Sylvia in the Wilds
A Short Story
SYLVIA IN THE WILDS
by Liz Delton
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real.
Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons is
Copyright © 2017 Liz Delton
All rights reserved.
Edited by Jo Anderson
Cover photo by Justin Luebke, used under Creative Commons Zero license. Cover design by Liz Delton.
Seals for the Four Cities by Christopher Creed.
Table of Contents
Sylvia slammed the door to the glassworks shop on her way out, much harder than she’d meant to. Great, she fumed. She was stuck in Lightcity for two whole weeks.
All of her contracts would be pushed back now. She knew without a doubt she must wait—her contract with the Councilman from Skycity was worth more than the trouble—but what was she to do stuck here for two weeks?
Sure, there was enough time to head home to Meadowcity and back, but it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Four days trekking through the wilds just to get there, and she’d only have a few days at home before she would have to get back on the road. No, she would just have to wait here until the glassworker finished making the item she was to deliver.
She let out a great sigh as she turned up another narrow stone street and headed back toward the inn. The morning sun blinded her until she ducked into the shadows of the buildings on the northern side of the street.
Though it was Sylvia’s job as a Rider to deliver messages and packages throughout the Four Cities of Arcera, she had been looking forward to finishing up her contracts and heading home to Meadowcity for a much-needed break. It had been months since she’d stayed at home longer than a few days—and then only because her work brought her back there.
After retracing her earlier steps back to the inn, she spotted it down the familiar alley. It was hard to miss with its heavy wooden door painted black, and distinct window panes which were darkly tinted.
She pushed open the door to the Charred Oak, and inhaled the tempting scent of freshly baked bread. She had skipped breakfast, hoping to be out of the city with her package before mid-morning, so instead of returning to her room, she strode up to the counter where the innkeeper was pouring herself a cup of tea.
The woman spotted Sylvia as she raised the cup to her lips and she took a sip, closing her eyes briefly.
“Morning, m’dear,” the innkeeper said, setting down her cup. “Will you be needing a bit of food for the road? When did you say you were setting out?”
The stout woman turned around and began neatly slicing some bread and cheese on a low counter.
“I’m not anymore,” Sylvia told her, “I’ll be staying,” she added as the woman turned back, heel of bread in one hand and knife in the other.
The woman’s face changed from its brow-furrowed look of concentration, to a kind expression of understanding as she set down the knife. “Ah, the life of a Rider,” she said knowingly. “Never know what to expect, do you?”
Sylvia returned the smile. “It keeps me guessing,” she agreed as she settled onto a stool in front of the counter.
Without a word, the innkeeper handed over the plate of fresh bread, sliced cheese and sausages. Sylvia grinned and dug in.
The inn was quiet except for her own chewing and the sound of the innkeeper clinking glasses together as she dusted around them. Sylvia had arrived late last night, and the innkeeper—Sylvia recalled that her name was Aurora—had told her she’d be the only one staying that night. It wasn’t entirely unusual; Riders were constantly traveling between the cities and didn’t stay in one place long.
There were only a handful of inns in each of the Four Cities to house visiting Riders, since so few were drawn to the dangerous life on the road. Sylvia was sure there would be at least another Rider in the inn by this evening. She had met plenty of other Riders on days like these, swapping stories and talking of the trails long into the night.
Just as she stuffed the last of her breakfast into her mouth, and was reaching for the cup of tea Aurora had poured her, the door of the inn burst open.
Instead of a travel-weary Rider, though, the morning sun silhouetted a small child in the doorframe. As the child stepped into the light, Sylvia realized it was a little girl, whose hair was flying askew, and whose stockings were pulled unevenly up her legs.
The little girl leaned heavily on the doorknob, catching her breath as though she had been running.
“What’s wrong?” Sylvia asked, hopping down from her stool.
The girl peered into the inn, which was much darker than the sun-lit street. She spotted Sylvia and Aurora, and trudged inside.
“I—my sister—” she squeaked, and tears began to slide down her pudgy cheeks. Sylvia thought she couldn’t be more than four or five.
Sylvia dropped to a crouch and met the girl’s wide blue eyes as the innkeeper rushed around the counter, making soothing hushing noises. Sylvia reached out and took the girl’s hand; her own sister Sonia wasn’t much older than this little girl.
“What’s wrong?” she repeated softly.
The little girl gave a sniff, drawing a hand up to bat at her wet cheeks. “My sister says she’s going out into the wilds,” she got out, before her words turned into sobs.
“Where’s your sister now?” Sylvia asked, trying to keep her voice calm.
“Home,” the girl blurted between bouts of nose-blowing. Aurora had brought her a handkerchief, and was now coaxing the girl into a chair.
“How old is she?” Sylvia asked.
Sylvia grit her teeth. The girl could very well be training to become a Rider at that age, but it certainly wouldn’t be safe to go into the wilds alone, unless the girl was exceptionally skilled. Sylvia herself had only been allowed to leave Meadowcity alone when she was fifteen—something she had to convince her father, who had trained her, by demonstrating over and over that she could defend herself in the wilds.
The empty spaces between the cities weren’t just dangerous for their treacherous trails, steep cliffs and sometimes un-crossable rivers—but for the beasts that ruled there.
Many a trained Hunter or Rider had lost their life to a ravenous wolf or an angry mountain lion over the years. The humans who ventured out into the wilds were very much outnumbered. The wilds were unpredictable; beautiful, yet full of mystery. And Sylvia had never liked leaving a mystery unturned.
The thought of a thirteen-year-old girl trudging out alone sent Sylvia back to a stand. Her legs tingled unpleasantly as the blood began to redistribute itself. She turned to the innkeeper, eyebrows raised. “Do you know these girls?” she asked in an undertone.
Aurora raised one shoulder in half a shrug. “I’ve seen them before,” she replied, equally quiet. “Their parents are both Riders. I think they might both be out of the city at the moment,” she finished, biting her lip.
Sylvia turned back to the little girl. “What’s your name?” she asked softly.
“Gloriana,” she replied with a sniff.
“And your sister?”
“Well, Gloriana, you stay here with Aurora, alright? I’ll go talk to Maddy and make sure she doesn’t leave the city, okay?”
With a bob of her head, Gloriana settled herself into the chair, distractedly twisting the hem of her shirt.
Sylvia left quickly after Aurora told her where the girls lived. As she walked, she silently rehearsed the things she could say to the girl to keep her from going out into the wilds.
By the time she reached the villa Aurora had described, she thought she had worked up a pretty good argument. The trouble was, the girl had already left.
Sylvia clutched Maddy’s note in her fist as she paced back to the inn. The villa had been empty, except for the hastily penned note set in the center of the kitchen table, which left a poor explanation to the girl’s younger sister. Sylvia was furious.
The note said that Maddy’s parents had been gone for much too long. It also said that Maddy was going after them; she was, after all, beginning to train in the family profession.
There were plenty of explanations for her parents not returning in time—the setback Sylvia was currently experiencing in her own journey would have been enough to convince Maddy not to leave. Delays in item production, washed out trails in the wilds, or even things like losing a pack had all set her back at least once.
Sylvia reached the inn and hesitated by the black door. How would Gloriana react to this news? Just the threat of her older sister venturing into the wilds had sent her to find help, to the place she knew other Riders gathered. How would she take her sister’s actual disappearance?
She paused with her hand on the door, but didn’t have long to think. A tall man lumbered down the alley heading for the inn—another Rider coming in from the wilds. She swung the door open for him.
He was haggard, his clothes and shoes in disrepair from far too many days travelling. He had a slight limp, too. She held the door open, and he grunted his thanks. She followed him inside, dreading breaking the news.
The man collapsed into a seat by the fire and Aurora brought him some hot coffee and several slices of bread, which he tore into as if he hadn’t eaten in days—which was entirely possible, if his journey through the wilds had been difficult.
She sidled over to Aurora, who had returned to her post behind the counter. Gloriana sat tightly wrapped in a blanket by the fire at the other end of the inn.
“She’s gone already,” Sylvia hissed to the innkeeper, trying to avoid Gloriana’s notice. Aurora put a hand to her heart and glanced at the little girl in worry.
“I’m going to try and find her,” Sylvia told her, already having made up her mind.
The stout woman’s brow creased in worry. “Are you sure? Why don’t you ask ole’ Jamesfeld to take a look for the girl?” The innkeeper jerked her chin to indicate the grizzly older man now warming his hands around his coffee cup and staring into the fire. “He’s from Lightcity. Bound to know the girl’s parents, anyway.”
“He looks like he’s seen a lot of the wilds lately,” Sylvia hedged, “and I don’t want to bother him.”
“Nonsense,” Aurora said, and raised her voice, “Jamesfeld! Come here a minute, I want a word with you.”
With no change in his sullen expression, Jamesfeld took a last gulp of his coffee, heaved himself back to his feet, and shuffled over, the limp pronounced as he navigated to the counter.
“What?” he grunted.
The innkeeper wasn’t troubled at all by the man’s gruffness. Completely unfazed, she dove right in and explained Maddy’s disappearance.
Sylvia, beginning to feel as if Aurora thought she wasn’t up to the task, jumped in once the innkeeper finished. “I was going to go and find her,” she offered, finding her voice weaker than she had intended when she looked into Jamesfeld’s lined and bearded face.
The older Rider let out what might have been a laugh or a grunt, Sylvia wasn’t sure. She saw Aurora give Jamesfeld a somewhat pleading look.
He cleared his throat. “I’m not going back out there,” he said bluntly. “There’s a pack o’ wolves gathered out to the west, between here an’ Riftcity. I couldn’t even get around ‘em—two of ‘em cornered me in a ridge where I turned my ankle,” he gestured needlessly to his foot. “I’m too old to go looking for a fledgling Rider, anyway.”
Aurora looked unhappy, and began slicing more bread forcefully on the wooden counter.
“Where’s she gone, anyway?” Jamesfeld demanded.
“We’re not sure,” Sylvia admitted. She gazed over to where Gloriana sat with her back to them, and felt her heart wrench.
She already had a plan. “I’m going over to the gate. Hopefully someone there can tell me where her parents were headed when they left—maybe Maddy will try to follow them.” Let’s just hope it wasn’t toward Riftcity and the wolf pack, she added to herself.
* * *
“Will you tell Gloriana I’m going out to look for Maddy?” Sylvia pleaded to Aurora ten minutes later, after she had gathered her things from the room she had rented.
The innkeeper nodded, but it was Jamesfeld who shuffled over to sit with the little girl by the fireside and began talking to her in a low murmur. Sylvia slipped out of the door without another word.
Despite her worry and anger over Maddy, the day was clear and bright, and the warm summer air wove lazily through the lanes as she headed toward the city’s main gate.
Sylvia didn’t think the Gate Keepers would have a record of Maddy’s departure, but they were sure to know where the girls’ parents had gone. It would at least give her an idea where Maddy might be headed.
Surrounded by a three-foot-thick stone wall, Lightcity was as protected from the wilds as any of the other Four Cities. Keeping citizens inside wasn’t a priority, as the empty lands with their roving beasts were enough of a deterrent for most.
She wasn’t sure how she would begin to track Maddy once she had some direction. She wished her friend Ven were here, but he was back in Meadowcity. Not only would he have made good company, but he was a skilled tracker; he made a fine living off what he caught in the wilds.
The main gate suddenly loomed above her, jerking her out of her thoughts. She had walked halfway across the city without knowing it.
Several Gate Keepers stood at attention on either side of the open gate, their attention focused on the wilds outside. Both massive wooden doors were flung open to the wide plain before Lightcity, until nightfall, when the doors would be barred shut against the wilds.
It took less than a minute for the young Gate Keeper to find the entries in his log-book after Sylvia gave him the names Jamesfeld had told her.
“Magda went to Skycity, and Roald to Riftcity,” said the Gate Keeper.
Sylvia wasn’t at all surprised when he also told her he had no record of Maddy’s departure. She didn’t say anything further, not wanting to incriminate Maddy just yet. Leaving the city was certainly something that could get her in trouble with her parents who were training her, but it was the city council who regulated their trade. If they found out she was breaking rules before even becoming a fully trained Rider, it could jeopardize the girl’s career before it even began. Sylvia was reluctant to jump to conclusions until she spoke to the girl.
After thanking the Gate Keeper, she headed back into the city, not yet ready to set out into the wilds, nor knowing what she wanted to do next. She barely noticed the shops and villas she passed as she walked, only the stones at her feet, and the bits of decorative glass embedded alongside them.
She thought back to her own Rider training, which had involved many maps and drawings at first—nothing very exciting until her father had led her on her first expedition out into the wilds. But she had waited. Perhaps Maddy hadn’t heard all the stories of disappearances and danger Sylvia had while growing up. Sylvia had heard enough of her father’s tales of near-misses—the tales that made her mother go quiet as he told them. But now her father was safely retired, and Sylvia kept those kinds of stories to herself, not wanting her parents to worry. Perhaps she would tell a few of those stories to Maddy once she found her. It seemed like she needed a good scare.
Finding herself nearing the inn, she turned away, not wanting to face Gloriana, Aurora or Jamesfeld just yet. Instead, she went back to Gloriana and Maddy’s villa. She didn’t go inside, but lingered at the door, thinking.
If she wanted to head to Riftcity or Skycity, she would leave by the main gate—it pointed west. Maddy must have left her villa right after Gloriana left for the inn, knowing Gloriana would be involving other Riders, and wanting to escape before anyone could stop her.
The feel of the sun-warmed door on her back was pleasant as she surveyed the surrounding neighborhood, thinking. She peered down the alley to her left, and with a small jolt, realized what she was looking at. The next lane over was a wider, main street lined with shops—which led to the warehouse district and out of the city near the quarry.
She pushed herself off the door and headed down the street, passing one glassworks shop after another. She kept her eyes from straying toward the fabulous displays of glasstech that Lightcity’s glassworkers were famous for—though she had been thinking of getting her father a new firestarter for a Summer’s End gift. It would have to wait.
There were few people about; most citizens were already well into their day’s work, and those who weren’t showed no desire to rush on this clear summer day.
Past the shops stood the warehouses where the glassworkers stored the raw materials used to make their fantastic creations: compounds, chemicals, and the raw limestone from the quarry used in glassmaking.
She was almost positive no one would have seen Maddy go out this way, but Sylvia was beginning to think that this was exactly the way she would leave the city if she wanted to be stealthy about it.
The gate at this end of the city was less ornate, but no less formidable. It towered high above the city’s wall, its doors flung open wide to the east. Gate Keepers were posted here, too, but there was no official record of the people who passed through—there were too many that went in and out to work in the quarry, and Riders didn’t normally leave this way.
Sylvia stopped to speak with the Gate Keepers, though her hopes were not high.
“A girl about your age?” the whisker-faced man posted on this side of the gate inquired after she had given him the description.
“A little younger, yes,” Sylvia replied reluctantly.
He reached up to smooth his mustache and thought about it. “Can’t say I’ve seen ‘er,” he finally concluded.
Sylvia huffed a little. No, it wouldn’t be that easy.
“Who’re you looking for?” a bald head poked around the gate, revealing a tall but thin Gate Keeper posted outside. “A girl?”
“What are you talking about, Morten?” the skinny Gate Keeper said. “‘Member that girl with the loaded pack headed out about an hour ago?”
Morten let go of his mustache and peered around at his fellow Gate Keeper, who continued. “‘Member I said she looked a little young to be a Rider?”
Sylvia straightened, her shoulders stiffening, but said nothing. “Ohh, now I remember,” Morten told her, resuming his mustache stroking. The other Gate Keeper rolled his eyes at Sylvia good-naturedly, and returned to his post, but kept one eye on the conversation and one on the wilds beyond the gate.
“She went through without a word,” Morten went on. “I said to Brown, here,” he jerked his thumb at his companion. “I said, ‘no manners these days in these young ones’. Not so much as a ‘Good morning’ or, ‘Hello’ or a wave, even.”
Sylvia snorted at this. “Do you know which way she went?”
“North,” he replied after a moment. Sylvia looked to Brown, who nodded in confirmation.
“Well,” Sylvia said, more to herself, “That settles it.”
Brown and Morten exchanged a look.
“Good morning, gentleman,” she called, and strode north out the gate.
Sylvia found no trace of footsteps leading off the path, but she was sure Maddy had gone this way. She left the path and trudged parallel to the city’s wall, hoping against hope that Maddy would have chosen the shorter route and headed after her mother and Skycity. Though still dangerous for an unexperienced Rider, at least she wouldn’t be walking straight into the wolf pack that chased Jamesfeld.
The wilds were the beasts’ territory, ever since the Four Cities had been founded, when the people had retreated behind their walls to rebuild after the chaos and emptiness that followed the world wars.
Sylvia sometimes wished the cities hadn’t been built so far away from each other, and that the people hadn’t merely let the land in between grow wild and let the predators take over, but it was so long ago that she knew there could have been a dozen good reasons for it at the time. A thousand years was a long time for people to forget the reason things were done. She didn’t even know why those who trudged across the wilds were called Riders. And sure, the wilds were dangerous, but that was what made being a Rider a skill, and not just a profession.
She also thought it a shame that only the Riders got to see the other cities, for they were all so unique. Although she had seen the perfectly carved Grand Staircase of Riftcity, which separated the two stone faces the city was carved out of, and she’d seen Skycity perched high upon its mountain, she still preferred Meadowcity’s earthen villas surrounded by the old treewall, with its trees planted one next to another around the city.
But the freedom that allowed her to see all the Four Cities and their wonders came with a risk, a risk that Maddy hadn’t quite calculated.
Sylvia sincerely hoped Maddy was armed, and knew how to wield her weapon, because once she peeled away from the city’s wall and headed toward the forest to the north, she spotted something that made her reach for her own knife.
A mountain lion lay slumped on the mossy ground just inside the trees. Sylvia froze and sunk into a crouch. She had come across sleeping lions only rarely, and she knew well enough it was never a good idea to get too close. She was surprised this lion had come so close to the city. What had drawn it here?
Now out of sight from either of the city’s gates, she circled around the lion and into the trees, trying to get a better look at the thing. She had spotted something around its muzzle that she couldn’t tell whether it was a shadow—or blood.
Was it dead or asleep? She wasn’t at all keen on waking it if it were asleep, but she decided that she definitely needed to figure out if that was blood or not.
Glad she was wearing her soft-soled leather boots, she silently crept over the thin layer of dead leaves. A breeze rolled across the plain between the trees and the city, stirring the lion’s fur and a few leaves at the edge of the wood. Sylvia froze again, waiting and watching.
The lion didn’t stir. She was close enough now to see that it wasn’t breathing, and she relaxed a little. She was also close enough to tell that it was indeed blood that coated the fur around the beast’s jaw. Her stomach gave an unpleasant swoop.
She drew closer without thought, and she scanned the area around her. Though she couldn’t tell what had killed this beast, she could see that it’s victim had left behind what was undeniably a large puddle of blood nearby.
“Maddy,” she gasped—yet desperately hoped at the same time that it wasn’t. Sylvia darted toward the puddle, skirting around the lion’s limp body. Whoever—or whatever— had killed this mountain lion was seriously wounded, judging from the size of the pool of blood gathered on the leaves. What were the chances it had been Maddy?
She could tell by the red drops leading from the puddle that the victim headed north after the attack. She refused to think it was Maddy until she knew for sure.
She rose back to her feet and walked a few paces away, taking deep breaths and looking skyward. Only a sunny sky beamed down upon her, despite the gory scene beside her. She took one last deep breath and squared her shoulders.
Her long blade ready at her side, she headed north, following the increasingly frequent drops of blood on the leaves. She moved quickly, her blade out in front of her as she half-ran half-walked through the trees.
The wilds were silent, and she kept her focus divided between following the unsettling crimson path and watching the woods around her for any other beasts that might be prowling nearby. It was second nature to her since becoming a Rider—the watchfulness that would keep her alive when outside the walls of the cities. The dead lion and the track of blood she was following were more than enough to set her on alert.
After twenty minutes of following the trail, her stomach had twisted itself into several tight knots. The droplets had become more frequent, heavier. Then she spotted a large smear of blood on a rock nearby. Just as she dropped down to examine it, though, she heard an almost silent rustle of leaves ahead. She whipped her head up.
There, far down the path, dripping blood, but focusing all its attention on the path ahead of it, was an enormous mountain lion. Nearly six feet long, it had a large gash on its side, no doubt from the jaws of the dead lion at the edge of the woods. Some distance ahead of it—about as much distance between Sylvia and the lion—walked a girl carrying a pack.
Sylvia stopped breathing, and her eyes widened at the sight. The mountain lion hadn’t noticed her—yet—and she jerked herself out of her brief stupor and began to follow it again, her mind racing.
Only one idea came to her, and she didn’t like it at all. It was against all of her instincts, but she would have to do it. She was sure Maddy wasn’t prepared to defend herself against this beast. She would have to draw its attention to herself instead.
She squeezed her hand so hard around the hilt of her knife that her nails bit into the edge of her palm.
Injured though it might be, this mountain lion was enormous. Sylvia watched it slink down the path, its head low, and movements as fluid as water. It was a wonder that the first lion had managed to injure it so severely. The first lion had paid for it, though, Sylvia thought, making herself shudder.
Completely oblivious, Maddy plodded along, over the well-worn track that most Riders took to go north to Skycity. The lion was gaining on her, though, and Sylvia would soon need to make a decision. She began to notice the energy coursing through her veins as adrenaline poured into her system.
It was a wonder that the girl didn’t look around, Sylvia thought wildly. How could she miss it? The beast was in clear sight behind her.
At once Sylvia looked directly behind herself, spotting nothing. She took a shaky breath, gathering her courage.
“Maddy!” she shouted, before she could change her mind.
The girl whirled around, her eyes popping wide as she spotted both the source of the unexpected voice, and the beast advancing down the path in between. The lion paused, a front foot hovering in mid-air as it flicked its head back to look at Sylvia. It glared at her with its intelligent amber eyes. Sylvia’s mouth was suddenly dry.
Maddy’s mouth opened in what looked like a silent scream, and Sylvia watched the lion hesitate as it considered the two humans.
Having sized herself up to be far shorter than Maddy, Sylvia assumed the lion would choose her, the smaller target, especially since Maddy had begun to climb a rise, leaving Sylvia and the mountain lion on the same level. To Sylvia’s absolute horror, the lion lunged toward the girl instead, discarding all of Sylvia’s careful logic.
She couldn’t run fast enough. Her legs felt as if they were pumping through a lake of molasses, instead of the short distance over the clear trail. The scene ahead had sped up to double-time, and Sylvia watched the lion reach the girl, who couldn’t get to her axe in time.
Sylvia’s heart beat against her ribs so hard it was as if it were trying to get out.
With a thump that was audible even over Sylvia’s feet pounding on the packed earth, the lion knocked Maddy to the ground.
Maddy savagely grabbed the mountain lion by the ears, a move that surprised Sylvia, and indeed, the lion itself. She kept the lunging jaw from her throat by a mere inch as it struggled to free itself from her grip.
With her long legs, she kicked the thing in the stomach, unknowingly aggravating the wound on its side.
It gave a tortured yowl and rolled off her. Sylvia finally reached them, and kicked the beast again in its side, making it retreat further from the pair of girls, where it collapsed to the ground, its wound now too much to bear.
Not yet sparing a glance for Maddy, Sylvia quickly approached the beast to remove the threat completely.
Sylvia shuddered when she turned her back on it. Though she didn’t feel bad for the murderous beast, she couldn’t very well leave it to stalk them back to Lightcity, even if it had been injured.
Maddy stood there, staring at the lifeless beast on the ground behind Sylvia. Her long hair had a few snarls and twigs already caught in it, and Sylvia watched as Maddy finally unhooked her axe from her pack and stuck it in her belt where she could reach it.
Before Sylvia could open her mouth, the girl began talking. “Thanks for that,” Maddy said. “But who are you? How do you know my name? I don’t think I’ve ever met you before. Are you a friend of my parents?”
The corner of her mouth quirking up, Sylvia answered when she was sure Maddy was done talking. “I’m Sylvia,” she said, and stuck out her hand. “Thorne,” she added as they grasped hands.
“I’m a Rider, from Meadowcity. I don’t know your parents, but…” she paused. “Your sister was worried about you—I was worried about you,” she added, when Maddy huffed and turned away.
“Gloriana doesn’t know anything,” Maddy retorted, crossing her arms tightly across her chest. “Mum and Dad have been gone weeks longer than they said they would—”
“Listen, Maddy—” Sylvia tried to interject before the younger girl raised her voice to echo through the trees.
“—And I can defend myself, you saw—”
“—If Gloriana sent you to bring me home, you can just go right back to Lightcity; I don’t need your help.”
Sylvia felt as if the girl had struck her. All of the arguments she had formed earlier seemed to pour out of her mind, useless.
Maddy turned back to look at Sylvia. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “And I appreciate you helping with the…” she jerked her head to where the mountain lion lay a few feet behind them.
“It’s alright,” Sylvia said warily. “But you shouldn’t be out in the wilds if you haven’t completed your training,” she added bluntly.
“And you have?” Maddy shot back, all hint of remorse gone. The girl threw back her shoulders, leaving no question as to who was taller.
“Yes, I have,” Sylvia said, affronted. “More than a year ago.”
Maddy narrowed her eyes at her. “What do you care if I’m out here?”
“It’s dangerous,” Sylvia enunciated the word slowly, gesturing clearly to the dead mountain lion behind her. “You had a six-foot lion stalking you for probably half an hour and you didn’t even notice.”
“I—” Maddy huffed, clearly rallying. “It was injured. I would have handled it fine without you.”
It was Sylvia’s turn to narrow her eyes this time. “Really,” she said. “And what happens when an uninjured, undistracted lion creeps up on you next time?”
“I’ll—I’ll be more careful now, I promise.”
Sylvia snorted. “You can’t just suddenly ‘be more careful’,” she scoffed. “And you’re not going any further; you’re coming back to Lightcity,” she said, injecting as much authority into the words as she could. She hitched her pack higher up on her shoulders, eager to get back to Lightcity. Those two weeks of boredom were looking much more appealing at the moment.
“Make me,” Maddy hissed.
Sylvia looked around incredulously, wondering what in Arcera she was supposed to do now. She sincerely regretted feeling resentful for being stuck in Lightcity—she would never wish for adventure again, she told herself.
The girl spun on her heel and returned to the path, her long legs carrying her with ease up the incline before Sylvia could do more than furrow her eyebrows and open her mouth to gape at her retreating back.
Maddy was almost to the top of the rise before Sylvia made up her mind. “Oh, no you don’t,” she growled, and followed.
After several hours of following the girl, Sylvia’s voice was hoarse from the constant one-sided argument she’d been having. As they came to the top of a small hill, she tried one more time.
“We can just go back now, and no one will know,” she offered.
Maddy flung herself down to sit on a rock, shaded by an enormous oak tree, and didn’t answer.
Sylvia huffed. She couldn’t very well leave the girl to wander the wilds alone. Sure, it was possible Maddy knew where she was going—maps were the first thing Sylvia had studied when training—but the beasts lurking in the wilds were as unpredictable as the weather. And there was no way she could return to face Gloriana and Aurora, having left Maddy alone in the wilds. She was good and stuck with the girl.
She flopped down to sit on the shaded grass, opening her water canister. Just as she did, Maddy rose and stretched, heading down the other side of the hill. Sylvia rolled her eyes and returned to her feet.
“Hey!” she called, “Do you think I’m doing this for fun? You could at least wait,” she hissed as she caught up.
Maddy continued to ignore her. Sylvia stifled a groan. She couldn’t take it anymore. She grabbed Maddy by the arm and whirled her around.
“I’m doing this,” Sylvia said through her teeth, “because I can’t go back to Lightcity and tell your sister I left you alone in the wilds. You know, the sister you left all alone when you decided to go do this?”
Maddy, who had been avoiding looking at Sylvia up until now, turned her face to meet hers. Sylvia squared her feet and returned the gaze with interest.
“If you’re coming with me anyway, would you stop lecturing me, then?” Maddy said coolly.
Having already thought the girl couldn’t get any ruder, Sylvia let go of her arm in surprise, mouth gaping. She hadn’t been like this when she was younger, had she?
“Maybe if you stopped acting like a child, I wouldn’t have to,” she shot back, after Maddy had started walking again.
The girl’s footsteps faltered by a fraction. Sylvia lunged at the opening in her attention.
“Clearly someone needs to lecture you. I wonder if your parents will want to continue your training after they hear about this little adventure.” The corners of Sylvia’s mouth began to turn up as she noticed Maddy’s pace slow.
“If they’re even alive,” the girl muttered, coming to a halt.
“I told you,” Sylvia said patiently. “Delays like this happen all the time to Riders. My journey just got pushed back two weeks, and there’s nothing I can do but wait.”
Nothing but follow fledgling Riders into the wilds so they don’t get themselves killed, she added to herself.
“Yeah, I guess,” Maddy muttered, turning her back to Sylvia again, and drawing the back of her hand under an eye.
Wondering whether Maddy meant she guessed that’s what could have happened, or she guessed they could go back to Lightcity, Sylvia shrugged and opened her water canister again. She set down her pack, and began searching for her rations, hoping that Maddy wouldn’t go running off again.
As she looked into her pack, though, her vision suddenly bloomed black, accompanied by a devastating pain at her temple.
The axe handle swam in her vision as she fell, and time slowed down long enough for her to silently curse the girl once more before her world went completely black.
* * *
Sylvia became slowly aware of an intense ache; her temples were throbbing painfully as she regained consciousness. Then, her eyes snapped open as she remembered.
She pushed herself up to sit, then gently probed her right temple. Her fingers came away clean, so at least she wasn’t bleeding.
Immediately she sought the sun and marked the positions of the shadows the trees made. They hadn’t moved much, if at all, so she hadn’t been out long. Maddy was nowhere to be seen on the hillside; she must have left at a run.
The fact that Maddy had left her where anything could find her kept her from immediately running after the girl. She wasn’t eager to help such a person.
After a few minutes trying to regain her senses, she realized she had to follow Maddy, no matter how she felt about it—the girl had stolen her pack. Sylvia checked that her knives were still in place, and yanked the one out of her boot after she got to her feet.
Sylvia was actually beginning to look forward to reporting Maddy to the Gate Keepers and the city council. She was without question out of control.
Still, she shouldn’t leave the girl out here, and she wanted her pack returned, so she trudged down the hillside, keeping her eyes peeled for signs of Maddy’s passage. More importantly, she watched for signs of any mountain lions or wolves in the area. She knew better than to get so distracted out in the wilds that she wouldn’t notice a mountain lion trailing her.
The trail itself didn’t give her any trouble; it had been a dry summer, but a recent rain had given the ground some moisture, and made Maddy’s footsteps easy to follow.
Anger fueled her for a while, feeding her energy as she reconsidered Maddy’s actions. As the day wore on, though, she grew hungry, especially when she realized how long ago her breakfast had been. Her stomach grumbled at the thought of food. She couldn’t believe Maddy had taken her pack and rations—not to mention the expensive tools Sylvia kept for her travels. If anything happened to her firestarter…
As it neared dusk, she began to look desperately through the trees for signs of Maddy, hoping the girl would be smart enough to safeguard herself during the time when the mountain lions were most active. All of the girl’s previous choices didn’t give Sylvia much confidence, however.
Darkness was drawing near when Sylvia finally caught up to Maddy. It had been unnerving to travel through the valley pass at sunset, her vision hindered by the sun shining directly into her eyes. She kept imagining the low form of a mountain lion slinking toward her through the glare, so she treaded carefully, her eyes straining to see as much as she could. She had no choice but to go forward.
Finally, the sun dipped below the horizon, and not long after, she spotted Maddy, Sylvia’s own pack bumping on the girl’s back. She narrowed her eyes and silently slunk toward her.
All of a sudden, Maddy stopped in her tracks and dropped to a crouch. Sylvia paused, worried Maddy had sensed her presence. She slipped behind a tree, but Maddy was still looking ahead—had the girl spotted something?
The shadows were gone now, and the dim grey light of twilight bathed the trees in the valley. A loud growl came from Sylvia’s stomach, and she clamped her hands over her torso. Maddy flicked her head back toward Sylvia’s direction, only twenty paces away, but quickly returned her attention to whatever had drawn her to a stop in the first place.
This would be a good time to sneak up on her, Sylvia thought. Get back at her for that hit on the head. She twisted her mouth into a wistful grimace. No, there was clearly something ahead she needed to know about first. She squeezed the knife in her hand reassuringly.
She clutched the bark and peered closer at Maddy, who was now rifling through Sylvia’s pack. Sylvia made a quiet noise of disgust at the girl’s careless treatment—she had all of her tools carefully organized in there, for easy access when she needed them on the trail.
Maddy’s hand emerged from the pack with Sylvia’s telescope, which the girl quickly extended and drew to her eye. Without another thought, Sylvia darted around the tree, and ran at a crouch to the next tree, and the next, until she was right behind Maddy.
She still couldn’t see what the girl was looking at, though. What had drawn her attention?
But then Sylvia saw it. Not far ahead, the pass opened up, the trail splitting between north and west. Just where the pass opened to the north, Sylvia could just barely see a swath of red and white cloth. It was unmistakably not a part of the landscape—and if she had a telescope in her hands, she might be prepared to bet the cloth was attached to a person. And it wasn’t moving.
Only feet from Maddy now, she heard the girl whisper, “Mom?” and then she stuffed the telescope unceremoniously back into the pack.
Sylvia hastily studied the rest of the landscape before plunging ahead. Her eyes darted over the mouth of the valley, searching for possible threats.
When she saw it, she felt as though she had been expecting it. The grey wolf stood rigid on a small hill outside the valley. Its companions—she noticed with a lurch—were scattered behind it, like ghosts in the trees.
Her breath exploded out of her at the realization that the pack from Riftcity might have moved on—and here it was. Had it followed the person up ahead?
Too late, Sylvia realized that Maddy had silently sped forward through the trees, unknowingly straight toward the pack.
Sylvia’s chest expanded painfully, as if her body thought more air would do her some good. What was she supposed to do now? At least this morning—had it really only been that morning?—the mountain lion had been injured, and there had only been one. This girl has a terrible knack for trouble.
Her eyes flew from one wolf to the next, counting. Eight. Eight large, well-fed wolves. Sylvia didn’t have time to spare a thought as to how these eight wolves were getting enough to eat, when normally the wolves were thin and desperate—making them all the more dangerous for the Riders.
Maddy was now running toward the figure on the ground, probably the worst thing she could do in the presence of wolves. Thoughts of reporting the girl flew out of Sylvia’s mind—Maddy was going to get herself killed before it came to that!
“Maddy!” she thundered, putting her hands beside her mouth to make the sound carry. She was eerily reminded of this morning. How many times would she have to rescue this girl?
Sylvia briefly wondered if they would both get through this, but thrust the thought aside as quickly as it had come. There was no time for thinking like that.
She forced herself to walk slowly and confidently toward the girl, but she was still far away. Running would only make the wolves want to chase.
Maddy looked incredulously around, but instead of spotting Sylvia, the girl finally noticed the wolves—because they were stalking straight towards her. She had slowed to a stop at Sylvia’s call, but upon spotting the wolves, broke into another run, back toward Sylvia.
Sylvia’s heart thundered in her chest as she watched Maddy and the wolves racing toward her.
“Of all the wrong things to do,” she growled, grimacing as the wolves gained confidence as they ran down their prey. Maddy’s eyes were enormous orbs of fear.
“Stop running and turn to face them,” Sylvia called, planting herself between two big tree trunks. She ground her feet into the earth and tightened her grip on her long knife.
As a last thought, she bent down and picked up a stone with her empty hand. Maddy had slowed and was walking quickly backward, but of course the wolves were gaining on her, invigorated by the chase.
“Slow down,” Sylvia commanded, wincing as some of the wolves began to break off to the sides of the valley. If they surrounded them…
The leader was twenty feet away, his stride slowing as his prey came to a halt beside Sylvia. His jaw, capable of crushing flesh and bone, opened wide, and the tongue lolled out between two-inch long fangs, slippery with saliva.
“Over there,” Sylvia ordered, gesturing with her knife at a pile of rocks she had spotted among a large tree’s roots. “Grab the rocks and start throwing.”
Maddy didn’t need to be told twice. She scrambled over to the tree and raked her hands between its roots. Sylvia turned back to the wolves. She drew herself up to her fullest height and raised her knife as the leader lunged and leapt, jaws wide.
First, she threw the rock, distracting it, then released her blade in a wide arc, timing the blow perfectly. Then, she lunged to the side, already seeking the next threat. She could hear Maddy picking up more rocks. The rest of the wolves were within throwing distance, and she let fire, drawing a few yelps when she actually met her mark.
They were closing in. Two split off to the side, flanking Sylvia and Maddy. Sylvia’s knife hilt became slick with sweat. She reached down and grabbed the first rock she encountered with her groping hand, never looking away from the wolves.
Suddenly, a howl sounded from the top of the pass, far up the slope. Sylvia froze, the sound sending shivers down her spine. The wolves surrounding them had also frozen, their ears flicking back toward the sound. Then, as one, they flung their heads back and echoed the howl, each wolf adding its voice to the call.
The hair on Sylvia’s neck stood straight up, and the flesh on her arms rippled with goosebumps. One by one the wolves finished their calls, and as they did, turned tail and darted for the top of the pass. Without so much as another sniff at their prey, they left, as if they couldn’t be less interested in these two humans.
The woods suddenly empty of wolves, Sylvia could only focus on her breathing, and the rock in her hand, as the shock began to set in. She gripped the rock tightly in her fingers, feeling the shape of it, and running her thumb along a groove. Her mind seemed numb after the sudden disappearance. Slowly, the rest of the world came back into focus, and the first thing she noticed was Maddy.
“You,” she started, making no move to drop the rock. “How dare you abandon me in the middle of the wilds—steal my pack—and now this?” she exclaimed, gesturing wildly with the rock in her hand.
“What happened to the wolves?” Maddy asked, finally raising herself from where she had crouched by the tree roots. With a guilty glance, she set Sylvia’s pack down.
“I don’t—know,” Sylvia replied jerkily. She didn’t want to admit it to Maddy, but it was the spookiest thing she had ever seen. The memory of that lone wolf’s howl, and the echoing chorus brought another shiver up her spine. She looked around, but the shadowy woods were indeed empty of wolves.
Maddy crossed her arms as though cold. She glanced over her shoulder, and Sylvia immediately remembered the red and white cloth, and the figure Maddy had spotted.
“What’s over there?” she asked as she stalked toward her pack and pulled out her food and water.
“I don’t know,” Maddy admitted, “I thought it was a person.” She looked longingly toward the figure, but made no move to leave Sylvia.
Sylvia raised an eyebrow. Had she finally earned Maddy’s trust? It’s amazing what an encounter with an entire wolf pack will do to a person, Sylvia thought. After she unceremoniously stuffed a bit of bread into her mouth she said, “Let’s go find out before the wolves come back.”
Sylvia wiped her hands on her leggings as she and Maddy approached the mouth of the valley. Both girls eagerly watched their surroundings for any trace of the wolf pack, but Sylvia had a strange feeling that they had left the valley.
The mystery of the wolves was something she would rather contemplate when she returned to Lightcity, however. She had never heard of them acting this way before, but she didn’t want to think about it until she was behind a city gate. The wilds were terrifying enough without the thought of a wolf pack acting so oddly.
Darkness was falling swiftly around them. Sylvia and Maddy hurried over to the figure, unmoving on the ground. Feet away, Sylvia realized the red was really blood on a thin white blanket. They both rushed forward and dropped to the ground by the man’s side. Sylvia’s thoughts immediately went to the wolf pack—had Sylvia and Maddy distracted them from finishing him off?
Maddy delicately pulled the white blanket away, revealing a bloodied arm slung across the man’s chest. His eyes were closed, and Sylva pressed two fingers to his throat, feeling for a pulse. It was faint, but it was there, and throbbing steadily. She didn’t recognize him, but he must be a Rider, or maybe a Hunter—no one else went out into the wilds. He had no weapons, but they had probably been lost.
With a great sigh, Maddy sat back on her heels, the bloodied blanket still in her hands. Sylvia paused in searching through her pack for her small medical kit—entirely out of its usual place after Maddy’s rough treatment.
Not sure what to say anymore, Sylvia pushed her water canister into the girl’s hands and pulled out the medical kit. They worked silently to clean and bandage the wound. Eventually, when he was as clean and comfortable as they could make him, Sylvia took out her firestarter and began to build a fire; Maddy took over, still saying nothing.
The man was still unconscious, but propped up on a steep incline, against which Sylvia now began to build a small shelter. With a strange wolf pack in the area, she would take no chances of sleeping out in the open as she usually did. As she was propping sticks against the rocks she had placed, Maddy finally spoke.
“I thought it might be my mom,” she admitted in a hushed voice from across the fire, now crackling with heat.
Sylvia looked up and Maddy cocked her head at the man. “It’s okay,” Sylvia said automatically. “It’s going to be okay—I’m sure they’re fine.” But deep down, she wasn’t so sure any more.
Today had been one of the worst days she’d ever had out in the wilds. She was eager to get back home and discuss the wolves’ behavior with her father, who had been one of the best Riders in Arcera until he’d retired. His training had undoubtedly saved both her and Maddy’s lives today.
“I’m—sorry,” Maddy said abruptly. “I’m sorry for hitting you, and taking your pack, and everything,” she gushed. “You were right. Maybe I shouldn’t be out here. I’m really sorry.”
Sylvia sighed, looking up at the stars, but before she could say anything Maddy continued.
“Would you—and I’d understand if you want to—but could you please not tell anyone about what I did?” the girl gazed pleadingly at Sylvia over the roaring campfire.
“I’ve wanted to be a Rider forever, and if my parents find out I left Gloriana, and what I did to you, they might stop training me. I just thought,” she took a great, shuddering breath. “I just thought they were in trouble, and maybe I might be able to help.”
Sylvia drummed her fingers on one of the stones at the base of her shelter. “You still want to be a Rider?” she asked.
The girl nodded. “Of course.” She gave Sylvia a weak smile. “All the things Riders get to see, and do. I’ve heard about them from my parents and their Rider friends ever since I can remember.”
“And I know today was really horrible, but if we hadn’t come along,” she looked down at the man, who was now snoring lightly, “He would’ve been all alone out here—and those wolves would have…” she trailed off, gazing into the flames.
“So, I’m sorry I almost got us killed, but, at least we saved someone, right?”
Sylvia snorted and Maddy bit her lip.
If the girl still wanted to be a Rider even after what she witnessed today, then she might just have what it took—as long as she listened.
“I suppose you’re right,” Sylvia admitted, then held up a finger. “But don’t think that finding him makes up for what you did.” She paused, deciding. “I’m going to need you to promise not to leave the city until you’re fully trained.”
Maddy’s eyes lit up.
“And, to never hit me over the head again.”
Sylvia couldn’t sleep. The day began to replay itself in her mind the minute she closed her eyes, and saw those of the wounded mountain lion. She spent most of the night staring up at the stars, laid out across the opening to the shelter.
Sometime around dawn, she was jerked from her sleepless daze by the sound of coughing. She sat straight up and peered into the shelter to see the man awake and looking very confused.
Sylvia couldn’t help but grin. “Hi,” she said, giving him a wave. He offered her a lopsided grin in return as he surveyed the shelter that had been built around him. Maddy had been woken by the coughing, too, and now rose to build the fire back up.
“I appear to be lucky you found me,” the man said, now admiring his bandaged arm. “I’m Sten,” he said. “I’m from Skycity.”
“Sylvia,” she offered. “From Meadowcity.”
“Maddy,” the girl said. “Lightcity. What happened to you, Sten?” Sylvia’s eyes darted toward the girl in disapproval. She had wanted to give him some time to recover before they started questioning him. But Sten didn’t seem to mind.
“Well, I’d got away from a pack of wolves outside Riftcity, but I wasn’t doing so great,” he raised his arm in indication, “So I sat down to rest, tried to get out of the sun, but….”
“You were in Riftcity?” Maddy asked.
“No,” the man grunted. “Decided to turn around. I had a contract in Lightcity next anyway.”
After Sylvia, Maddy, and Sten had eaten breakfast, they quickly dismantled their camp and headed back toward Lightcity. Maddy started in on questioning Sten again, but Sylvia told her to knock it off—the man had been through enough.
With the addition of Sten’s eyes to watch their surroundings, Sylvia allowed herself a moment to rest her mind, and watched her boots for a while as they trod up an incline. She couldn’t help but look behind them every so often, though, unable to keep away the thought of an immense mountain lion stalking them from behind.
Finally, they reached the plain, thankfully avoiding the area where the dead mountain lion lay at the edge of the wood. Sylvia drew ahead and she heard Maddy talking quietly with Sten behind her.
With the city in sight, her shoulders relaxed a little, and she realized she was greatly looking forward to doing nothing for two weeks in the city.
Suddenly, Maddy and Sten’s voices rose behind her.
“You’re sure?” Maddy exclaimed.
“Magda and Roald. I’m sure.”
Sylvia turned back to look at them, and Maddy cried, “Sylvia, Sten met my parents in Skycity!”
Sylvia’s face broke into an astonished grin, and she raised her eyebrows at Maddy.
Sten drew to the front of the group as they neared the gates, and Maddy came up beside Sylvia to whisper, “I promise I won’t leave ‘til I finish training.”
“And I promise I won’t tell anyone you did,” Sylvia replied under her breath.
They passed through the city gates, and Sylvia sighed. With any luck, she would bring her delivery to Skycity when it was ready, then head back home to Meadowcity for a well-deserved break. But if she’d learned anything from the past day, she knew she should never expect her path to lead the easy way.
The man from Skycity drew back into the shadows of the woods as he watched the three Riders pass through the gate into Lightcity. Now assured that they were out of the way, he turned back the way he had come.
As he neared an enormous oak tree, nine wolves appeared, as if they had materialized out of the thick bushes. He smiled as the large grey wolf in front came toward him, and he held out his hand.
“Time to go back to Riftcity,” the man said, then gave a short whistle. The wolves turned tail to follow him.
“Governor Greyling wouldn’t want anybody finding out what he’s up to just yet.”
Book One: Meadowcity
Book Two: The Fifth City
Book Three: A Rift Between Cities
Raised in the Northeast, LIZ DELTON has spent a lot of time in both woods and cities. While living for five years in Philadelphia, she got a taste for the city, but didn’t find it green enough, and currently resides in what some would call “the middle of woods”. She is a notorious book-re-reader, tea drinker, and author with too many hobbies.
Follow me on:
Before the first war in a thousand years, Sylvia Thorne was just a normal sixteen-year-old girl, who happened to have one of the most dangerous jobs in the Four Cities. Delivering messages might not sound dangerous, but those who have traveled through the wilds between cities will tell you a different story--those who survive, that is. Sylvia is used to traveling the wilds for a living–and she will soon deliver the message that breaks the peace between the cities, but before that, she gets stuck in Lightcity, waiting for a package to deliver. Her wait for adventure isn’t long. A young girl named Maddy has run away into the wilds on a haphazard rescue mission--untrained in the ways of the wilds. Sylvia follows, hoping to bring her back in one piece. When Maddy brings them into one danger after another, desperate to find her missing parents, Sylvia must draw upon her training to protect the both of them. But a wolf pack lurking about is acting strangely, and something seems very wrong in the wilds of Arcera.