’d remain silent. The chances of seeing the horse were a lot higher if she didn’t shout.
Prickly branches and thorns scraped her bare arms. Her heart thundered in her ears, and her breath grew more ragged as she hurried along. The day felt like a hot wet blanket pressing down on her.
She hadn’t heard anything for some time. Was she still going in the right direction?
Sola stopped to listen. An unfamiliar birdcall rang out behind her, then there was nothing but complete and utter silence. Had the horse outdistanced her? Was the beast now crashing through bushes too far away to hear? Or was it nearby, listening too. Maybe even afraid of the quieter noises Sola made as she followed?
Did the horse see her as a predator?
“I’m such a loser,” she whispered bitterly. A burden to Grandmother. Barely able to talk to Landlord Stye yesterday. Causing chaos on the road. And now, terrifying a poor, frightened horse. For what end? It wasn’t like she could take it home if she caught it.
What was she doing out here anyway? This wasn’t like her at all. She wasn’t a rebel. She wasn’t brave.
Sola glanced around, nervous for the first time. She’d been wrong; this forest was different from the one surrounding her home. It was darker, for one. The trees grew closer together, the undergrowth was more of a tangle and contained a lot of thorny vines. The animals in these woods might be different too. Instead of the tree lemurs and chubby wild pigs that lived near her own home, there could be wolves. Or worse, bears and lions.
Sola shivered. She’d never seen a skitter, only heard the stories. The little black creatures were the stuff of nightmares, shaped like large spiders but with stingers like scorpions. And they hunted in packs, according to the stories.
But even if there were skitters in these woods, or wolves or bears, she couldn’t leave the beautiful horse to fend for itself either. That was enough of a reason to pursue it, and to possibly even catch it – to make sure it was safe. It was her responsibility, since she was the one who’d frightened it into the woods. Besides, the crowded road was all she had to go back to right now. That, and the nasty Shadow Elves. Honestly, she’d rather face skitters.
Her best bet was to continue without making a single sound, without arousing any predators, find both the horse and a safe place for them to wait until the crowds faded away and they could leave the forest. A clearing would be good. That way she could see any danger approach.
Sola’s heart leapt. The horse was behind her now? She spun around, searching frantically between the trunks.
Another branch snapped to her left. But that made no sense. There weren’t two horses.
The strange birdcall trilled again, identical to the last, and horror dawned on Sola. No wonder she hadn’t recognized that call when she’d first heard it. It didn’t come from a bird at all. It had to be from the Shadow Elves, using birdcalls to communicate, rather than words, so they didn’t frighten the horse further.
How stupid could she get? Of course they’d be after it. It was worth more mitons than Grandmother had earned in her whole life, and probably more than Landlord Stye too.
If they saw her, they might recognize her as the one who’d caused their problem. She needed to avoid the Shadow Elves at all costs. Sola stole through the underbrush, painfully slowly this time. Panic thudded in her brain when a twig snapped beneath a heavy weight, just on the other side of a massive clump of bushes. All she wanted to do was run, but she forced herself to freeze. If she ran heedless through the undergrowth, they’d think she was the missing horse, and head straight for her.
And if they caught her, who knew what would happen? She might just disappear, leaving Grandmother to forever wonder what had happened to her. Grandmother would never guess that Sola had done something as idiotic as following her halfway to the city and then causing chaos among the first group of Shadow Elves she came across. She would never know that Sola might be rotting in a dungeon or working as a slave in some horrible factory. If she was even allowed to live.
If she ever got out of this mess she would never disobey Grandmother again. She’d be perfectly happy to stay home and cut crooked furniture legs and carve misshapen swans for the rest of her life.
Sola crept as quietly as she could in the opposite direction. Thankfully, the Shadow Elves moved loudly enough through the thick undergrowth that they didn’t hear her subtle sounds. They made no attempt to conceal their movements at all. But why should they? Everyone was afraid of them. Probably even bears and wolves would try to slink away unseen from them.
On she went, as stealthily as possible. The noises became fainter, but Sola didn’t relax. One mistake could bring them down on her.
The trees were set further apart now and the underbrush less dense, making it easier for Sola to move quietly. The air became brighter as more light made its way through the treetops and Sola even caught glimpses of sun shining through gaps in the thick black clouds. Maybe the sunlight was a lucky sign.
Ahead, a natural meadow appeared through the trees, its grass waving and shining in the rays of light. Sola stopped in the shade of a big cedar to scan the field for signs of the Shadow Elves. The meadow appeared empty – but then a creature stepped out of the forest on the other side. The red gold horse! It raised its beautiful sculpted head, and the world around Sola grew still. Her failures, worries about Grandmother, and fear of the Shadow Elves, all fell away.
For a moment that lasted forever, only she and the horse existed, the horse that watched her with eyes so warm and kind it seemed to be looking into her soul. Could it really see her, the way no one else ever did? See the real girl, the one who felt like she couldn’t do anything right? The one who kept her dreams hidden from everyone? Could the horse see how much life scared her?
If so, she’d never feel so alone again. She would never, ever forget that in this place, in this moment, there was one who understood her.
Sola’s foot caught on a branch hidden in the tall grass, and she lurched forward, barely catching her balance before falling.
Surprised, she straightened. She’d been walking forward? The cedar tree she’d stood beneath was yards behind her. And the horse was yards closer. She’d been so captivated by the beautiful creature, she hadn’t even noticed she was moving toward it.
The horse shook its head and its mane shimmered along its red neck like molten gold, making Sola’s breath catch. She could almost feel the long flaxen mane between her fingers, softer than the finest silk. She ached to lean on that sleek shoulder, throw her arms around that long graceful neck. Kiss the white star that marked its forehead.
And then leap up onto that strong back and race away from all her worries, all her troubles, all her inadequacies.
“Hey, pretty girl,” Sola said, realizing that the horse was female. “You know I’m not going to hurt you, right? And I would never ever dare to actually ride you, so don’t worry.”
The mare’s ears pricked farther forward.
“You’re so amazing. What are you doing with those icky Shadow Elves?”
The horse reached toward Sola with her muzzle, and inhaled deeply.
“I wish I could talk to you every day. I could handle anything then. Even Landlord Stye.”
The mare snorted, and walked toward Sola. A moment later, she sprung into a trot, quickly bearing down on the girl – and yet not a flicker of fear darkened Sola’s mind. The mare’s eyes were kind, her face bright and interested.
The horse slowed to a prance as she came near, and tossed her blonde mane. A low throaty nicker rumbled toward Sola. The horse was saying hello! Joy bubbled in Sola’s heart and she laughed in amazement. She’d never met this horse, never even seen a horse in her life before today, and yet she could feel the pull between them like a magical cord, tying them together.
The horse stopped in front of Sola, and reached out with its head. The long hairs on her muzzle tickled Sola’s cheek, and Sola couldn’t wait a second longer. She rushed forward and threw her arms around the horse’s neck. The horse tucked its chin, so that she was hugging Sola to her, and her hot breath trickled down Sola’s back. Laughter dissolved into tears, tears of joy. She had been found. She was where she belonged. Being with the horse, this was her true home.
She pulled back to stroke the side of the mare’s face, to look into her eyes. Her mane was every bit as silky soft as Sola had imagined. The horse shook her head and her lips flapped together, then she licked a tear from Sola’s cheek with a huge pink tongue – and Sola felt like her heart would burst.
Or break. The Shadow Elves were after the horse. They would find her. They would take her away.
The mare’s head shot up and she stared off toward the far side of the meadow. Sola forced herself to follow the mare’s gaze, hoping she wouldn’t see what she knew would be there.
But there they were. Five of them, their piercing black eyes boring into hers as they emerged from the forest. Chills erupted over Sola’s skin. Her mind screamed, ‘Run!’ but her feet weren’t hearing anything. It was as if she’d grown roots.
The horse seemed frozen as well. Why didn’t she run?
Even as she thought the question, Sola knew the answer. The horse didn’t want to leave her. Even with terror pumping through her veins, Sola felt some measure of happiness. The horse felt their mysterious bond as strongly as she did.
The Shadow Elf in the front seemed to be the leader. Like the others, his long raven hair was tied back, revealing a face so white that his skin almost glistened in the sunlight. Unlike the others, he wore gold-plated armor – and a look of cold, fierce rage.
He had to be the horse’s owner. Though it would’ve been much easier for her if he’d been injured in his fall, Sola felt relieved that he seemed unhurt. As long as he didn’t take his anger out on Terra.
Terra. Where had the name come from?
But it was the right name for the horse. Terra – the same name as the Earth. Terra would always be the true foundation beneath Sola’s feet, even after this brief encounter. And now Sola was going to lose her.
The other elves separated from the leader and moved in both directions around the meadow’s edge. Sola realized what they were doing, with a sinking feeling. In minutes, she and Terra would be surrounded. Terra would be taken back to live with the Shadow Elves, and Sola would be sent to the dungeon or worse.
The lead elf let out a whistle, the same call that Sola had heard in the woods earlier, and the mare snorted, then walked toward him. Her shoulder brushed against Sola as she passed, and the jolt of their connection made the girl stagger after her.
“Terra, don’t go.”
But Terra kept walking.
Sola’s heart dropped as the mare moved farther away. The horse hadn’t run away when the Shadow Elves first appeared because she wasn’t afraid. Only Sola bumping her on the road had frightened her, and now that the mare was over that scare, she wanted to go home. Terra no doubt shared the connection that Sola found so strange with her Shadow Elf master too. In fact, connecting like that must be something all horses did.
It wasn’t special at all. She wasn’t special. Not to Terra anyway.
Sola shook her head, fighting the sudden onslaught of tears. It was nothing to be sad about. In fact, it was a good thing. If the mare wanted to go home, who was she, nothing but a small human girl, to stop her?
And she was running out of time. The Shadow Elves still moved to encircle them, and even though she felt bad for causing the lead elf to be thrown, Sola certainly didn’t want to get tossed into a dungeon for it.
Terra stopped, looked back at her and nickered. Her Shadow Elf owner whistled again, but the horse ignored his summons.
Maybe she was wrong. But no, it was too much to wish for. There was nothing special about her, nothing that a beautiful creature like this could actually care about.
The Shadow Elf whistled again, more impatiently this time. His companions closed the gap leading to the woods, even further.
The horse nickered to Sola again. Why wasn’t she leaving?
“Go home, Terra,” Sola whispered, her hands clutched over her heart. Tears blurred her eyes. How could this hurt so much? It made no sense.
Movement from the corner of her eye. The Shadow Elves had almost cut off her escape! She had mere seconds left!
With huge force of will, Sola pushed Terra from her mind, and sprinted toward the closest trees. As she ducked beneath the first branches, a loud neigh resounded after her, but she didn’t slow. The Elves crashed after her, spewing curses. Sola dove into some undergrowth and struggled through the spiny branches.
She had the advantage here. She knew how to move through the bush. She knew that if she kept low, she could go beneath much of the undergrowth. And she was smaller than the Shadow Elves. They might be stronger, but she probably had more endurance. Unless she came across some Shadow Elves lurking in the woods in front of her, she would escape.
It took less time to outdistance them than she thought. When their sounds of pursuit fell away, Sola changed direction so if they kept going straight in the direction they’d last heard her, they’d never find her. To find her, one of them would have to be an expert tracker – or they’d have to call on their magic. Hopefully, they wouldn’t think her worth the effort.
Animal trails meandered through the forest, crisscrossing here and there, and Sola picked one that looked like it might go toward her home. There was no possibility of going back to the road now. If she wanted to stay free, she had to stay out of sight and get as far away as she could, as fast as she could.
Finally, she could run no further. She staggered to a stop and leaned on her knees. Dizziness swept through her and she couldn’t suck in air fast enough – but it was the pain in her heart that threatened to engulf her. More than anything, she wanted to run back to the wild meadow, back to Terra.
But the horse wouldn’t be there anymore. The Shadow Elves would’ve taken her away by now.
Sola wiped her sleeve over her tear-streaked face. It did no good to cry. The red gold horse was not hers, and never would be. Really, she was lucky – and infinitely grateful – to have met Terra at all. Never again would she regret following Grandmother. Even though she felt the worst she ever had, this day was the best of her life, all because of that moment in the meadow.
Sola straightened her shoulders and continued down the overgrown animal trail, noticing for the first time how gloomy everything had become. A thick ceiling of clouds covered the sun once again. The enchanted moment in the meadow was truly over. Sola walked faster, glancing into the deepening shadows beneath the trees. Hopefully, none of the dark spots held hungry carnivores. Predators could very easily haunt the game trail, looking for prey.
The path petered out to nothing, and Sola continued on through the bush. She didn’t need a trail, but it was definitely slower going without one. At this rate, it could take hours to find her way home, and she had to be waiting, with at least one new figure carved, by the time Grandmother returned.
Was she even going the right direction? With the sun hidden, she couldn’t tell. Everything looked the same: dark and unfamiliar. If she was going the right way, shouldn’t the forest start to look more like her own, with its muted yellow leaves and white trunks and room to walk without stumbling over every root? Maybe she should change directions. Or try to find the road again.
Music drifted through the air, a happy, strumming sound that she first thought was her imagination. As she continued on, it became louder, then other noises joined it: distant laughter, a shout, the clanking of pots, whistling. Deep relief washed over Sola. Her question was answered and her decision made. The road was ahead. She’d follow it home, keeping to the forest. If she stayed just inside the wild edge, no one would see her, and she could follow it until she reached the narrow track that would take her home.
Sola crept cautiously forward – but the closer she got, the less the sounds seemed like what she’d heard on the road that morning. There was too much laughter, and she didn’t hear any aggressive yelling or whip cracking or rumbling wheels. And what was with the music? There certainly hadn’t been a happy little tune playing that morning.
Holding her breath, Sola peered out from behind a giant oak tree. She was right. The sounds weren’t from any road.
In the wide forest clearing before her, humans wearing the brightest clothes she’d ever seen wandered between covered wagons, tended to cooking fires, and chatted and laughed with each other. On a log just to her right, a young boy held a wooden instrument and strummed its strings.
Sola felt like she had wandered into a scene from another world. She had heard of rovers, of course. They were supposed to be thieves and nomads, the kind of people that would cheat you blind without a second thought. But no one had told her they were also such a merry bunch.
She probably shouldn’t talk to them, even to ask directions. But then again, it wasn’t as if she had anything to steal.
Except for her own self that is. What would they do to her if they saw her? Capture her and sell her as a slave?
A peel of laughter interrupted her thoughts, and Sola realized the boy had already spotted her. In fact, he was walking toward her, his musical instrument in his hand. She was too late!
“What are you wearing?” A grin widened on his freckled face and his blue eyes sparkled as he studied her.
Sola glanced down, and for a split second, embarrassment replaced her fear. What a mess she was! Her ripped pants were caked in mud from her trek through the ditch. Her too-big shirt, found abandoned alongside the road by Grandmother last month, was almost as filthy. Even before this morning, her clothing had been little more than rags but now they hardly resembled clothing at all, with bark and leaves clinging to the mud. Her hair was probably tangled with even more debris, and her face streaked with grime.
“Wait until Mother sees you.” The boy’s smile vanished. “She’s going to be so angry.”
Mother? What was the boy talking about?
“Father’s going to think you were begging in town.”
Sola’s heart stood still. The boy thought she was someone else. But his mistake was only a momentary reprieve from discovery.
If she ran, all he had to do was yell, and a dozen men would be after her. There was no way she could escape them. The rovers were the only ones who knew the forest better than she did.
And if she stayed, as soon as he got close enough to see beneath the mud, he’d realize she didn’t look like the sister he obviously thought she was.
Sola slid out of sight of the boy and the camp, and leaned against the big oak. Any second now she’d hear his call for help. After all her effort, all her running and hiding and trying to simply return home, she was caught.
Sola slid down the rough trunk and hugged her knees to her chest. Leaves crunched as the boy walked around the tree to where she waited. Sola closed her eyes.
The only alternative she had to being caught by the rovers was to jump on the boy before he yelled and overpower him. But then she’d have to somehow hurt him, make him unable to call for help. Otherwise, as soon as she let him go and ran, he would alert the camp. But she could never hurt him or any other child, especially one who trusted her. It didn’t matter that the trust was based on him thinking she was someone else. Hurting him would be the meanest thing ever.
“Luna? What are you doing?”
Sola opened her eyes. The boy stood right in front of her, staring into her face. Sola opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“Did something happen?” he asked, his voice full of concern. “Are you okay?”
Somehow, Sola managed to nod. How could he not realize she wasn’t this Luna person?
“Did you find Mari?” the boy asked, still clueless.
Maybe he was blind. But his eyes were sharp, focused. No, he could see her. She must look enough like his sister that with most of her face covered with mud, he couldn’t tell them apart.
And that meant she might be able to talk her way out of this.
“No,” she said.
“I wish I could help you,” the boy said. He dropped down to sit beside her, and his fingers absently strummed the instrument. Soft notes swelled around them.
“That sounds nice,” Sola said quietly.
“I think you’re the only one who likes my music. Jonie told me it sounds too much like the wind in the trees, and if he wanted to hear that, he’d just listen to the wind.”
“Your music is kind of like that,” Sola admitted. “But different. It’s like the wind has a voice and it’s singing to me.”
The boy smiled. “I’m glad.” He played a few more magical notes, then pressed on the strings, quieting them. “What are you going to do now? Mother and Father aren’t going to wait much longer.”
“I don’t know yet,” Sola said tentatively. Surely, it did no harm to say she had no idea how to find this Mari. She inhaled sharply. Unless it was an opportunity to find her way home. “I thought I might look in Sojourn Woods next,” she said, naming the forest surrounding her home.
“You really think they took her there?” The boy sounded skeptical.
“I talked to a dwarf that told me he saw her there.” If only she knew who or what they were actually talking about. All she knew was that the name Mari meant “the sea.”
“You talked to a dwarf?” Luna’s little brother said, sounding both thrilled and scared at the same time.
Sola shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
“Are you going to go now?”
“In a minute. I’m hungry,” said Sola. “But I don’t want Mother to make me do chores. Do you think you can get me something?”
The boy jumped up, leaving his guitar on the ground beside her. “Sure,” he said.
“Wait,” said Sola. She leaned toward the boy, looked him directly in the eyes. “Do you know which way it is to Sojourn Woods?”
“What? Don’t you know?”
“Of course, I know. I’m testing you.”
The boy scoffed. “It’s that way, of course.” He pointed off into the trees to their left.
“Right. You’re already a great navigator.” Sola smiled at the boy.
“That was an easy one,” he said, rolling his eyes – but still, a small, proud smile touched his face. “I’ll get you some food.”
“Thanks.” Sola really was very hungry, and even more, her body desperately needed nutrients. She’d never run so much in her life as she had this day. However, there’d be no eating until she got home. She tipped her head back, closing her eyes, and concentrated on the soft breeze slipping over her skin, on the whisper of the leaves, on the buzz of sleepy insects. Surely the boy was almost to the encampment now.
A delicious smell wafted by her. Whatever the rovers were cooking, it sure smelled better than what her and Grandmother usually ate. Sola’s stomach grumbled.
“Sorry, tummy,” she said and climbed to her feet. She wished she could actually stay. The boy seemed genuine, but she didn’t know him. He could be pretending he knew her to get her to relax her guard. She couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t come back with someone strong enough to grab and hold her.
Sola started through the woods, winding soundlessly through the branches and bushes. Too bad she had to ask the way. Now the boy would know which direction she was going. She stopped. If she wasn’t waiting for him at the tree, would he be suspicious and call for help? Should she try to continue the charade? Her stomach growled again, giving its opinion.
Light footsteps, almost too quiet to hear, patted behind her. Sola felt a jolt of fear. She’d waited too long. The boy was coming – but at least he sounded like he was alone. Maybe he’d turn back at the tree when he didn’t see her there.
The footsteps stopped.
“Luna?” he called quietly.
Had anyone other than her heard him?
“I’m here,” she said, before he could call again, possibly louder.
The boy’s steps came quickly closer – how fast he was in the woods! – and then he rounded the bush beside her, carrying a bowl of whatever it was that had made that fabulous smell.
“Why’d you leave?”
“I didn’t want to chance anyone else seeing me,” she explained.
The boy accepted this. “Here you go.” He thrust the bowl toward her. “Sorry I spilled some.”
Sola tipped the bowl and the hot soup touched her tongue. Amazing! She’d never tasted stew so good. Big chunks of vegetables rested in the thick broth, potatoes and onions and others she couldn’t identify because she’d never eaten them before. She took a big mouthful and chewed rapturously, not caring that it almost scalded her mouth.
Who could’ve guessed the rovers ate so well? She would’ve thought they were poorer than the humans living nearer the cities, like her and her grandmother, but obviously it wasn’t so.
Another gulp and the stew was almost half gone. Too bad the boy had spilled some. She could’ve eaten gallons.
The boy’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know you liked Mom’s stew so much.”
Sola swallowed. “Yeah, well, you know, long day.” She forced her next gulp to be smaller, less needy. She needed to act natural, not like some feral beast.
Far, far too soon, the stew was gone. Sola barely refrained from licking out the bowl, and forced herself to hand it to the boy. “Thanks.” Quickly, she moved off.
“Can I come with you?”
Sola turned back. The boy looked so hopeful. “No. They’re going to be mad enough that I’ve been gone all day.”
“Unless you find her.”
A puzzled expression crossed the boy’s face. “Mari.”
“Oh yeah, of course. I’ll find her. No worries.” Sola waved, turned away again, and began to run, her energy already renewed from the stew and short rest. A minute later, she glanced over her shoulder. The boy was out of sight. She loped onward.
Even knowing the direction to travel, the road still took ages to find again. A few people wandered along it, moving away from the city, their steps slow, their backs bowed beneath unsold wares. A few had little to carry, and their strides were free. They’d sold their goods. Hopefully, Grandmother would be one of them, though her body was too old to ever stride freely again.
Sola stayed to the woods until she found a place where the trees went right to the edge of the road, and then, when no one was in sight, she dashed to the other side and melted into the forest there. After that, it was just a matter of time before she came to trees that were more familiar, and finally to the side road that lead toward her home.
When the tiny cabin came into view through the crowded trunks, tears beaded Sola’s eyes. The building was barely better than a shed, but it was the only home she’d ever known, and she loved it. Here, she was safe. Here, she was protected.
She hurried inside, closed the door behind her, leaned against its aging boards, and breathed deep. Grandmother was still gone. Now, as long as Sola quickly did her chores and carved a figurine, Grandmother would never know she’d been away. The scent of stew tickled her nose, and Sola looked down.
A thin line of broth had streaked the front of her tunic, hardly visible through the mud, but fragrant. She needed to quickly wash her clothes too, no matter how much she enjoyed the scent of the stew. And wash her body, comb her hair. She was filthy.
Sola leaped into action, and within an hour had washed not only her clothes and herself, but had gathered wood from the forest for the evening’s fire. She wore an old tunic of Grandmother’s, her own shirt and pants drying over a branch, as she tidied the house. Finally, she changed back into her still damp clothes, and put Grandmother’s tunic away, neatly folded.
Sola settled on the front step to carve. She carved quickly, and was surprised when the cow she was trying to create actually looked more like a cow than anything else this time – maybe speed was the key. If she carved fast, she didn’t have as much time to make mistakes. Of course, if Grandmother saw her, she’d freak out. Carving fast upped the chances of cutting herself too.
Sola put the cow beside her and stared up at the treetops rustling against the gray, gray sky. What a day it had been! The things she had seen! If only she could tell Grandmother all about her experiences, and most of all, about Terra. Talking about the beautiful, almost-magical creature would help keep the vividness of this most precious memory.
She glanced down at the carved cow. Even if she could carve the horse’s likeness, that would be something. But she’d been lucky enough to make the blocky lines of the cow today. Trying to carve the sleek, elegant Terra would be impossible for her.
Sola closed her eyes to better visualize the intelligent red face, the star shining in the middle of her forehead, the softness of her cheek, the cuteness of her ears, the kindness in her …
Something dug into her back. She rolled over, only to have a sharp, wooden edge push into her ribs. What was Grandmother doing?
Sola woke with a start, bolting upright on the steps where she’d fallen asleep. Deep red light slanted across the clearing in front of the house. The sun was almost down, forcing the last of its rays through the thick clouds. She glanced back at the house behind her. The windows were dark. Grandmother wasn’t home yet.
“Grandmother?” Sola yelled, trying to keep the fear from her voice. She was never this late. Never. Something had happened to her.
When the Shadow Elves couldn’t catch Sola, had they gone after Grandmother? Sola shook her head as she hurried toward the road. No. That made no sense. They had no reason to connect the strange girl on the highway with the old woman selling carved furniture.
She ran along the rough track to the side road, then toward the main thoroughfare. Had Grandmother collapsed beneath the heavy load of the handcart? Or had she been robbed?
Sola slipped into the forest and peered out from behind a friendly cedar at the once busy thoroughfare. Few travelled at this hour: another ox cart, three woman carrying bundles, two children with slightly smaller loads. And just creeping around the corner, someone pulling a handcart! Sola quivered from head to toe.
Please let it be Grandmother. Please!
It was! She’d recognize that shuffling gait anywhere. With a soft cry, Sola raced from her hiding place and onto the road. Her feet pounded the hard surface as she ran toward Grandmother, who set down the handles of the cart, then stood leaning against it with both arms.
“Sola, I am so glad to see you.”
“Why are you so late? I was worried.”
“I’m sorry, little one. I’m so tired tonight, I just couldn’t go faster.”
“Here, let me take that.” In her hurry, Sola hoisted the handles too quickly. A stool tumbled to the ground.
And Grandmother didn’t move to replace it.
Sola had never seen her so exhausted. Ever. She replaced the stool, then lifted the handcart’s handles more carefully. “Did you sell enough to pay Landlord Stye?”
Grandmother patted her hand. “I’ll tell you everything as we eat supper.”
It wasn’t until after the handcart was stowed, and Grandmother was in the house resting in her favorite chair, that any color came back to her face. Sola rushed around, drawing water, building up the fire in the stove, and setting the two large turnips that Grandmother had brought home for their supper to boil. Finally, with their supper happily bubbling away on the stove, Sola sat at Grandmother’s feet.
“What happened today?”
“It was a good day. I sold three stools, and I got a request for two chairs.”
“They didn’t like the ones with the horses across the back?”
“They want dragons.”
“Dragons when they can have horses? Weird.”
“And I talked to my friend, Magilee. She owns a bake shop and is looking for a delivery boy.”
Sola got up to check the turnips. Why did they always take so long to cook? She felt famished. It had been hours since the stew at the rover’s camp.
“Or a delivery girl.”
Sola froze. Did Grandmother mean… ? Was she saying… ?
“Yes, Sola. You. You start tomorrow.”
“You finally get to see the city,” Grandmother smiled, her face a little sad. “And Magilee paid me in advance for your first month’s work because she’s a good friend. With our savings, the furniture sales today, and your first month’s wages, we have enough to keep our home another month.”
Sola hurried to Grandmother and threw her arms around the frail shoulders. “Thank you, Grandmother. Thank you so much. More than anything, I wanted to help you, and now I can.”
Grandmother laughed softly. “Well, I’m glad you’re happy. I’m going close my eyes for a bit, dear. Wake me when supper’s ready, will you?”
Sola stirred the turnips again, then quietly paced, her hands in her pockets. She was going to Alantrax. She was going every day now, with Grandmother. She had a job.
She stopped to stare through the heavy plastic covering one of the windows. The forest on the other side looked like a big green blob. No detail. No definition. That’s what her desire to go to the city had been. She’d wanted to go for years, had imagined it, had hung on Grandmother’s descriptions, but really it had been a big imagined blur in her head.
After today, she knew the details, or at least some of them. She knew the crowds were rude and pushy. She’d seen unkindness, even cruelty.
She’d seen the Shadow Elves. And they’d seen her. Sola paced faster.
What if the same Shadow Elves saw her again? They’d recognize her as the one who startled their leader’s mount, as the one responsible for Terra tossing him to the ground. They’d throw her in prison.
A loud snore came from Grandmother’s chair and Sola jumped. Quickly, she stirred the turnips again. Steam rose around her face.
She needed to be realistic, and not let her fear hold power over her. Rationally, there was very little chance she’d be seen, let alone recognized. The Shadow Elves thought the humans far beneath them, and probably didn’t pay attention to individual humans around them. Even if the same Shadow Elf who had been thrown came into the bakery to buy bread from her – and from what she’d heard, Shadow Elves would never lower themselves enough to enter a human establishment – he most likely wouldn’t even really look at her.
Unless something drew attention to her, exactly at the wrong moment, she should be safe.
So there was nothing to do but keep her head down so no one recognized her, and work hard for her new employer. Magilee. The name had a nice ring to it, plus she was Grandmother’s friend. She’d be a kind boss.
There was nothing to worry about. Everything was going to be just fine.
Both horrible and wonderful scenarios galloped circles through Sola’s mind all night. In some she was captured by the Shadow Elves and thrown into the dungeon beneath the palace. She knew with terrible certainty that she’d live out the rest of her days there, in absolute darkness, alone except for a few rats that she’d befriend by sharing her gruel. In others, Terra escaped from her owner and found her way to Sola’s house. Sola hid her in the woods, knowing they’d spend their days riding through meadows and forests. The sun would always shine, and Grandmother would be happy and healthy. Landlord Stye would never bother them again.
Before the crack of dawn, Sola jumped out of bed, wide awake and unable to hold still a moment longer. She put more wood in the stove, and after the fire roared back to life, leaned over Grandmother, still tightly wrapped in blankets on her own narrow bed.
The old woman’s breathing was so faint, that at first Sola wasn’t sure there was still breath, but then she noticed the slight up and down of the bundled blankets, and the wildfire of fear in her heart faded to a smolder. Grandmother had risen from her chair the night before, but had hardly eaten anything before she’d limped off to bed, and now, even after a full night’s sleep, she still looked older than she had just last week. It was as if the strength and vitality that she’d held on to for so long had finally drained away. And when life drained away …
No! It was just a phase. Grandmother would be back to her old self soon. She just needed more rest and less worry, and now with Sola to help her, she would have both. Sola could pull the cart to and from the city. Somehow, she’d find a way to make enough money to pay all the rent alone, to buy all their food. Grandmother could stay home and carve and rest. Their positions would be reversed, and Sola would laugh at her own silliness in worrying so much.
The water she’d put on the stove boiled, and Sola poured it into a teapot. After a few minutes, she filled two mugs and carried one back to Grandmother.
“Tea’s ready, Grandmother,” she said quietly, and touched the heavily blanketed shoulder. Not that she truly wanted to wake the old woman – but if she didn’t, Grandmother might be upset with her.
The blankets stirred slightly, and a moment later, Grandmother pushed herself to a sitting position with thin arms. She blinked and cleared her throat. “Thank you, dear. Just set it on my nightstand. I’ll get dressed while it cools a bit.”
Sola set the mug down with a smile. At least Grandmother sounded like her usual self, and once she was up and moving around, she’d feel better too. Sola had been right; there was no need to worry.
A short while later, they were ready to go. Sola pulled the heavy handcart toward the main road, walking slowly so that Grandmother could easily keep pace. The main road was every bit as crowded as the day before, but no one jostled them as they had when Sola walked alone. The cart acted as a buffer, and people streamed around it like water flowing around a rock in a river. Sola was immeasurably relieved. She didn’t think she could put up with another day like yesterday, where the other travelers had seemed so menacing and accusing, all staring at her like they knew she didn’t belong. But here next to Grandmother, pulling their furniture, she felt safe, or at least as safe as she could when at any second someone might recognize her as the girl who scared the Shadow Elf’s horse.
Time passed, they shuffled on, the city grew steadily nearer, and more and more tumbled-down shacks crowded the landscape, sprouting up between trees like hollow eyed monsters. Sola began enjoying watching the other travelers. No Shadow Elves today, though there had been a couple of horses. She always noticed them. The first had been a massive black creature, pulling a wagon that made their furniture cart look like a child’s toy. She’d almost veered their cart to the side when the big black head first came alongside them but then she noticed the horse’s kind eye. Instead of moving away from the black horse, she had to fight herself not to sidle closer.
The second horse was farther away, and seemed a tired thing. Again, Sola felt herself pulled toward the animal, but this time not out of awe for its size and beauty, but out of compassion. There was a horse that needed someone to love it, to care for it.
“Keep your eyes to the front,” Grandmother whispered beside her.
Sola tore her gaze from the tired horse. She’d learned her lesson about not listening to Grandmother.
“I know the dwarf who rides that horse. He’s not kind,” Grandmother explained quietly.
Tears prickled Sola’s eyes. The poor horse. If only there was something she could do to help it.
The black spire of Alantrax jutted higher into the sky the closer they came to the walled city, and after the tired horse passed from sight, Sola had to fight to stop staring at it. Something in its sharp edges, something about the way light seemed absorbed by it rather than reflected off of it, made her nervous.
“Do you know what’s inside the spire, Grandmother?” she whispered.
“Nothing, child. It’s a solid crystal.”
Sola nodded doubtfully. It made logical sense that the spire was solid. It didn’t seem to have any windows, doors, or even vents in the part she could see above the city walls. In fact, it looked more like a gigantic sculpture than anything. And yet for some strange reason she felt sure Grandmother was wrong, that there was an interior – and that it was as strange and dark as the outside.
“Follow me,” Grandmother said, and put on a tiny burst of speed, making her almost as fast as the people passing by them.
She angled Sola and the cart toward the right side of the road. The traffic around them slowed. Everyone was lining up in different queues for entry into the city. Their line was the longest – the line of humans. Though free humans were allowed to trade in the city, to even own shops as Magilee did, they weren’t allowed to live there. Most lived in hovels outside the city, just as Sola and Grandmother did.
Grandmother stopped behind a man and his young son, their backs piled high with firewood.
“A short line today,” Grandmother said to the man.
“Aye, it is, Talitha,” the man said. His gaze caught on Sola. “Who is this now?”
“My granddaughter, Sola. Sola, this is Roan, and his son, Rory.”
Sola couldn’t help but smile at the pride in Grandmother’s voice, pride that never wavered as she introduced Sola to more of her friends. After the sixth or seventh introduction, the names became a jumble in Sola’s head, but she kept nodding and smiling, and saying, “hello, nice to meet you.”
Slowly the line moved forward, the voices hushed. People drifted away or their gazes turned downward. They were getting close to the huge granite gates.
Sola couldn’t yet see who was checking their wares, letting them in. Was it Shadow Elves? Hopefully, they hired dwarves to guard the gates. She looked up at the great wall that was almost directly over her now.
Eyes! Staring at her! Deep dark eyes swimming in a shining white face. Sola couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe… and then the Shadow Elf’s gaze slid away. He’d been looking at the crowds, not her.
High on the battlements, a dozen Shadow Elves in full armor, carrying wicked looking crossbows, stared into the distance. Keeping lookout, Sola guessed, although she couldn’t imagine what for. No one would ever dare threaten the powerful Alantrax.
The same Shadow Elf’s gaze returned to her, and Sola ducked her head, clutched Grandmother’s hand. Her hair streamed over her face, hiding her features. The guard probably watched her because she was the only human foolish enough to look up at the walls. What an idiot she was, staring about open faced like that.
“It’s okay girl. Stay calm,” Grandmother said quietly beside her.
They shuffled forward again. Then again.
Now Roan and Rory were in front of the small guardhouse. Sola couldn’t tell if the guard was Shadow Elf or dwarf yet, but his voice was loud and brusque. She should have told Grandmother about her adventures yesterday. If she had, Grandmother might be upset, but at least she’d know if they were walking into danger right now.
And then it was their turn.
“Hand carved stools, chairs, and tables.”
“Who’s the girl?”
Sola closed her eyes. If only she could sink down into the cobblestones beneath her feet. If only she could turn invisible. If only Terra would come galloping toward her, and carry her and Grandmother away…
“My granddaughter. She helps me with the furniture, and starts work today at Westside Bakery.” Was that nervousness in Grandmother’s voice?
“Look at me, girl.”
Sola’s hands began to shake.
“Look at me!”
“Sola, look up,” Grandmother begged, her voice trembling.
Slowly, almost against her will, Sola raised her head. A Shadow Elf glared at her less than a yard away, his dark eyes reflecting a frightened child. Her. He leaned forward, staring into her eyes, at her nose, at her mouth, as if memorizing her. Then he sniffed, shoved two tokens – one red and one blue – into Grandmother’s hand, and waved them on. Moments later, they passed under the massive portcullis, through the granite gates, and into the city.
Relief flooded through Sola and she took a deep, slow breath to calm herself. Thankfully, the Shadow Elves were used to humans being scared of them, so he hadn’t thought much of her alarm.
But even Grandmother had seemed frightened. Sola had never heard fear in Grandmother’s voice before. Not even when she faced down a very threatening Landlord Stye. She glanced sideways at the old woman. Her lined face was white as a sheet and when she raised her hand to Sola’s sleeve, her fingers trembled. What was going on?
“This way, girl.” Grandmother led Sola to the left when the street branched into two. Sola carefully steered the handcart, trying not to bump anyone as the crowd thickened into a river of moving bodies crammed between the shabby buildings. The awful smell of sewage and sweat lay heavy in the air as everyone moved forward in a slow shuffle, a pace that suited Grandmother.
Brown liquid that smelled of rot and other things Sola didn’t care to think about splashed on the ground beside her, and a few drops splattered onto her bare feet.
“Hey,” Sola gasped and looked up. A small dwarfish face, a child most likely, smirked down at her from an open window.
“Look ahead,” Grandmother called, just loud enough to be heard over the din. “The street widens as we get close to the market square.”
Sola walked close on Grandmother’s heels, resisting the irrational urge to drop the handcart handles and grab the back of Grandmother’s threadbare shawl for comfort.
The smell lessened as the street broadened and the houses became richer. The sky became larger overhead and the next thing Sola knew, they were in a huge open courtyard, teeming with people. Some were setting up tents to sell their wares, others just plopped down wherever they could find a space and spread their goods out around them. Shoppers were already examining products and haggling over prices.
Sola turned the handcart when Grandmother pointed toward shops built of stone lining one side of the courtyard. Even though the crowd was huge and people milled every which way, because of the sheer size of the courtyard, it was much easier to maneuver the clumsy handcart.
A Shadow Elf wandered in front of her, cutting her off from Grandmother. Sola stopped short and ducked her head, certain that guilt was written all over her face, certain that the Shadow Elf would recognize her – but the richly shod feet walked past as if the Elf hadn’t seen her.
“Sola, here’s a spot,” Grandmother called.
Cautiously, Sola looked up to see the back of the Shadow Elf. But another one, a female, was gliding into the courtyard on a litter carried by four miserable looking humans. The Shadow Elf woman wore the most incredible dress Sola had ever imagined – long and flowing and bright moss green, with a hem covered in what looked like hundreds of twinkling stars. Even her pale skin seemed to sparkle more than usual. Not her eyes though. They were as cold and lifeless as bits of coal left from a long dead fire. Sola shuddered and forced her gaze away.
“Hurry, Sola!” Grandmother stood in an open space in a long line of vendors.
Sola tugged the handcart toward her, then backed it into the space. Only a few people down, Roan and Rory stacked their firewood to sell. They waved and smiled at her, the only genuine smiles she’d seen in this entire city. She waved and smiled back, then stretched her aching arms and shoulders. How on earth had Grandmother managed the handcart in this crowd, day after day, for years?
Grandmother started to lift a stool out of the cart and Sola jumped forward, mentally kicking herself for just standing there. “I’ll do it, Grandmother.” She took the stool from Grandmother’s hands.
“Magilee will be along soon to get you,” Grandmother said, already sounding tired. She spread her shawl on the ground, then carefully lowered herself to sit on it.
“Why don’t you sit on one of your chairs?” Sola asked. It made no sense for Grandmother to sit on the ground when she had more than enough chairs to sit on.
“No dwarf or elf will buy a chair that has been used by a human,” Grandmother explained patiently.
“That’s not fair. Could you at least use a stool?”
“If they see me sitting on any of my wares, they’ll assume they’ve all been used.”
Sola scowled as she unpacked the rest of the furniture. That just wasn’t right. What was wrong with her poor old grandmother sitting on a chair? And how would her sitting on it make any chair unusable by dwarves and Shadow Elves? Did they have no kindness in them at all? No compassion?
She arranged the bigger pieces in front of the handcart, then the smaller pieces in front of those, so all were visible. Next to them, a man and woman artfully displayed colorful blankets woven in simple geometric patterns. They were very pretty and Sola thought about saying so to them, but then decided against it. This was her first day in the city. The couple might not appreciate a compliment from a nobody like her.
Instead she took a seat next to Grandmother. “Do you need me to do anything else?”
Grandmother patted Sola’s hand. “Now we just wait for customers, and Magilee.”
Sola nodded and stared out at the fray. It was hard to believe she was actually here. The city wasn’t at all like she’d pictured it. It was far bigger and far more terrifying – and far more exciting.
The crowd opened and another Shadow Elf emerged to stroll along the line of wares. Sola ducked her head again, and watched the silken shoes pass without hesitation. He paused beside the beautiful blankets for a moment, then snorted with disgust and walked on.
Sola glanced up just in time to see hope fall from the woman’s face. “I think they’re beautiful,” she whispered, just loud enough for the couple to hear.
The woman glanced at her, but said nothing, didn’t even smile. Still, Sola felt glad she’d spoken. Surely saying a kind word was never wrong, and the blankets truly were beautiful.
Most of the vendors were settled in now, and the crowds grew thicker, the courtyard more chaotic, as shoppers arrived. On the other side of the square, Sola noticed a dark brown horse with a black mane and tail enter from a narrow street, shouldering shoppers aside as its Shadow Elf rider pushed it forward. If only the horse was Terra. But what a silly thing to wish for. If it were Terra, Sola would have to hide instantly. There was no way the mare’s owner wouldn’t recognize her.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Grandmother said, her voice sounding almost like a young girl’s. “The Shadow Elves horses are the finest. So elegant.”
“They’re the ones you carve, aren’t they?” asked Sola.
“I try. I can’t come close to expressing their beauty.”
“Yes, you do, Grandmother.”
Grandmother squeezed Sola’s hand. “Thank you, dear. You are kind.”
“Just honest, Grandmother.”
Grandmother chuckled. “I’m glad you came with me today.”
Sola leaned on the bony shoulder. “Me too.”
“This her?” A woman’s gravelly voice shattered their peace, and Sola looked up to see a hefty, aproned woman standing over them, flour and a frown on her face.
“Good morning, Magilee,” said Grandmother, and tried rising to her feet. “Yes, this is Sola.”
Sola jumped up and offered Grandmother a hand, which she took gratefully, pulling herself the rest of the way up.
“Sola, this is Magilee.”
Sola ducked her head in greeting. “Nice to meet you, Ma’am.”
Magilee harrumphed. “Let’s go.”
Somehow Sola kept the scowl from her face. Grandmother wouldn’t approve of her being disrespectful to her friend, even if that friend was rude.
“I don’t got all day,” Magilee added, grumpily.
Sola hated leaving Grandmother alone to sit on the hard ground all day, but stepped next to Magilee obediently. She was there, after all, to earn her keep. Not to keep Grandmother company, unfortunately.
Her eyes brushed over the handcart and an idea popped into her head. “Just one moment, please. I have one more thing to do.” Sola turned her back on the vile woman – she already didn’t like her – and hurried down the row to Roan and Rory.
“Can I borrow Rory for a moment?” she asked Roan, then turned to Rory. “If you don’t mind helping me?”
“Sure,” the two said as one.
Sola smiled. How wonderful it was to know people who, though tired just like everyone else, still believed in helping their neighbors.
Sola led Rory to the handcart, and together they lifted and turned it upside down so the wheels reached to the sky. “Can you watch out for my Grandmother today, Rory?” she asked.
“Sure,” Rory said, then added. “You don’t worry, okay?”
“Thanks,” she said, her voice a little rough.
Rory smiled. “No problem.” Then he was striding back to his father.
Sola scooped Grandmother’s shawl off the ground, then led her by the arm back to the handcart, where she spread the shawl along the cart’s flat wooden bottom. “Sit here, Grandmother,” she said. “It’ll be much easier for you to get up and down when you have customers.”
Grandmother gave her a quick hug. “Thank you, Sola. You are the kindest granddaughter in all of Shadowland.” She pressed the red token they’d gotten from the gate into the palm of Sola’s hand. “Carry this with you and be careful not to lose it. It allows you to work in the Sunset Quarter, but only for today. We need to return it to the guards when we leave the city tonight.”
Magilee, waiting by the furniture, tapped her foot and scowled.
Grandmother looked over at her. “You will return her tonight, before evening?”
“Yes, yes.” Magilee glared at Sola. “Anything more you need to do to spoil your Grandmother, girl?” Then before Sola could answer, she muttered, “let’s go,” and spun on her heel and strode away.
“Bye, Grandmother. See you tonight!” Sola called, hurrying after Magilee. Within a minute, they were out of the courtyard, rushing through narrow cobbled streets, turning down this way, then that, then this way again. As Sola clung to Magilee’s heels, she was infinitely grateful that she didn’t have to worry about finding her way back at the end of the day.
Magilee hurried through another courtyard, this one smaller, and then along a few more streets that seemed to twist and turn and go every which way. At long last, she stopped at a small door in a stone wall, then fished a key out of her pocket.
The door opened. Hot air burst from the dark interior. Sola coughed. It was like an oven in there. A delicious smelling oven, but an oven nonetheless.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Magilee, and stepped into the darkness.
Sola stood in the doorway and waited for her eyes to adjust. The last thing she needed was to bumble into the room and bump into a tray precariously piled with baked goods. The hot air cloyed around her, thick and steamy. Already she wanted to bolt down the street while gasping the cooler air. But she couldn’t. She had to do this and do it well. So much depended on her impressing Magilee, and she was determined to do her best.
“You going to stand there all day?” rasped Magilee. “Get in here!”
With a deep breath, Sola stepped inside the tiny bakery, and closed the door behind her.
Sola pressed back against the door as Magilee marched past her. This woman was nothing like she expected. Considering she was Grandmother’s friend, Sola thought she’d be more like Grandmother, but Magilee didn’t seem the least bit kindly, and certainly wasn’t soft spoken. Sola stood by, uncertain what to do as Magilee opened the shutters. Outside light brightened the room, revealing a cramped but clean kitchen. Bags of what must be flour and sugar sat on shelves, and flattened boxes leaned against one wall. A gigantic oven loomed in the far corner.
“You know how to build a fire, girl?”
“Then hop to it. And once you’re finished that, put together some boxes.”
Sola set to work, relieved at having something familiar to do. Maybe she was being too hard on Magilee, she decided as she took a small hatchet and split some of the wood piled beside the oven into kindling. So what if she was rude? Grandmother liked her and there must be a reason. Magilee must have a heart of gold beneath that gruff exterior.
Magilee glanced over from the counter where she was already mixing ingredients together in a big bowl. “Bigger,” she said, when she saw the flames that crackled and popped in the fire box.
Sola gritted her teeth and strategically placed more wood onto the fire. The blaze grew. The next time Magilee looked over, she merely harrumphed, and Sola guessed the fire was satisfactory and moved on to the boxes.
The kitchen was even hotter now, thanks to the fire, and despite the open windows, Sola felt like she was suffocating. She picked up the first box, then glanced at Magilee. She really didn’t want to ask how to fold the boxes. First, she’d try to figure it out herself.
Thankfully, it turned out to be easy, and soon an entire stack of boxes was ready and waiting for the muffins already baking in the oven.
“Bring me another bag of flour,” Magilee barked.
When Sola passed the window, she tried walking a little slower to catch a trickle of a breeze. The morning wasn’t half gone, but she already felt like she was one of Magilee’s muffins. How hot was the room in the afternoon? No wonder Magilee was grumpy. She had to work here every day.
“Don’t just stand there. Bring boxes now.”
“Yes ma’am,” Sola brought over a stack of boxes in varying sizes and set them next to the counter.
Magilee whipped the muffin tins out of the oven and slid them onto the counter with a clatter. A moment later, new cooking sheets were jammed into the oven. “Okay, now pass me a small box,” she said, turning back to the freshly baked muffins.
Sola held the box while Magilee put six muffins inside. “Now write, ‘Smogh Family, High Street, 5 mitons’ on the top. The quill is over there.” Magilee pointed.
Sola hurried to get the quill and ink, then closed the lid on the amazing smelling muffins – so much better smelling than her cold turnip breakfast – and scribbled the address and price on the top.
Magilee shoved another box toward her. “Cut family, Gorge Road, 5 mitons.”
By the time they had all the muffins safely procured in their boxes, the small cakes Magilee had baking were out of the oven. They labeled the new boxes. Then more, with cookies. Magilee checked a list she had pinned to the ledge in front of her, then grunted in satisfaction. “Now bring me the cart.”
Sola glanced around for a cart. There, in the corner behind the shelves, sat a shiny red handcart, much smaller than Grandmother’s, and narrow enough to fit through the doorway. She pulled it to the counter. A worn box already sat inside the handcart, and Sola wondered if she should lift it out to make room, but before she could get up courage to ask, Magilee started packing new boxes around it.
“You deliver these first, and quickly. They’re all lunch orders. And then—”
“How do I find these places?” Sola interrupted, her sudden fear making it impossible to stay silent. “I don’t know the city at all.”
“Use your eyes girl,” Magilee growled. “There, on the cart.” She gestured toward a block of wood nailed to the front of the cart, into which was carved a very crude and worn map. It seemed legible, however, though Sola didn’t have time to properly investigate it. Magilee was still giving her instructions.
“When all’s delivered and the money’s collected…” Magilee stopped to glare at Sola. “You have a safe place to put the money, don’t you?”
Magilee scoffed, then opened a cupboard and grabbed a cloth belt with a pouch. “Strap this around your waist.”
Sola strapped on the far-too-big belt as Magilee continued. “After your deliveries, you sell the goods in this box.” She tapped the old box on the lid. “They’re all only one day old, no matter what anyone says. Get anything you can for them.” Again, she stopped and glared down at Sola, her hands on her hips. “And you don’t eat any, or give any away. You understand?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Sola squeaked.
When the cart was finally full, Sola was ushered out the door. “Come back by mid afternoon, even if you haven’t sold all the old goods. The dinner order will be ready then.” The bakery door slammed.
Sola stood outside the door, pedestrians streaming past her. She didn’t have a watch. What time was mid afternoon? Should she go back in and ask?
Magilee would yell at her.
No, she’d just do the best she could, and hopefully it would be good enough. People shuffled past her as she studied the map. A ‘B’ was carved midway on Stick road. ‘B’ must stand for bakery, Sola reasoned. And only one road over was Gorge. She was sure she had at least one delivery for Gorge Road.
Sola picked up the handles. The red handcart felt light as a feather after the furniture cart. She set out at a brisk trot, and was more than pleased when the first human she asked knew where the Cut family lived on Gorge Road.
When she found the house, Sola hurried to the front door and knocked. The door opened, and a tall, bone-white Shadow Elf looked down at her like she was a bug he wanted to squish, his eyes blacker than midnight.
Sola couldn’t help but back a couple of steps. “Y… your baked goods,” she stammered.
“Back door, human.” He slammed the door.
Trembling uncontrollably, Sola retreated down the street in search of an access alley. She only saw it because a young girl ran in front of her, then darted between two massive buildings. She followed the girl, found the rear of the house, and knocked. She was so relieved when a human answered that she shoved the box into the woman’s hands and forgot to ask for payment. When she went back to ask, the woman hurriedly gave her the five mitons, then shut the door in her face.
The rest of the morning went just as badly. She couldn’t find the back door to some of the houses, and then discovered after losing precious minutes that the service entrance was at the side. One house only had a basket system by which to receive goods. Sola sent the box of cookies up in the basket; money came down after the cookies were inspected.
Finally, she had two boxes left – and it was almost lunchtime. Sola didn’t need to look at a clock to know. Her stomach told her plainly enough.
Because the next delivery was a big box of muffins, when she found the right address and looked up at the massive wall surrounding the estate, she wasn’t the least bit surprised it was so huge. She felt lucky when she found a side door moderately quickly, and then prayed as she pounded on it that it was the right one. The door opened. A grizzled old dwarf looked out at her. “What’d you want?” he growled.
“I have a delivery from Westside Bakery,” Sola said, already backing away. She had the wrong door again, she could tell already. Behind the dwarf, a massive courtyard stretched away into the distance. She was going to be late with her last delivery.
“Kitchen deliveries are on the other side,” the dwarf said. Sola was about to thank him, grateful he hadn’t yelled at her, when he continued, “Almost time for lunch. You should cut through the courtyard.”
Sola blinked. Someone was being nice to her? And a dwarf, nonetheless? “Thank you, sir,” she said humbly, and hurried forward.
He grabbed her arm as she passed him, then pointed to a low stone building. “That there’s the kitchen. Tell Grishna that I sent you through this way so she don’t complain.”
“What’s your name?”
“Bandy.” The dwarf let go of her arm. “Hurry on now, before I change my mind.”
Sola smiled. “Thank you, Bandy. I’m Sola.” The dwarf made a strange noise as she hurried away, and Sola had gone a few steps before she realized he’d been chuckling. A good-natured dwarf? Would the wonders of this day never end?
An ear splitting shriek pierced the air, and Sola almost dropped to the ground in fear. A dragon! She’d never seen or heard one before, but what else could it be?
The cry rent the air again – and yet this time it sounded a bit familiar. Sola spun in a circle, and gasped as a saddled flurry of red and gold burst from a low stone building, dragging a dwarf at the end of a long lead line.
The horse ran straight toward Sola, and she toward the horse. Halfway across the courtyard, the dwarf released the line, allowing Terra to continue unimpeded.
Sola and Terra stopped just inches from each other, both breathing hard, both wide eyed. Then Terra became a blur as Sola’s eyes filled with tears. She never thought she’d see the amazing horse again, and yet here she was, pawing the ground and staring at her with warm eyes, just as eager to see Sola as Sola was to see her.
Sola made the last step forward and then the mare’s beautiful face was in her arms. “Terra,” she whispered into the golden forelock, and pressed her cheek against the white mark on the mare’s forehead. Terra nickered softly in return.
“Get away from her, human!” Uh, oh.
Sola brushed her tears away as the dwarf who’d been dragged rose to his feet, dusted himself off with as much dignity as he could muster, and then strode toward her. When he reached the end of the lead rope, he picked it up, then swung and smacked the knotted end on his palm, like he planned to beat her with the heavy knot.
Before Sola could even step away, let alone run, Terra lashed out. The dwarf went down in a heap, his hands over his stomach where Terra’s hoof had landed.
“What’s going on here?” Another ugly shout, this time from the opposite direction.
Slowly, Sola turned. The Shadow Elf that Terra had thrown yesterday strode toward them, his face dark as thunder. Terra’s owner.
Sola felt like her heart was going to seize up, it was beating so hard. Still, she managed to whisper to the horse, praying that Terra could somehow understand her words. “Don’t hurt him, even if he’s mean to me. He has too much power over your life.”
The Shadow Elf stopped just yards away, glared at Sola from head to toe, then at Terra’s groom. “You are the human from yesterday,” he said, his voice cold as icicles. “Why are you here now?”
“I… I…” Was there any use in explaining? He’d never believe her anyway. Terra nuzzled her arm, then snorted softly, her eyes worried – and Sola knew she needed to try to defend herself, for Terra’s sake. “I was delivering baked goods to the kitchen. She saw me and remembered.”
“Why does she like you so much? You’re just a human.”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Twister? The bridle.”
The dwarf, Twister, climbed to his feet again, this time a lot slower, then limped back the way he’d come. He picked the bridle off the ground, rubbed dust from it, then hobbled back toward Terra and Sola.
Terra laid her ears back and swished her tail. The dwarf kept coming. Terra stomped a back hoof.
“Let the girl put the bridle on,” the Shadow Elf said, then addressed Sola, “Do you know how?”
“Do it anyway.”
Sola took the bridle from Twister, avoiding his angry gaze as much as possible, and held it up. It didn’t take long to figure out. Once she knew the iron bar went in Terra’s mouth, something the horse showed her herself, the rest seemed simple. When she stood back, relatively confident that she’d done it right, the Shadow Elf watched her with hawk eyes.
“Hold her while I mount,” he said to Sola, then strode forward.
It wasn’t until he was almost beside the horse that Sola realized he was afraid of Terra. He was afraid she’d bite or kick him, and humiliate him the way she had Twister. And what’s more, if Sola hadn’t immediately put her hand on the mare’s neck to calm her, she might have. Sola leaned toward Terra’s ear. “Be good, beauty. Be super good.”
The mare stood stock still as the Shadow Elf mounted, and continued to stand firm when Sola moved a few paces back.
The Shadow Elf stared down at her. “If you were delivering baked goods, where are they?”
Sola glanced down at her hands. Of course, they were empty.
“Oh no,” she whispered when she saw the box, upended on the cobblestones. Magilee would be furious.
The Shadow Elf scoffed when he too noticed the box. “Come here tomorrow morning. I may have need of you.” Then he signaled Terra to walk forward. The mare, still seemingly intent on being good as Sola had asked, walked sedately forward.
The Shadow Elf stopped her beside the box, and waved his hand over it. Light sparkled around the container and it flipped upright, a bent corner fixed itself, then the Shadow Elf straightened and told Terra to continue through the courtyard gates, and onto the busy street.
“You may be lucky yet, Sola,” a gruff voice said beside her. Bandy.
“What do you mean?”
Bandy pointed to the box. “He fixed your delivery with magic. He thinks you might be useful to him.”
“Why else do you think he wants you to come in the morning? He’ll have a test for you, sure as can be.”
Far away, a clock started to chime. Bong. Bong.
“Noon!” Sola shouted. Her deliveries! She rushed to the box, opened it. The muffins looked perfect, even better than they had that morning when Magilee put them in the box. She ran toward the kitchen door.
“See you tomorrow then, little one!”
Sola waved back at Bandy, then hurried on her way.
The last delivery was late, of course, which Magilee would never have known, except that the customers refused to accept or pay for the goods.
Sola collected her thoughts after the customers slammed the door. An appointment with a scary Shadow Elf tomorrow. Not all of her deliveries made. Her stomach felt like it was gnawing on her backbone. What should she do? Magilee wanted her to sell the day old stuff, but she’d also want to know that Sola hadn’t had time to make the lunch deliveries.
Finally, she decided to go back early. She’d need more time to make her afternoon deliveries because she still didn’t know the city well enough to be fast. Besides, she needed to tell Magilee she’d be busy elsewhere the next morning.
Unfortunately, Magilee didn’t think Sola returning early was the right thing to do. She was so furious to see the unsold goods that she yelled and ranted at Sola for almost half an hour. When the steam finally ran out of Magilee’s anger, Sola reluctantly told her about her last two deliveries.
If Magilee had been angry before, she was positively livid now. Her face turned a deep red and her eyes flashed. “You tell Talitha that I’ll see her tomorrow,” she hissed, her voice quieter and much more frightening. “I want your wages returned.”
“No,” Sola gasped. Without that money, they’d be turned out of their home. They’d have to live in the woods without shelter – and Grandmother wouldn’t survive.
“Maybe the Shadow Elf only wants me there for an hour or so. I’ll come back here right after, I promise,” Sola said. Surely, Magilee would have compassion. After all, Grandmother was her friend. “Or we can pay you back slowly, with Grandmother’s furniture money.”
“I want that money tomorrow morning. Now get out! And you can find your own way back to your saintly Grandmother.”
Sola blinked back tears. Magilee was not a good person, not deep down, not in any way. How could anyone be so heartless? It wasn’t as if Sola had asked to go to that house, or tried to be seen by the Shadow Elf. She didn’t want to go back in the morning for some mysterious test. She simply had no choice.
“Thank you for giving me a chance,” Sola mumbled, knowing that Grandmother would expect her to be polite, no matter what.
Magilee harrumphed, picked up a bowl, and began stirring.
Sola’s hands became fists. Was Magilee incapable of even basic courtesy? If she was going to condemn Grandmother – who was supposed to be her friend – to homelessness and destitution, she could at least pretend to be sorry about it.
“Actually, no, I’m not thankful,” Sola said. “And I’m not sorry either. You are a mean person. Maybe something bad happened to you and now you think you can be horrible to other people, but you’re wrong. There’s no reason big enough to be so mean. My grandmother believes in you. She trusts you. And all you care about is money.”
Magilee looked at Sola, surprised, and for a moment, regret shone from her eyes – but then it was gone, replaced by hatred so deep that Sola shuddered.
“You tell Talitha,” Magilee spat, a wicked smile now turning the corners of her mouth, “that her granddaughter turned out to be just as useless as she feared.”
The words hit Sola like a hammer, and she staggered back through the still open doorway as if struck by more than mere words. Grandmother thought she was useless?
Of course she did. How could she not?
It took Sola a moment to realize that Magilee was no longer looking at her. Instead, she was staring past her on the street, bewilderment transforming her hard features.
Something stood behind Sola, something strange enough to make Magilee speechless, despite her anger.
Sola turned – and found herself looking into her own hazel eyes. The girl facing her had her same light brown hair and oval face, including the smattering of freckles across her nose. Her expression was the same, complete and utter surprise. Her clothes were different though, both darker and cleaner. And this girl had no tears in her eyes.
“You’re Luna,” Sola whispered, managing even in her shock to understand this must be the rover boy’s sister.
The girl, Luna, blinked in confusion, and seemed about to say something, but then her gaze shifted to Magilee, who was still staring, speechless. The girl raced down the street, dodging pedestrians and even leaping over a skinny dog scavenging scraps.
“Wait,” Sola yelled.
If anything, Luna ran faster. Moments later, she disappeared around the corner.
Sola raced after the other girl, dashing around the corner to see crowds of pedestrians shuffling along. Luna was nowhere in sight. She had faded into the crowd the way a drop of water returns to a stream, without leaving a trace. Sola stood, breathing hard. She probably wouldn’t catch Luna, even if she tried, and she had more important things to do. She needed to find Grandmother to tell her about Magilee.
Sola dove into the crowd and headed in the general direction she thought the market to be. To make certain, she sought out the friendliest face she could find to ask for directions. A young girl with a dirt smeared face and a shy smile that seemed completely foreign to her surroundings, pointed down one of the many winding streets. Sola was happy to see that it was the direction she was already going.
As Sola hurried along, her thoughts returned to Luna. The girl couldn’t have looked exactly like her, she decided. She might’ve looked similar, but there were lots of girls with oval faces and light brown hair and hazel eyes. Sola had never seen herself in a mirror. That must be why she hadn’t noticed their differences. She’d only ever seen her reflection in the sluggish creek near their house – or what used to be their house. With Magilee demanding her money back, it wouldn’t be theirs much longer.
Sola kicked a stone in her path, then stomped along – but slowly the anger left her step. She too was at fault in their fight. Sure, Magilee had berated her unfairly, but Sola had blown up too. It wasn’t her place to judge the woman, and in fact, her own words had been almost as unkind as Magilee’s.
Had Grandmother really said Sola was useless?
Sola pushed the thought away immediately. It was too painful.
One thing she didn’t mind thinking about at all was Terra. The incredible horse had remembered her! She’d been happy to see her! Though the Shadow Elf’s test tomorrow might be overwhelming, though Twister had seemed cruel and cagey, though the Shadow Elf himself, with his magic, could end her life in a second, Sola felt buoyant. She would see Terra again!
How long had she been walking?
Sola glanced around. Nothing looked familiar and she felt sure she should have reached the market ages ago. Had she gotten herself turned around? Sola mentally kicked herself for not paying attention.
The streets that had been packed were now nearly empty. Sola searched for a friendly face among the stragglers but met nothing but dark looks that sent fear spiking up her spine. One man in a black cloak and hood that concealed his entire face, except for his flashing cold eyes, watched her. Sola inhaled sharply and backed up a step. This was a bad place to be. She could feel it in the cold sweat that suddenly glistened on her skin and the prickly shivers on the back of her neck.
Turning quickly, Sola walked back the way she’d come. The city was big, but if she just kept on, surely she’d recognize some landmark. There was the spire, of course, but all it could tell her was how close she was to the center of the city.
But maybe that was enough. If she walked away from the spire until it looked the same size it had that morning in Grandmother’s market square, and then turned and walked with it always on her right, she should eventually come across the market.
The feeling of eyes scraping over her back made Sola shudder. Was the man following her?
Though every sense felt on fire, she forced herself to remain calm. She couldn’t be seen as prey. At the next intersection she made a confident left turn, as if she knew where she was going, and walked until the spire appeared to be the same distance away as it had been that morning, then turned right. The feeling of being watched faded to nothing.
“What took you so long?”
Sola stopped short to see Rory in front of her. His father, Roan, stood behind him. Both were relieved of their morning’s burden. They’d sold all their firewood.
“Hi, Rory. Roan. You’re leaving early?”
Rory looked at her, puzzled. “Early? Do you not know what time it is, Sola?”
“It’s late, girl,” Roan grumbled. “Your grandmother’s the last one left in the market square.”
“Oh no.” Sola looked up at the sky. Though the sun hadn’t set, it had dropped below the city walls. And Grandmother still waited for her. “Magilee told me to find my own way back, and I’ve been looking all afternoon.”
“It’s not far from here,” Rory said.
Roan pointed to a narrow alley. “The fastest way is through there. At the end, turn right. She’ll be across the square.”
Sola sprinted toward the alley. “Thank you!” she called over her shoulder.
“See you tomorrow,” Rory called back, already sounding far away.
The alley narrowed until it was more like a cavern between buildings. Sola ran its length as fast as she could go, bursting into the light.
Across the gray square, Grandmother lifted the last of the chairs onto the handcart.
Grandmother turned. A smile trembled on her lips as Sola ran toward her.
“Let me do that,” Sola said, and took the chair from her hands.
“How was your first day with Magilee?” Grandmother asked, sounding far more tired than Sola liked.
“Let’s talk about that at home,” Sola replied. She quickly tied the load down, then picked up the handcart handles.
Grandmother patted Sola’s arm, then shuffled forward. Sola jerked the cart after her. She had an hour, maybe slightly longer to think of what to say, what to leave out. What was important for Grandmother to know? What would only worry her too much, and for no purpose? There was probably no need to mention the girl.
Sola sighed. All those years of wishing she could help Grandmother, and after one day, she felt beaten, confused, and terribly unsettled.
Nightmares plagued Sola all that night, and she tossed and turned endlessly. In the main dreamscape, she was lost in darkness, an impenetrable night, feeling her way through a maze. Though the air was stiflingly hot, the walls were cold, almost frosty, and somehow Sola knew she was inside the spire of the Shadow Elves. She was trapped there and no matter how long she looked, she would never find a way out – because there wasn’t one.
Finally she stopped trying, and as she stood motionless and alone in the dark, a terrifying realization consumed her. This horrific maze was everything. Somehow the spire had swallowed the entire world and she couldn’t escape because there was nowhere left to go.
This was forever.
Sola woke with a gasp and sat bolt upright in her narrow bed. Darkness pushed close all around her, and for a moment she couldn’t tell where she was, or even if she’d actually awakened.
But then the familiar room started to take shape. The edge of the window, the small table and two chairs in the dining area, the worn chair where Grandmother rested in the evenings. The sun must be rising, casting its dawn light through the plastic covered windows. Sola peered through the last of the night’s gloom until she could make out the long, thin lump in the other bed. Though asleep, Grandmother’s lined face looked as exhausted as the night before, when she could hardly eat her meager supper.
The last wisps of Sola’s nightmare floated away in the face of her worry. She’d hoped Grandmother would feel back to her old self and rested after a day of not having to pull the furniture cart. Why wasn’t she?
Maybe there were other ways to make life easier for her, like doing even more of the chores. She needed to take care of Grandmother in every way she’d let her.
Silently, Sola wandered outside, gathered an armful of scrap wood from Grandmother’s workshop, then snuck back into the house. As quietly as possible, she opened the stove’s metal door and inserted the wood. Then she went out again to get water for tea. When she returned, Grandmother still slept, and instead of starting breakfast and making noise, Sola headed outside again, this time to tidy the workshop and load the cart with different furniture. Maybe the customers were tired of seeing the same items. Maybe, just maybe, they’d get more sales if they changed things up.
As Sola worked, her mind replayed the previous night’s conversation. She’d expected Grandmother to have lots to say, to be upset, but Grandmother had simply listened as Sola told her about following her along the road to Alantrax two days before, about scaring the horse, about being chased by Shadow Elves through the woods. She told her about ending up at that same Shadow Elf’s house with a delivery and how she’d been ordered to return the next day.
“Oh my,” Grandmother whispered, her face white as a sheet.
Thinking she might as well get it over with, Sola plowed ahead, telling her about Magilee’s reaction and getting fired. About Magilee wanting her money back.
Grandmother sat silent for a long time, staring down into her supper. Her eyes had been so tired that Sola wanted to cry. She’d done this to her. If she’d made her deliveries on time, if she’d been better at finding her way through the city, she wouldn’t have been in the courtyard at all. If she’d been able to placate Magilee, she’d still have her job and they wouldn’t lose their home. If she’d learned how to carve, she could’ve been doing that to help Grandmother, and there would’ve been no need to even find other work. This was all her fault.
When Grandmother finally spoke, it wasn’t to berate Sola, which made her feel even worse. Instead, Grandmother said she would figure out something with Magilee, and that whatever happened after Sola kept her appointment at the Shadow Elf’s house, they would deal with it. Then she added that she knew Sola was a good girl who did the best she could. Grandmother crept off to bed, her last words before curling up beneath her blanket were, “That’s all any of us can do, Sola. The best we can. Whatever comes, comes. It does no good to despair.”
But Sola couldn’t help but despair and blame herself, even now as she loaded the beautiful furniture into the cart.
After Grandmother woke, Sola did her best to chat cheerfully as she cooked and served breakfast. Grandmother replied just as brightly, and Sola realized they were both acting. In truth, they were both scared to death about what would happen at the Shadow Elf’s estate. And because it was all her doing, she was going to have to fix it – but how?
Later that morning, as she pulled the handcart through the gates of Alantrax, Grandmother hobbling at her side, she still hadn’t figured it out. The problem was, she had so few choices. She had to go to the Shadow Elf’s house. She had to do what she was commanded to do.
Sola helped Grandmother set up at the market, and again enlisted Rory’s help to turn the handcart into a seat. When the work was done, Grandmother motioned Sola close and drew a quick map on the dusty cobblestones with her finger. Then she whispered that Sola needed to be careful around the Shadow Elves, to not trust them, to always remember they commanded magic. Finally, Grandmother patted her arm, and attempted a smile. “I will see you soon, dear.”
So why was she looking at Sola like she might never lay eyes on her again?
Sola nodded, her throat tight. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can,” she choked out, then hurried away. If she didn’t force herself to go this moment, she would never leave – and it was far too risky to defy the Shadow Elf’s order. She was already lucky he’d decided to not punish her for scaring Terra.
Unless he planned to enact the punishment today…
Sola arrived at the gates much too quickly now that she knew the way, and instead of knocking immediately, leaned against the stone wall beside the door and told herself to be brave, to be strong, to keep her wits about her. She needed to notice everything, act quickly, and always remember that magic might intervene. Sola took a deep breath, and knocked.
The door opened. Bandy looked out at her, unsmiling and sad-eyed. “Come this way,” he said.
“It’s that bad?” Sola asked in a whisper.
“I’m sorry,” Bandy said, his voice more gravelly than usual.
Sola stopped short. No one else was in the courtyard. She could still turn around, burst out of the compound and run far away. With no food or water or shelter or any skills that would help her survive. And with no Grandmother.
Sola stepped forward.
Bandy nodded. “That’s the best way through tough times, Sola. Straight ahead.”
Tears burned Sola’s eyes. “Thanks, Bandy.”
“For being nice.”
“If I hadn’t been so nice to you, Sola, you wouldn’t have been in the courtyard. The horse wouldn’t have seen you. Neither would’ve the Master.”
Sola stopped short. “You’re blaming yourself?”
The dwarf looked down at his large scruffy boots. “No one else to blame, is there?”
“But…” Sola fell silent. In a way, Bandy was right. If he hadn’t suggested she cut through the courtyard, none of this would’ve happened. She might’ve made her deliveries on time, which meant she might still be employed by Magilee. But she could as easily blame Terra, for seeing her again, for liking her so much that she drew attention to the human girl hurrying across the courtyard. But it wasn’t Terra’s fault either.
So maybe it wasn’t her own fault either. She’d had good intentions in her heart as she delivered the muffins; she’d wanted to deliver them quickly and safely. And Bandy had only intended to help her. Terra had only intended to greet her. Maybe blame, even self blame, could only be truly given when the intent was hurtful and cruel.
Even standing in a Shadow Elf’s courtyard about to be given a test that made Bandy terribly sad, Sola felt lighter, taller. With a sudden smile, she put her hand on the dwarf’s arm. “This isn’t your fault, Bandy. I don’t blame you. You were kind to me, and that was the best thing that happened to me all day. Please, don’t stop being kind.”
“Well, Miss Sola, I uh…” He stopped, unable to speak. Instead, he nodded silently, patted Sola’s hand, and led her onward.
Three horses, one black, one gold, and one dark brown with a big white streak on his face, watched them from the stable row as they approached.
“Where’s…” What name did they use for Terra here?
But Bandy knew who she meant. “I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since yesterday.”
Sola sighed, and followed Bandy around the back of the stable row. Small paddocks and horse shelters were scattered here and there. A crowd of dwarves and humans lingered near the one round corral. That had to be their destination.
A scream rent the air. Loud crashes came from the stable, and someone yelled, then bellowed again even louder.
“Her name is Cobra, and she acts just like one,” Bandy whispered quickly to Sola. “The Master bought her two weeks ago, supposedly trained, but now he thinks she might have been taken from the giant horse herds. She hates everyone. Shadow Elf, dwarf, human, it’s all the same to her.”
“What do they want me to do with her?”
“What? Me? I don’t know how to gentle wild horses.”
Two grooms burst from around the corner, long ropes clenched in their hands. A breathtakingly beautiful blue roan horse pounded after them, ears back, eyes flashing, mouth open and ready to bite. But something held her back. Two more grooms, both holding long lines attached to the mare’s halter, dragged into view behind her. Cobra tried to spin around to attack them, but the ropes from the front grooms stopped her.
“You have a way with the other one. You may with this one too.”
Sola stared at the blue roan mare, her mouth open. She couldn’t gentle that wild beast. If Cobra didn’t have four ropes on her, each pulling her a different direction, her handlers would be dead by now. No one could gentle something as wild as this.
Bandy touched her arm, drawing her attention away from Cobra. His dark eyes looked down with sympathy. “Don’t give up, Sola.”
She shook her head. “I can’t give up. I have to take care of my grandmother.”
Bandy nodded. “Good luck then.”
“Thanks, Bandy. For everything.”
“Bring the girl!”
Sola spun toward the voice.
The Shadow Elf strode toward the corral, his black eyes scanning the crowd. Then he saw her. “Get over here, human!”
Somehow, Sola forced her feet to carry her forward. The four handlers forced Cobra into the corral and a dwarf slammed the gate behind the frantic horse. The handlers, all on the outside of the fence now, dropped their ropes. Like her namesake, Cobra lunged toward the closest man, snaked her head through the bars, and ripped at his arm. He screamed, then someone jerked him back. Another human hurried the man away from the corral. They passed close to Sola, and though she didn’t want to see the damage Cobra had done, she couldn’t keep from looking at the huge bloody gash.
And then the Shadow Elf was leaning over her. “You’re so good at capturing my horses’ loyalty? Capture the loyalty of this one.” He strode toward the corral. “Open the gate! Let her in!”
The gate opened before Sola, just a thin sliver, far too narrow for Cobra to escape through, but wide enough for a skinny girl. Sola stopped in front of the gap.
They couldn’t really expect her to go in there, could they? The horse would kill her. Suddenly, rough hands pushed her through the narrow opening. The gate slammed behind her.
Silence descended like a living thing. Cobra stood in the middle of the corral, a dark statue with pinned ears and a vicious face. How could something so beautiful be so cruel?
No, not something. Someone. This horse had a personality. She had desires and longings just like any other living being. Unbidden, tears came to Sola’s eyes. What had happened to this beautiful mare to make her so angry, to make her want to hurt those around her?
The glistening dark head lowered. Cobra snorted, then struck the ground with a sharp hoof. Dust billowed around her.
“Why isn’t she attacking?” came a confused whisper from Sola’s right.
Cobra swung her sculpted head toward the whisperer, then leaped toward the fence. She crashed into the poles with such force that the gate behind Sola shuddered.
“Don’t do that,” Sola said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
Too late, she realized her mistake. The horse spun toward her, screamed, and charged.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. No escape.
Nothing to do but close her eyes and wait for the inevitable.
Poor Grandmother would never know what happened. She’d wait in the market square, reluctant to leave until the guards forced her out of the city. Then she’d try to hurry, pulling the heavy cart alone, and as she drew near their little home, she’d hope Sola was there, waiting – only to find the house cold and empty…
Why was the horse taking so long to reach her? It had had plenty of time to strike her down and stomp her into the dirt. Sola opened her eyes a crack. Cobra was right in front of her! She squeezed her eyes closed again, so she wouldn’t do something stupid. Who knew what would set the crazed horse off again? Should she even breathe? But she had to do something.
As a child Grandmother told her stories – and one had been about a boy who tamed a wolf by singing to it.
The first sounds out of Sola’s mouth could hardly be defined as melodic, so she settled for a singsong voice. “Don’t be afraid,” she murmured. Cobra wouldn’t understand the actual words, so she might as well try to fortify herself. “Be brave. Be strong. No need to be sad. No need to worry. Life is different than you want, but panicking doesn’t fix that. Be calm. See the good around you. See the beauty.” Sola peeked through her eyelids.
Cobra’s long face was just inches away, but this time her ears were forward. Her eyes looked more puzzled than angry. Could it be that simple? Were kindness and gentleness really that powerful?
“They are, to those who long for them,” she softly answered her own question. “And you do, don’t you, beautiful one?” No way was she going to call this amazing horse Cobra, ever. “You want to see the good too. We can do it together…” She continued to murmur, and raised her hand to the sleek, dark face, stroked the long nose, then slid her fingers along the satin cheek.
A strange glowing, one that Sola could only feel, not see, shut off her words. The beauty of the horse before her was far more than physical. She was pure and glorious in her heart, like a beautiful, precious gem, catching light, catching love. But she was afraid – no, terrified. She didn’t like this place and wanted to go home.
“Where is home, Beauty?” Sola whispered.
“Bring her out!”
Both Sola and the horse startled, then the horse stomped her front hoof and pinned her ears back.
“Be calm. Trust me,” Sola said, and rested a hand on the mare’s shoulder. “Let me deal with them.” If she could. If they didn’t just rip her away from the horse the first chance they got.
Sola turned toward the Shadow Elf, who stood on the other side of the closed gate, glaring at them with frigid eyes. The horse touched her back with her muzzle, and Sola straightened. She could do this. For Beauty, she could do it.
“Move away from the gate.”
Amazingly, everyone shuffled aside, even the Shadow Elf. Sola released three of the long lead lines from Beauty’s halter, then coiled the other in her hand. “Where do you want me to take her?”
“Twister, take care of it.” The Shadow Elf walked away.
The dwarf Terra had dragged across the courtyard yesterday stepped forward, an evil grin on his face.
The Shadow Elf hesitated, turned back around. “You work here now, human. Tell your former employer. You are in charge of this horse, plus three others. When you get some experience, you can care for six. Twister will help you.”
Sola nodded, too afraid to do anything else, though she had doubts about how much the dwarf would help her. The Shadow Elf – her new master – continued on.
“Bring her through,” Twister said, and pulled the gate wide.
“Let’s go, Beauty,” Sola whispered. “And don’t worry. I won’t let them hurt you.” She almost smiled. Won’t let you hurt them, was more like it.
Bandy clasped his hands over his heart and rolled his eyes as she led the blue roan mare from the corral, as if to say she’d almost given him a heart attack. Sola couldn’t hold back her grin.
Twister led the way to a wide door in the stone wall at the back of the compound, then opened it in front of her and Beauty, keeping well back from the horse. Sola led Beauty through, then stopped in surprise. They were outside the city! The Shadow Elf’s compound must be on the edge of a city wall. And Sola could see why. There would be no room inside the city for the four beautiful pastures that lay before her, emerald green and vibrant with life.
“Hurry up,” growled Twister.
Beauty stamped a hoof and glared back at him. Quickly, Sola led the mare forward. She was the one in charge of the mare now. If Beauty kicked the foul-tempered dwarf, she had no doubt that she herself would answer for it, not Beauty. Guards materialized on either side of the giant door and Sola almost stopped again. They were guarding the entrance to the main compound. And on the farthest corners of the pastures, two small guard towers sat, complete with dwarves carrying crossbows. The horses might be outside the protection of the city walls during the day, but they were completely safe with four armed guards watching them.
Twister led her to the first paddock, and opened the gate. Moments later, Sola watched Beauty race away from her, bucking and kicking as she ran. She acted like she hadn’t been free for a long, long time – and she probably hadn’t, at least since coming to this place. Maybe even longer.
Sola held the halter and rope to her chest as she watched Beauty run around the three other horses in the pasture. Would these be her charges? How amazing they were, how graceful and fast! If only they were hers to care for – and Terra too. Her gaze travelled to the neighboring pastures. The red gold mare wasn’t there either.
“Stop your lingering,” Twister growled from the gate, too afraid of Beauty to enter the pasture.
Sola hurried toward the gate. “Sorry.”
The rest of the morning, Sola mucked out stables, polished tack, and groomed two old geldings who were on their last legs. Sola thought it spoke well of her new master that he retired his old horses instead of sending them to less caring homes – until a group of ragged merchants came into the courtyard. Two grooms haltered the old horses, then led them out.
Noticing the expression on Sola’s face when the bidding started, Bandy called her aside. “There’s nothing you can do about it. Look on the good side. You gave them a fine last grooming, one done with compassion and understanding. That’s more than they would’ve had if you hadn’t been here.”
“But Bandy, you know what’ll happen to them. They’ll be forced to work, and they’re too old for it. They’re not going to last long.”
Bandy shook his head. “It’s the way of our life, girl. You’re right that it’s wrong, but what can we do about it?”
“I don’t’ know. Something.”
“You’ve saved two lives today, that mare’s and your own. Be happy with that.”
Sola bit back her response. Bandy didn’t need to hear her frustration. And he was right. She should feel grateful to be alive. She was grateful.
“Go now, Sola. Tell your employer you’re working here now.”
“Not my employer. My Grandmother,” said Sola. “Thank you, Bandy. She’ll be worried about me.”
A sad smile touched Bandy’s face. “You’re a good girl, Sola. A good granddaughter.”
Sola started to move away, but he called her name. She turned back. “Be quick. It’s almost time to prepare the horses for training.”
“I will. Bye, Bandy!”
Grandmother was negotiating the sale of a sideboard when Sola arrived in the market square. Sola hung back until the sale was completed, then hurried toward Grandmother and fell into her waiting arms.
“Everything’s perfect, Grandmother. I have a new job. I can’t wait to tell you about it tonight.”
“Do I really have to wait so long?” Grandmother asked, holding Sola at arm’s length and smiling into her eyes.
“I have to get back. I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.”
Grandmother pulled her close again. “Our fortunes are changing, Sola,” she said. “I’ve sold three pieces this morning, and now you with a new job? What is your master’s name? Does he seem kind?”
Sola forced a laugh. “Very kind.” It was too dangerous to say anything else in the public square. “And I don’t know his name yet. Imagine that. I’ll ask Bandy.”
Explaining who Bandy was took another few precious seconds, and then Sola raced back to her master’s house. Three pieces. Grandmother had sold three pieces! Indeed, their fortunes were changing. She wouldn’t know for sure until her first payday, but with such a rich master, surely she’d be paid more than she would’ve gotten from Magilee. Maybe she’d be able to afford a nicer home for Grandmother one day. Maybe Grandmother could stop work altogether!
The afternoon flew by. Twister pointed out this horse and that and Sola prepared them for the trainer who arrived that afternoon, striding into the courtyard like he owned the place. Each horse she groomed had a different personality, different talents, different ways of viewing the world, and Sola enjoyed getting to know them. Before she knew it, the trainer was leaving, and it was time for a short afternoon break.
Sola sat beside Bandy on the cobblestones, outside the kitchen door. Lunch had been a thick stew, and now she had a thick slice of bread slathered with something Bandy called apple butter. It tasted so heavenly, Sola didn’t know how she’d ever describe it to Grandmother.
When the bread and apple butter were half gone, Bandy leaned close to Sola. “I asked about that horse you like,” he whispered. “The Master sent her off with the regiment for a week.”
“So she’ll be back?” Sola asked, just as quietly.
“Yes, but she’ll go again, Sola. Don’t get too attached, okay?”
Sola nodded, a knot growing in her throat. It was far, far too late to not get attached to Terra.
An hour before it was time to leave, Sola followed the other grooms out to collect the horses in the pastures. She’d guessed right. Beauty and the other three in her pasture were her charges. One of them, a dainty bay mare, saw Sola approaching with the halter and lead rope, and trotted up to her with a whinny. Sola smiled. This one knew it was time for dinner. She stroked the mare’s dished face and buckled up the halter.
“Come on, girl.” Sola led the mare from the pasture and found the proper stall in the gorgeous, immaculate stables. It took a few minutes to get her settled in with a bucket of grain, then Sola left the mare chewing enthusiastically.
The next two horses were just as happy to be brought inside, and Sola found herself loving this new job more and more by the second. Sure, the Shadow Elf was still scary and Twister was almost scarier, but other than that, it was more than she’d ever dreamed possible. To be surrounded by these beautiful creatures every day, to get to know them and to take care of them? Amazing. Not only that, but for once in her life, Sola felt she was actually good at something. Now if only Terra would come home, everything would be perfect.
And if Beauty would let Sola catch her, that would be nice too.
The blue roan trotted away from her, as the grooms led the last of the other horses in through the door in the city wall. All but one of the guards had left their posts, and that one guard looked extremely irritated as he watched Beauty stop in the farthest corner of her pasture and drop her head to graze.
Sola hurried toward the horse. The saucy twitch of Beauty’s ears told her the mare wasn’t going to make catching her easy. Now that Beauty was in a large pasture, she probably didn’t want to go back to the tight confines of a stall.
“Good girl, Beauty,” she crooned, as she neared the grazing mare.
Beauty shook her head, her mane a jumble of black around her dark ears, then turned and strolled closer to the back fence. Sola followed her, happy that the mare merely walked away from her now – a definite improvement over the trot of a few minutes ago. Hopefully the mare would give in soon.
A dark form raced from the shadowy forest beyond the pasture, a human by the look of it, cloaked and hunched over as he ran toward the fence.
Sola glanced back at the guard. He sat on the ground beside the door to the compound now, his crossbow on the ground beside him, his hat tipped over his eyes. He hadn’t seen the intruder yet.
Knowing the guard was still there made Sola feel better. If she called, he’d come to her aid in a moment. But did she want to call? The price would be dear for the human if he was caught, and maybe he wasn’t up to anything bad. Maybe he was just curious about the horses like Sola would be if she came upon pastures.
The person seemed to sense Sola’s eyes, and suddenly crouched low to the ground. For a moment neither moved. Sola tried to see inside the shadow beneath the human’s hood, to get a glimpse of his face, but could see nothing.
The figure didn’t seem very big, no bigger than she was actually – but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. He could have a weapon concealed beneath his cloak. At least if he was there to steal Beauty, Sola needn’t worry. The mare would not easily be stolen.
But she might harm someone she didn’t know. Sola glanced back one more time. The guard still appeared to be sleeping. She hurried toward Beauty. She had to catch her quick. Then if the human entered the pasture, she could keep him safe from the mare’s sharp hooves and teeth.
Beauty raised her head when Sola neared, but this time didn’t step away. Sola touched the mare’s glistening blue-gray neck, and was about to raise the halter to the fine head, when the stranger dashed closer to the fence. The mare snorted as she watched the cloaked human approach, then sprung into a high floating trot – not away from the human as Sola hoped, but toward him. The mare’s ears were tight forward, her eyes bright.
Sola covered her mouth with her hand. She couldn’t shout a warning because the guard would wake up and the stranger would be in an even worse situation. Hopefully, he’d stay on the far side of the fence, where he’d be safe.
But now he was climbing through! No!
Beauty stopped in front of the stranger as he straightened, his back to the fence. Sola gasped as he threw his arms around Beauty’s neck, and buried his face in her black mane. The horse snuffled the human’s cloaked head, sounding almost like she was sobbing. What was wrong with her? Was the stranger hurting her?
Should she wake the guard?
Sola backed slowly toward the compound, unsure and confused. Beauty didn’t seem to be hurt, despite her strange noises. More than anything, she looked happy.
Sola gasped as the intruder suddenly lurched toward her, moving fast. Sola spun around to run, and in her haste, tripped over her own feet. Then up again. Running.
The intruder hit her from behind, shoving her to the ground. Sola’s head struck a small rock. Before she could cry out, a hand clamped over her mouth.
“Don’t scream,” a girl hissed in her ear.
The intruder was a girl?
Hooves tread closer, a soft thud. Was Beauty going to save her? Did they have enough of a bond?
But this girl knew her too. She’d hugged the mare. Beauty and this girl were friends. A surprising jealousy rose up in Sola, and she heaved upward. If nothing else, being the assistant to a furniture maker had made her strong.
The girl tumbled to the side, and Sola jumped up.
The girl was up in another split second, facing her with angry eyes, her hood askew.
Surprise, then shock, slowly replaced the girl’s rage as her gaze darted from Sola’s hair, to her eyes, to her lips, and back to her eyes. “You,” she whispered.
Sola guessed her own face showed the same surprise and shock because up close the girl she’d seen yesterday, the girl standing before her right now, really was identical to how Sola envisioned herself, right down to the orange flecks in her eyes that Grandmother always admired.
And yet Sola didn’t have a sister, let alone a twin, thank goodness. Twins were feared and unlucky, and all human twins were taken by the Shadow Elves shortly after they were born, never to be seen again.
This girl standing before her was a mere freak of nature. Someone who by chance looked like her. Someone she needed to be rid of as quickly as possible.
Good things had finally appeared in her and Grandmother’s lives. No way was Sola going to let this rover girl ruin everything for them.
No matter what, she had to make sure that no one saw her and this girl together, ever again.
Luna raised her hand high, the rock that already hit Sola clutched tight. “If you scream and wake the guard, I’ll knock you out before I escape.”
The voice sounded like hers, though Sola couldn’t imagine herself ever saying anything so mean. Luna might look like her, but she certainly wasn’t like her.
Sola nodded and the girl lowered her rock, then made a strange clucking noise. Beauty nickered softly, and quickly moved to stand in the spot the girl indicated – between the two girls and the guard.
“Why do you look like me? Who are you?” Sola whispered.
“I don’t look like you. You look like me,” the girl scoffed. “And you’ve been spying on me?”
“I wasn’t spying on you.”
“That’s why you followed me yesterday? That’s why you talked to my brother? He said you pretended to be me.”
“I didn’t. I was lost and came across your camp. Some little kid started calling me Luna.”
“If you’re not spying on me, why do you have Mari?” Luna leaned forward to glare into Sola’s face. “I think you’re the one who stole her. I think you brought her back here for a pat on the head from your master.”
“Who’s Mari? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sola sputtered. This Luna girl really was crazy. “And I just started working here today. You saw me being fired from the bake shop yesterday.”
“I saw you arguing. That’s it.” Despite the words, Luna sounded a little less angry, a little less sure that Sola was the one to blame. “But that doesn’t explain why you’re here with Mari.”
Beauty nuzzled Luna’s shoulder, and Sola finally understood. Beauty was Mari. She was Luna’s horse. Hadn’t Luna’s little brother asked her if she’d found someone named Mari? And now, because Sola was here with the mare, Luna thought that she’d been involved in stealing her. No wonder Luna was angry.
If Terra was Sola’s horse, and she’d been stolen, she’d be angry too. And sad. And enormously desperate to get her back.
“It’s a long story, and we don’t have time,” Sola said. “I’ll help you with Mari.”
“Really? Why would you help us?”
Yes, why? She shouldn’t. She’d be putting everything at risk. But before Sola could say another word, Luna threw her arms around Mari’s neck. “Mari, she’s going to help us.”
“First, wait. I can’t get in trouble. I need this job. My grandmother…” Quickly, Sola explained their situation.
“We can do it so you won’t be blamed,” Luna offered, then suggested a plan. It all had to do with where they were in the field when Sola woke the guard, how she acted. If Sola acted like she was trying to stop a thief, how could they blame her?
Sola nodded. It might work. Unless the Shadow Elf thought to use magic to see what had really happened.
“Ready?” asked Luna, excitement radiating from her voice. She was enjoying this.
“Give me a minute,” Sola replied. She leaned on her knees, fighting the dizziness that threatened to swamp her.
“That guard might be asleep, but the others will wonder what’s taking so long. They’ll be here soon.”
“Okay.” Sola forced herself to straighten. “I’m ready.”
Luna grinned, and in one supple movement, leaped to Mari’s back.
“You don’t need the halter?”
Luna shook her head. “Besides, then they might think you gave it to me.”
Sola nodded. It made sense. “Luna? Before you go.” Sola cleared her throat. “Why do we look the same?”
Luna’s exultant expression drained away. “I don’t know. I don’t want to think about that right now. It’s just enough to rescue Mari.” She put out a hand. “Thank you, uh, what’s your name?”
Sola grasped her hand, and they shook. “Sola.”
“Thank you, Sola.”
“No problem,” she said, as if her entire life wasn’t at risk. As if Grandmother’s future wasn’t at risk.
Then Mari trotted away, taking Luna with her.
Sola wasted no time. She ran toward the stone wall of the compound where the guard still slept, his crossbow at his side. He would wake in an instant, and have the crossbow ready to fire a moment later. Their timing had to be perfect.
Luna and Mari galloped toward the middle of the pasture, so they could loop around and get a run at the fence at the back of the pasture. Moments after jumping it, they would disappear into the forest – and hopefully the guard would think someone ran out of the forest, leaped to the horse’s back before Sola could stop her, and then directed the horse over the fence to freedom.
Luna and Mari streaked past her, heading for the back fence. That was her cue. “Help!” Sola screamed, trying to sound as frightened as possible – and since she was terrified, it wasn’t a hard at all. “Help me!”
The guard jumped to his feet faster than Sola imagined, swooped up his crossbow, and sprinted toward the pasture. He catapulted over the fence, and raced toward her.
Hoof beats thudded behind Sola and she spun around. Mari was galloping toward her! No! She was supposed to be leaping over the fence at this very moment. Why was she coming back?
Sola’s heart skipped a beat. Mari had heard HER cry for help and thought it was real. She was galloping back to save her! Even Luna hadn’t been able to stop her. And now the guard was going to shoot Mari or Luna, or both.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Sola ran toward the horse and rider bearing down on her. “Stop! Stop!” But she yelled it in a tone that she hoped Mari would find frightening. For good measure, she waved the halter and lead line, pretending she wanted to throw the lead line around Mari’s neck. Mari had to believe that Sola was chasing her, and the guard had to see Sola trying to catch the horse.
Mari slid to a stop a few yards away, her eyes wide. Luna’s dark hair blew around her revealed face – the hood had slipped off once again.
Please make the guard not notice we look the same. Please make him only look at Mari, Sola prayed, as she yelled, “That’s our horse!”
Mari threw her ears back and snapped her teeth at Sola, suddenly angry – but when Luna pulled her mane to the left, the horse spun away instead of attacking. The horse leaped into a gallop just as the guard reached Sola. He stopped short, fit his crossbow to his shoulder, and aimed at Luna’s swiftly retreating back.
Luna and Mari were still too far from the fence, too far from the forest!
“Come back!” Sola shouted, and waved her arms once more, knocking the guard’s arm just as he released the deadly arrow. It skimmed to Luna’s right, and then Luna and Mari soared over the fence. A second later, they disappeared into the forest.
Sola and the guard stood still in the sudden silence.
Did he know she was really trying to chase the horse away? Was he going to tell the others that she’d helped a horse thief?
Had he seen the resemblance between her and Luna?
Sola slumped to the ground, suddenly too weak to stand. The guard’s boots beside her didn’t move as he continued to stare at the forest.
Shouts came from behind them. The others were rushing through the gate. Now the guard would turn her in, tell them what she’d done. She’d been far too obvious! The only convincing thing she’d done was call for help, and that had turned out to be a terrible mistake. If Mari hadn’t turned back, their plan would’ve worked perfectly.
“Are you going to tell them?” the guard asked, his voice quiet.
Sola looked up, surprised. What was he talking about? He wanted her to confess what she’d done? Or… ah, he’d been asleep when she called for help. Sola shook her head. “I won’t. I promise. Are you going to tell them it was my fault?”
But before the guard could answer, Twister, Bandy, and another dwarf ran up to them, breathing hard. The next few minutes, Sola couldn’t answer their questions fast enough. She did her best to keep to the story that she and Luna had devised, paying special attention to say Cobra instead of Mari or Beauty, to be sure to not say Luna’s name at all, or even that the thief had been human and female. The thief had simply run out of the forest while she was trying to catch Cobra, and jumped onto the horse’s back. No, she didn’t know why the thief could catch the horse when she couldn’t. Yes, the guard came running as soon as he saw the thief. Yes, he’d tried to shoot the thief, but Cobra was too fast.
When the guard’s interrogation started, Bandy pulled her aside. “What happened to your head?” he asked.
Sola’s hand went to where her head had struck the rock. Her hair was sticky with blood. “I was really close to Cobra when the thief came. She kicked at me,” Sola said, though she hated to blame Mari for something she didn’t do.
“So why couldn’t you stop him?”
“I… I tried. I feel sick, Bandy. Can I answer the rest of the questions tomorrow?” Sola looked into the evening sky. The sun was already touching the horizon.
Bandy smiled, patted her on her shoulder. “Tomorrow will be soon enough.”
“You don’t think they’ll be mad if I go?” Sola glanced at the others, still questioning the guard.
“I’ll take responsibility. You don’t want your Grandmother to worry.”
Tears sprang into Sola’s eyes. “Thank you, Bandy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She ran through the big gates, around the stables, to the service door leading to the street, then shut the door behind her, and leaned against the wood. Had she actually been lucky enough to escape punishment? It appeared so. There was no evidence saying she’d helped the thief, and even if the guard was suspicious, he’d keep quiet so she wouldn’t tell anyone he’d been asleep at his post.
Unless he noticed the similarities between the two girls. That was too big to keep a secret. And speaking of which, it was past time to tell Grandmother about Luna. She’d know what to do.
Grandmother was one of the last left in the market square again. Sola greeted her, and quickly packed the furniture into the cart. She almost raced out of the city, and it wasn’t until they were in their last mile home that she felt safe enough to slow down. Grandmother gratefully slowed beside her.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” she asked quietly.
“When we’re home.”
Grandmother nodded, her forehead wrinkled with worry.
But once they were home, Sola couldn’t find the words. Together, they unloaded the cart, built up the fire, cooked supper, and ate. Grandmother waited patiently all the while, but finally, when it was almost time for bed, she took Sola’s hand and led her to sit at the table in front of a steaming cup of tea.
“Tell me,” she said, her voice firm.
Sola told her everything, about Terra, about finding the rover camp, about seeing Luna in the street outside Magilee’s bakery. About them being identical.
After that, Grandmother stared into her tea as Sola relayed how she’d helped Luna steal her horse back, how the guard would probably cover for her, how there might be more questions the next morning. When it was all out in the open, Sola exhaled loudly and gulped some of her now cold tea. She felt like a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“You have to go.”
“What? Go where?”
“Anywhere. Away from here.” Grandmother looked up, and there were tears streaming down her cheeks. “I knew this day would come. I just hoped it wouldn’t be for a long time, not until after you were grown.”
“What do you mean, Grandmother? I don’t understand.”
“Sola, there is much you don’t know. Please, just listen. I will tell you the whole story. But we may not have much time. So no interruptions. No questions. Promise me.”
Sola swallowed, tenser than ever. “I promise.”
Grandmother began to speak. Her words wound into Sola’s mind like tentacles, ripping out everything that Sola thought was real and believed to be true, leaving behind only the shifting shadows of not knowing your place in the world, of not knowing where, or to whom, you belong.
When Grandmother finished, all Sola could do was stare into her ancient eyes. Eyes that she no longer knew. Grandmother was not her grandmother. She wasn’t even related to Sola. Grandmother had been the midwife hired to bring a child into the world thirteen years before – but not one child had been delivered. Two had been born. Twins. Sola and Luna. Their parents, knowing their children would be taken by the Shadow Elves, begged her not to tell, and she’d agreed.
But their snoopy neighbor was not so kind. The Shadow Elves came for the two babies, and while the parents held the soldiers off, sacrificing their lives for their daughters, Grandmother escaped with Sola and Luna.
She knew she wouldn’t last long with two tiny babies, obviously twins, in this cruel world of spies, so within a few days, she gave Luna to a passing band of rovers. Sola she kept for her own.
“And now, the Shadow Elves might know you are a twin, Sola.” Her voice was barely louder than the crackling of the fire in the stove. “If they do, if the guard tells…”
“Or Magilee,” said Sola.
Grandmother nodded, the slight movement radiating sadness. “If Magilee or the guard tell anyone, the Shadow Elves will never stop hunting you or Luna.” Her gnarled hand took Sola’s. “You need to go.”
“But go where? I don’t understand.”
“I will give you everything. All the rent money. All the food. It may be enough to get you away. Tarringstone might be far enough.”
“That’s days away. Weeks even. I’ll…” Tears choked Sola’s voice, and she forced her next words through a closing throat. “I may not see you again.” A short pause. “Come with me. I don’t care that we aren’t related by blood. You’ll always be my grandmother. Always.”
“And you will always be my beloved granddaughter,” Grandmother cried, standing up and moving around the table.
Sola stood and they wrapped their arms around each other, held each other close. If only she could stay in this moment forever, in Grandmother’s arms, safe and secure.
The clay cups rattled on the table, and both Grandmother and Sola looked down in horror. The thunder of countless hooves destroyed the quiet and made the earth tremble.
“They’re here, Sola,” Grandmother whispered. “They’ve come for you.”
From the way the cabin rattled, they must have sent an entire battalion for her. “What will they do with me?” Sola whimpered.
“Nothing,” Grandmother said, determination overriding the fear in her voice. “You’re leaving now, my dear.”
The hoof beats slowed as they reached the house. A horse snorted. Tack jingled.
Grandmother strode to the corner of the cabin, and with strength Sola didn’t know she had, the old woman shoved Sola’s bed over a few feet, then leaned down to the floor. “Come. Quickly.”
Boots stamped outside as soldiers dismounted. Someone bellowed, “Ready weapons!”
What would they need weapons for, with only a girl and an old woman in the house? Sola raced to Grandmother’s side just in time to see her jerk open a trap door.
“Follow the tunnel. When you reach the end, don’t look back. Just run. Promise me.”
Sola lowered herself into the hole, then looked up into Grandmother’s pale face. What would they do to her wonderful Grandmother when they realized Sola had escaped? What price would she pay?
“Promise me, Sola.”
Sola nodded. “I love you, Grandmother. I love you with everything I am.”
Grandmother reached down to brush Sola’s cheek. “And I you, my dear, dear Sola. You are my life.”
Heavy footfalls battered the porch. Without being told, Sola ducked down.
Grandmother dropped the trapdoor and pulled the bed back into place. The bed springs squeaked over Sola’s head. Grandmother had lain down on Sola’s bed, pretending it was her own.
The door crashed open. Grandmother exclaimed in faked and groggy surprise, as if she’d just awakened. Men shouted, and the floorboards above Sola shook and groaned under their boots.
What were they doing up there? Poor Grandmother, alone in the maelstrom. If only there was something Sola could do to help – but there was only one thing that she could do to make the situation better. Escape. Grandmother would probably make up some story about Sola not coming home that night, or say she’d gone out to visit friends.
Of course, they wouldn’t believe her immediately. They’d search the cabin – and they’d notice the two mugs on the table! Then they’d know to search more thoroughly, would find the trapdoor, open it, and see her – unless she left. She needed to do exactly as Grandmother told her: go down the tunnel and escape to the woods. Grandmother would come up with a logical explanation for the extra mug of tea.
Sola reached into the darkness with trembling fingers. Where was the tunnel? Dust filtered down between cracks in the boards, as the soldiers searched the tiny cabin. A giant sneeze swelled inside Sola’s nose, making her eyes smart. Which way should she go? All she could feel was cold, damp earthen walls.
Finally, her seeking fingers found emptiness. The way out! Wishing she could see anything at all, Sola shuffled into the tunnel, both her hands and feet on the ground, her knees bent. It was an awkward way to move but at least this way, she wouldn’t trip over rocks or clods of dirt, or hit anything overhead. The tunnel ceiling was probably as tall as Grandmother because she was the one who’d dug it – and for this very reason: to save her. Grandmother had always been there to save her.
Yells echoed down the tunnel after her, followed by a loud crash. The soldiers seemed to be tearing their house apart. Sola shuffled faster, reached a wall, and almost panicked until she realized it was a corner. She hurried on, her breathing filling the tight space, loud and relentless. Another wall in front of her. Another corner? No. A dead end.
But Grandmother had told her to leave the tunnel. There had to be a door. Sola felt the clammy walls around her, but detected nothing door-like. Unless the exit was overhead, another trapdoor.
With her hands raised, she straightened. There it was! She pushed up on the wood. The trapdoor didn’t budge. Fighting her panic with her every shred of inner strength, Sola felt around the frame. There had to be a latch.
A distant knocking sound floated down the tunnel, and suddenly a faint, almost imperceptible light travelled along the earthen walls – but Sola hadn’t opened her escape route to let in any light. She glanced behind her. The light was stronger at the turn in the tunnel.
They were coming!
A scream of panic rose in her throat, aching to escape, and she looked wildly at the trapdoor. Maybe she could claw her way through like a wild animal. Maybe she could…
“Calm down, calm down,” she whispered. “Calm down and think, think, think.” Grandmother would expect her to keep a clear head. Grandmother had faith in her that she didn’t have in herself.
And no way could she let Grandmother down.
The light grew brighter in the tunnel behind her – and suddenly she could see the latch! Voices echoed around her, so close, too close!
She opened the latch, then pushed the heavy wood door up and open. Moments later, she stood in the forest, the cold night breeze caressing her bare arms, trickling through her hair. The thicket of small trees was the perfect place for Grandmother to put the exit to her tunnel. Sola lowered the trap door into place as quietly as possible, then hurried away – and promptly tripped over a branch, half hidden by the undergrowth beside the trap door. No, not a branch. A wooden bar. A carved wooden bar. Could it have been left there on purpose? Like to slide between those two metal loops on each side of the trap door?
The bar slid into the metal circles perfectly. And none too soon. She could hear the soldiers below now, their voices coming up through the ground like muffled moanings of the dead.
A loud thump sounded and the trap door shuddered beneath the heavy bar. Someone yelled, and the door shook again. They were trying to break through!
Sola backed away quickly, her heart racing. She had to escape into the woods before the other soldiers heard and came spilling from the cabin.
A soft whinny floated through the night. Sola crouched to the ground, and searched the darkness. Something moved to her right. A hoof stamped. A head bobbed up and down. The Shadow Elves’ horses were tied to the trees near the house.
And one of them was not just any horse. Sola could feel it in her bones, in her blood. One glistened red-gold and had a star in the center of her forehead. Terra.
Sola knew instantly what she had to do, though she had no idea how she knew. And she had to be fast. In mere seconds, the Shadow Elf soldiers in the tunnel would tell the others she’d escaped. Two or three measly horse guards were nothing compared to the multitude that would soon swarm her yard.
Bending low, she crept toward the herd. Terra was easy to spot. She was pulling at the end of her reins and tossing her head in frustration. She knew her girl was there and wanted to join her.
Sola took a deep breath and gathered her courage, then dashed across the clearing around her home, not taking time to avoid the patch of light that shone through the window. There was no time for caution.
A moment later, she reached the mare and untied her reins from the branch. An arrow whizzed by her head, sinking into the tree trunk beside her. A shadow lurched from the woods, a crossbow in his hands. The horse guard loaded another arrow and took aim – but he was too late.
Sola had never ridden a horse before but she’d seen it done and she trusted Terra. She grabbed the pommel of the saddle and pulled herself up.
Yells erupted from the house and tall, lithe figures gushed from the doorway. Terra leaped toward them, striking and biting, and scattered the soldiers like a hawk diving through a flock of sparrows.
Once the Shadow Elves fell behind them, the red gold mare raced into the woods at breakneck speed, dashing around trees, leaping over bushes, as Sola held onto her mane with a death grip. The yells behind them became distant as the soldiers sought their mounts.
Long after the sounds of pursuit faded, Terra continued her mad gallop. Sola didn’t know how the horse could see anything but was infinitely thankful that she obviously could. They galloped for what seemed hours beneath the dark boughs and burdened sky, but finally, Terra slowed to a lope, then a trot, then a walk. The moon broke free of the clouds just as the mare stepped from beneath the forest’s cover and into a meadow – and Sola recognized the same meadow where she and Terra had first connected, only two days before.
Sola took up the reins in stiff fingers, and gently pulled back. Terra stopped, breathing hard, and Sola slid from her back. Her legs almost folded when she touched the ground, so she leaned on the mare’s solid side. Terra reached around to nuzzle her.
“Thank you girl,” Sola whispered, swallowing her tears. Now that they were out of danger, everything seemed far too much. Grandmother wasn’t her real grandmother. The Shadow Elves were hunting her and would never stop until they had her. She was a fugitive and an orphan, her parents killed by the Shadow Elves because they’d tried to save her. They were dead, because of her… and because of her sister. Luna.
Her twin would be in danger as well. If the Shadow Elves had come for Sola so quickly, then surely they’d be after Luna too, but they would need time to find the rover camp. Sola knew where it was; she could warn them to leave before the soldiers arrived.
The moonlight faded, and Sola looked up, expecting to see clouds moving back across its full face. Instead, a dark bite grew in the top right side of the orb.
The moon was being eclipsed.
A shiver jagged down Sola’s spine. Was it a sign that something bad had happened to Luna? Was she too late with her warning?
But the dark shadow was already passing. It had only been a partial eclipse – and if it was a sign, maybe it meant that things could’ve been a lot worse.
Sola climbed back into Terra’s saddle. She needed to warn Luna, and quickly – and, to be honest, she wanted to do more than warn her. She wanted to see her again, to get to know her better, despite how terribly brusque and forceful she’d seemed. Maybe the rovers would even let her stay with them until the elves thought the twins were long gone. Then she could come back, find Roan and Rory, and ask them about Grandmother. Even in this world of spies, she was sure they could be trusted.
Again, Sola relied on Terra to carry her safely across the wild meadows and through the tangled forests. She did her best to keep the mare moving in the right direction, or what she thought was the right direction, and was surprised when minutes passed and there was still no sign of the rover camp. She patted Terra’s damp shoulder. “Just a little farther, and then we’ll find some high ground and look for a campfire,” she murmured.
Terra nickered in response, and moved into a lope as they entered a clearing in the woods. She slowed again when she reached the forest, and wove her way through the tree trunks. The breeze rustled the leaves above them and Terra’s hooves beat in time, making a magical song. A cricket chirped in the distance. And Sola heard singing. She pulled back on the reins. No, she wasn’t imagining it. Someone truly was singing, a simple, sad melody. She’d found the rover camp.
The firelight, glancing off tree trunks, was the first warm sight to greet her. Then she saw the horses, lined up next to the camp, some being loaded with gear, some being saddled. In the camp itself, almost all the gaily colored tents were packed up. Only a few pots remained beside the campfires. The rovers were preparing to move on.
As if she understood the command, Terra stopped. A woman with wild red hair hurried toward them. “Luna? What are you doing now? I told you to gather the goat herd.”
“I…” How could Sola tell them? Her gaze darted from one disinterested face to another. They all thought she was Luna.
The woman put her hands on her hips. “And where did you get that horse? It’s wearing army tack. Haven’t you gotten us in enough trouble?”
“Mother, I’m here.”
Both the red-haired woman and Sola turned toward the voice. Luna stood at the edge of the clearing, goats milling around her, Mari standing behind.
“Luna?” The woman turned back to Sola. Her mouth dropped open.
“They found me. They’ll be coming here too.” They were the only words Sola could think to say, and they explained everything. This woman, if she was Luna’s adoptive mother, already knew Luna was a twin.
Or did she? Maybe Grandmother hadn’t told her. Maybe she’d simply said she couldn’t take care of any child herself.
All the rovers stared at her now, and open fear lingered on some of their faces. Obviously, many, if not all of them, hadn’t known. And now that they did, they didn’t want her here – or possibly Luna either. What had she done?
“You’re her sister,” the woman whispered.
“I’ll go now.”
As Luna’s mother approached, Sola put her hand up in a useless attempt to hide her tears.
“Get off the horse.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Sola choked out. “I just wanted to warn you.” She tugged on Terra’s rein – but the rein hardly moved. The woman held it.
“Get off the horse, child. Now.”
Sola slid from Terra’s back, tears blinding her to everything but the brightness of the nearest campfire. There was only one reason to make her dismount. They were going to take Terra away from her; horses were the rovers’ pride and joy, after all. Everyone knew that. She was going to be alone once again.
Suddenly the woman’s arms were around her, pulling her into a gentle hug. “Don’t be so frightened, little one,” she murmured. “We will not hurt you.”
“But I’m a twin.”
The woman’s body shook a little as she laughed. “I guess I figured that out already. You’re also my daughter’s sister. That makes you my daughter too.”
Sola wasn’t sure when she put her arms around Luna’s mother and hugged her back. She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, sobbing out loud like a baby. The only thing she cared about was that these people weren’t going to abandon her. They were going to help her and protect her, and Luna too.
She was not alone.
Within the hour, the rovers finished packing and moved out, five groups in five different directions. That way, any pursuers wouldn’t know who to follow, plus smaller groups could evade and lose trackers more easily.
Before Sola rode from the clearing, she stopped Terra. On the other side, from a different group, Luna watched her from Mari’s back. They hadn’t had more than a few seconds to say hello before they’d been put to work packing, extinguishing campfires, and collecting livestock – and now they’d have to wait a bit longer before they could talk.
But soon they’d have all the time in the world. The five groups planned to meet in one week in a secret place known only to the rovers.
Sola gave Luna a little wave, and Luna’s mouth tightened, then she turned Mari away, and followed her group into the forest. Sola shook her head, and sighed. Surely her sister would come around in time.
She looked up at the cloud-choked sky. No moon in sight now. No moon to light their way. No moon to reveal their trek through the forest as they escaped.
No moon to shine down on Grandmother and give her hope.
“Please take care of her. Keep her safe until I can come back,” she whispered to the looming clouds, then looked down to straighten Terra’s golden mane. “Time to go.”
The red gold mare nickered and carried Sola into her new life.
Talismans of Thunder Series: Volume 2
Mari raised her head high and stared into the night. Luna slipped her hand over the blue-grey mare’s nose so she’d know not to make a sound, then held her own breath to listen. Mari shook her head, protesting Luna’s hand on her muzzle, and her long mane tickled the bare skin on Luna’s neck.
Luna moved her hand to Mari’s shoulder. Listened harder.
Nothing. She could hear nothing. But something was there. Mari had heard it, and Luna would be a fool if she ignored her mare’s signal, especially since she was on watch. The safety of the camp, or at least this side of it, was her responsibility. Luna patted her mare’s muscled shoulder, and Mari bent her head around to bump Luna with her muzzle.
A twig snapped in the darkness. Some leaves brushed together. Someone crept through the woods, not toward her and Mari, but along the edge of the clearing where her people camped. Luna shrank back against Mari’s solid body, her thoughts in a whirl. What should she do? Alert the camp? What if the intruder was some sneaking Shadow Elf or dwarf? Even another human could be dangerous. Far too many worked as spies for the dark-souled Shadow Elves.
Or should she investigate before waking the camp? The intruder could be a rabbit or deer or fox. Even a wolf would be harmless unless it was in a pack, and from the sound of it, this was a single creature.
Yes, instead of possibly having people get angry with her – or angrier than they already were – she’d investigate the intruder and make sure any threat existed before disturbing the camp.
Luna gave Mari a quick hug, then bent low and hurried toward the subtle rustlings with ease, despite the pitch dark of the forest. She’d never understood why she felt more at home in the night than anywhere else, but she did. She had signed up for night watch as soon as she was old enough, and always regretted when the end of her shift came. Her sixth sense of feeling rather than seeing things around her in the dark was a “gift” according to her mother.
No, not mother. Not really. Leeatha was the woman who’d taken pity on an orphaned baby, and decided to raise her as her own.
Pushing turmoil from her mind, Luna darted behind a huge fir, then skirted the thicket of wild roses that she sensed before her. Then came a flat space – a rock or cleared ground. Yes, there it was, a smoothness beneath her feet. And on the other side of the rock, a cedar tree with low branches, easy to hide beneath.
She hunkered beneath the cedar, listened again. The intruder still moved steadily around the camp. Getting close enough to sense it might be too dangerous, but if she got behind it, she might see the shape of it outlined by the camp’s light. She stepped eagerly forward – and snapped a twig.
The footsteps stopped.
Luna held her breath, strained to hear any rustle, any whisper of movement. Silent moments slid by. Was it sneaking up behind her? She moved back against the cedar tree, and immediately felt safer. Slowly, she turned her head side to side, scanned the darkness, reached out with every sense.
How silly could she get? No one was sneaking up on her because nothing could move that quietly through the woods, unless it was magic. The cold fingers of terror tracing down her spine were a reaction to the pressure of weeks on the run, that’s all.
More rustling. Luna drew in a deep controlled breath. Her target was on the move again. Sudden hysterical, relieved laughter tried to burst from her mouth. What was wrong with her? Was she turning into her twin sister? Weak and afraid of shadows. She really needed to get a grip.
Luna stole toward the rustling noises again. Around another tree, through a patch of fern. Her eyes raked the forest in front of her. She could see the camp through the gaps between trees now, the faint light of the dying central fire beyond them. A few people sat at the fire; some of their mouths moved, but they were too far away to hear.
A stump near the edge of the forest moved, looming tall right before her eyes!
No, not a stump. A man! Human, most likely, though it was hard to tell when he didn’t hold still for more than a moment, hunching over as he darted between tree trunks. Suddenly, he tripped, and ran head first into the tree. Clutching his head with both hands, he curled into a ball and groaned.
Luna’s gaze darted to the rovers around the dying fire. They hadn’t heard him. But someone had. A tent, right next to the forest, lifted its door flap. Before Luna could call a warning, an arm stuck out of the tent and motioned the man inside. The man stumbled toward the tent, still dazed, and a moment later, disappeared inside. The door flap dropped closed. The man had to be a rover.
Luna rose, intent on returning to Mari, but a new thought made her pause. If the man was a rover, why was he sneaking around? He could stride straight across the clearing without raising even the slightest hint of suspicion, so why creep around through the woods?
She silently wound her way closer to the edge of the forest, closer to the tent, and hunkered down to listen. At first there was nothing but the faint sigh of unintelligible whispers floating through the night – whispers that she strained to hear despite the hollow feeling in her stomach that warned her she’d rather not know what the whisperers were saying. They sounded too sinister, their tone reeking of secrecy and deceit.
Unless she was imagining it. Perhaps recent events had made her too suspicious, even paranoid. After all, her life had been completely turned upside down after she showed up.
She was Luna’s sister, Sola, an identical twin that Luna didn’t know she had until they ran into each other on the street in Alantrax just a fortnight ago. In that moment, Luna had known instantly that her life would never be the same again. Being a twin was not just bad luck. It was the worst luck. Popular rumors said twins brought death, disease, the wrath of the Shadow Elves, and everything else bad that a person could possibly imagine.
And her premonition had turned out to be true. After Sola vaulted into her life, she’d become a pariah to her own people. They might be too polite to say much, but she saw it in the way they looked at her, in how no one wanted to stand next to her, in how they all avoided talking to her. People that she’d known for her entire life were suddenly nervous in her presence. Fear glinted behind their eyes and lived in the curve of their strained smiles.
A twig snapped behind her and Luna gasped. Soft thuds followed. Familiar thuds. Mari had come looking for her. She’d forgotten to tell the mare to stay back.
Mari bumped Luna with her nose as she drew alongside and the girl put her hand on the mare’s neck, begging her to be quiet – as she wondered why she cared so much. She had a right to be there. So what if the whispering rovers caught her with her horse at the perimeter of the camp? She was on watch, which meant she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
The tent flap lifted again. A candle glimmered, a tiny pinprick of light in the thick darkness. Behind it, a black shadow. Luna jutted her chin and squared her shoulders. Let them see her. She wasn’t afraid.
The whisperer stood still, silent. Listening.
The tent flap fell closed.
Luna scowled at the tent, part of her aching for confrontation. If only she could let out her anger at all the half-smiles and guarded looks and whispers behind her back.
Strummed notes ascended sweetly from the group at the fire, and automatically Luna looked for her brother. A sharp pang pierced her heart. Of course he wasn’t there. She hadn’t seen Brenn for two weeks now, and she missed him terribly. When Sola had appeared in their camp, the rovers had split into groups and taken off in different directions, hoping to throw the Shadow Elves off the trail of the twins. Sola had gone with Brenn and Luna’s parents.
Luna clenched her fists at her sides. She had to stop calling them that! They weren’t her real parents. They weren’t her family at all, and no matter how much she loved them, that fact wouldn’t change. Her real parents were long dead, killed by the Shadow Elves for trying to hide her and Sola as babies.
Luna turned Mari away to continue their rounds, but stopped short when the occupants of the tent began to argue, their voices rising above their seditious whispers.
“Shadow Elves… Kill… What if… Twins.”
It was Adere. Luna recognized the woman’s normally boisterous voice, although right then it sounded frightened and small. Sadness washed through Luna’s mind. Adere had taught her to use a bow when she was young, and just last month, they’d gone berry picking together. Luna only picked half a bucket of berries because she’d been too distracted by Adere’s hilarious stories. They’d laughed together until tears rolled down Luna’s cheeks. But that was all before Sola came.
More indistinct whispering followed and Luna found herself leaning forward trying to catch more. She smiled despite her sadness when she noticed that Mari’s attention was on the tent as well, her ears stiff at attention and her neck stretched forward. No matter how bad things seemed, at least she had Mari.
“No, I can’t…” Adere’s voice again.
“They’re dangerous!” Bitter and angry, the second rover’s voice rang out, then the volume dropped once again. But two words were all Luna needed to identify him. The second rover was Petre, a thoroughly selfish and dislikable man in her opinion, though she knew some would disagree with her.
Had Petre been calling the Shadow Elves dangerous, or her and Sola? Probably her and Sola. Otherwise, Adere would just agree with him.
So Petre was trying to turn Adere against her. Who else was he spilling his lies to? What else was he saying about her and Sola? A wave of nausea washed up Luna’s throat. Her own people were being pushed to betray her, not by Shadow Elves or dwarves or even other humans. They were being coerced by other rovers.
Luna swung up on Mari’s back, no longer caring what noise she made. The mare turned away eagerly with a tap on her side, and as they strode back through the trees, Luna forced her thoughts away from what she’d overheard. The words had stung, and she had no idea what to do about them, but right now she had a job to do. Her people’s safety depended on her. Maybe Mother… Leeatha would have some advice. Or Koel. When they arrived.
Her splinter group had been the first to reach the meeting place three days ago, and every day more groups arrived. Most were those that had split off from her own clan, but a few were from other rover groups arriving early for the Moon Festival, the annual gathering of all the rover clans. Every day Luna waited for Brenn and her former parents, Leeatha and Koel, to show up with Sola – and so far, every day was a disappointment.
When Luna and Mari passed the whisperers tent a second time, all was quiet. Petre must have gone to his own tent, and Adere fallen asleep. The music from the other side of the clearing had gone quiet as well. Almost everyone had gone to their beds, leaving the last of the embers to wink out, one by one. She and Mari were alone in the welcome night, the only sounds the sigh of wind in the trees, the occasional murmur or quiet laugh or soft snore from the tents.
Suddenly, Mari’s muscles stiffened and she raised her head. Ears strained into the dark. Luna followed her gaze. All seemed quiet. Even so she continued to sweep her eyes over the impenetrable veil of black.
A distant flicker of light! Just one, between tree trunks. A mile or more away. Now gone.
Shadow Elf warriors, creeping toward her people with murder in their eyes?
Luna forced down the fear clogging her throat. It couldn’t be Shadow Elves. Mari’s senses were so much more attuned than hers, and the mare looked interested, not nervous. Besides, Shadow Elves wouldn’t announce their approach with a lantern – though it was possible they might think they were too far away to be seen clearly.
Luna let out a shrill whistle, one that resembled the night sparrow but with a slightly more drawn out trill at the end. A moment later, an answering whistle sounded. The watchman on the other side of the camp was warned. Now, to investigate.
Luna was sure to ask Mari to remain behind this time, then crept in the direction of the distant light. She’d be more maneuverable on her own. Besides, if she needed help, all she needed to do was call, and Mari would come – though honestly, Luna knew she’d never jeopardize her beautiful horse by calling her into danger.
Luna slipped from the cover of one tree to another, ducking branches that were too dark to see, stepping over roots she could feel were there.
When she reached the narrow pass, the light came back into view. Luna smiled. There wasn’t one light, but many, now quite close. They approached steadily from the east, drawn out in a line like a procession. Logic said they were probably rovers who’d been near the clearing when darkness fell, who then decided to risk traveling the last miles through the night. A band of merchants, thinking to sell wares at the Moon Festival, was possible too. And so was an army of Shadow Elves pretending to be Rovers until they got close enough to attack.
A buzzing noise filled Luna’s mind. She needed to see who they were before she made herself known. The first clang of horse hooves against rock reverberated through the night. They’d arrive within moments!
Quickly, she ran to the short cliff that made one side of the pass and began to climb. One handhold at a time, one safe spot after another to put each foot… Everything else had to leave her mind if she was going to climb quickly, safely. Breathing hard, she pulled herself up, up, up.
The sounds were louder now. Horses stumbling over stones. People grunting as they climbed up the slope. Small rocks sliding downward in tiny avalanches.
Luna pulled herself onto a ledge and looked back. Two and a half horses high, that’s how much she was above the trail below. If they looked up, they’d see her. She had to hide.
Close behind her, she felt a crevice, and slid into it, imagining how the shadows would wrap around her and hopefully hide her from the lantern light when it passed below.
She could sink back further into the crack but resisted the urge. She needed to be able to look out at the travelers. She needed to count them if they were Shadow Elves or dwarves or shifty-looking humans.
Then she’d need to get away unseen and alert the other guard with coded whistles.
The first horse and rider came into view. Too late to worry about it anymore.
Talismans of Thunder Series
Sun Catcher Series
Also Available by Angela Dorsey
The Time Thief
Horse Guardian Series
Whinnies on the Wind Series
Winter of the Crystal Dances
Spring of the Poacher’s Moon
Summer of Wild Hearts
Autumn in Snake Canyon
Winter of Sinking Waters
Spring of Secrets
Summer of Desperate Races
Autumn of Angels
Winter of the Whinnies Brigade
Grandmother says it’s too risky for Sola to help her in the city, so one day Sola secretly follows her – and accidentally startles Terra, a beautiful red mare who promptly throws the magical Shadow Elf riding her. Terrified beyond reason, Sola narrowly escapes his henchmen. Back home, Sola thinks everything is fine, but she’s wrong. Soon, she’ll meet Terra again, as well as a dark horse who seems to know her and a girl with an all too familiar face – her own! Too soon, the lies that shroud her life will be ripped away, including her own identity. If she isn’t who she thinks she is, then who is she? Written by: Angela Dorsey and Marina Miral