The Silence is Lifted

Felted wool, Grey decided—once rent and twisted by gnarled little fingers—made disturbingly effective restraints.

Bloody grakken gnomes, he fumed, shifting his shoulders against the increasingly hot ache in his limbs. Why? Why had he not been more cautious? The gnomes were a plague upon these northern reaches. He knew that. But Grey had been tired, and the clan had been patient. And the cover of forested darkness had been all they had needed to leave Grey stripped to his skin and strung up like prize game.

Cold prickles were beginning to creep down from his hands, stretched wide between the two large trees, heralding an imminent loss of sensation. Not wanting to fall victim to yet another handicap, he clenched his fists, forcing them to open and close, hoping to restore a modicum of circulation in the unlikely event he actually managed to escape this mess.

He tried to lift his gaze to his bonds, but the motion was arrested by the tight gag pulling against his jaw. He grimaced, straining the muscles in his neck until he could just take in the contrived ropes holding him fast. Bloody gnomes. He had liked that cloak. And the rough texture of his own shirt against his tongue served as yet another vivid reminder of how his evening had so suddenly mutated out of control.

Filthy, grubby, savage little…

He thrust his weight to the side, but the effort only bit the knots more savagely into his skin. Grumbling a muffled obscenity, he dropped his gaze back down, flinching in startlement when he found a curious grakken gnome standing at his feet. A glint of firelight flashed off the crude obsidian spear in its grip, and as Grey watched, it drummed its gnarled fingers down the shaft.

Grey tried to blame his sudden rush of gooseprickles on the chill of the mountain air. Breaths coming faster than he would have preferred, he ground his teeth, eyeing his knee-high adversary with increasing wariness.

It darted forward, jabbing at the taut muscle of his thigh. On instinct, Grey twisted, turning what would have been a piercing thrust into a glancing blow, but the ragged edge still stung across his flesh. His breath caught in his throat and he closed his eyes, biting down hard on the gag.

The spindly grakken skipped back, capering on knobby legs as it hissed out a mocking chortle and danced away.

Grey spared the grakken a venomous glance but then refocused on the task at hand. Turning his head from side to side, he worked his mouth, trying to expel the thick gag.

A billowing whoosh rose from the fire in the center of the small clearing and Grey looked up, watching as yet another one of his possessions was deemed worthless by plundering hands and hurled into its midst. The air shifted then, driving a cloud of caustic smoke into his face.

His lungs convulsed, and he felt the threat of vomit rise into the back of his throat as he struggled in vain to suck a clean breath through layers of twisted cloth. Coughing, he twisted away, struggling to breathe, working to blink the blinding sting from his eyes.

The wind shifted again. Swallowing back his gorge, he cast a nervous, watery glance at the two fat-pines he’d been strung between. Fates, those flames had better not get any closer or these trees are going to go up like torches—and me along with them.

A shadowy movement brought Grey’s attention back down in time to see a different grakken approaching the fire. A bit larger than the one who had scored on his leg, this one also wore three feathers adorning a heavy armband.

Chief Grakken, Grey thought in distaste, focusing his attention on the new threat.

As he watched, the gnome reached down and retrieved a length of burning wood from the fire. With measured consideration, the feathered grakken then turned to Grey, holding the torch tightly in its gnarled grip.

And smiled.

Sweat bloomed on the exposed flesh of Grey’s body and he swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat.

The feathered gnome began its approach, its bulbous, yellow eyes searching Grey’s person as it neared. Its focus never wavered, gaze steady even as it skirted one of its kin who was dancing around the clearing, one of Grey’s shirts wrapped around its warty head like a headdress.

The speculative drumming of the chief’s claws along the shaft of the torch had Grey’s insides squirming, and he tightened his jaws as he watched its gaze light briefly on foot, then knee, then… He blinked when he saw the grakken’s intent and looked down.

Oh, bloody shades… Frantic, he ground his teeth, jerking at his ties, searching the area for anything that might be of some use to him.

In the distance beyond the fire, he caught the movement of two smaller gnomes rifling through his saddlebags. Blinking, he looked again, then swore furiously around his gag.

Without warning, Chief Feathers lunged at Grey’s leg. Heat seared up the besieged appendage and Grey let out a muffled cry of agony.

He panted as the sensation withdrew. Bright spots popped before his eyes, and he blinked hard, attempting to clear his vision. The figure of the grakken chief slowly wavered back into view and, steadying himself, Grey refocused on the looming threat.

He watched in growing trepidation as the gnome ran an introspective claw back and forth over its sharp teeth before crooking up one corner of its mouth. Grey gave a determined shake of his head. He wasn’t precisely sure what the knobby little creature had in mind, but he knew, without question, he wanted no part of it.

Incentive reaffirmed, he put even more intensity toward the struggle against his bonds; working his mouth, using his tongue to push at the bundled gag, cutting through the soggy fibers with his teeth.

Desperate, he craned his head around to stare into the trees. Where are you, Steed?

Without warning, the grakken chief struck again, and again, Grey cried out. The jab was quick though, and the pain less, fading quickly despite the lingering burn of adrenaline running up his limbs. Grey worked to control his racing mind. This lunge had been higher, coming dangerously close to an area Grey had an overriding, instinctive need to protect, and he was suddenly left with no doubts as to the gnome’s eventual intentions.

Unexpectedly then, the gnome spoke, croaking out harsh, guttural words.

Surprised, Grey stared. …Hooka Choppa… …What? Daring to hope, he unclenched his fists and spread his hands, raising his eyebrows in an attempt to communicate that he had no idea what the little gnome was trying to say. Maybe if he knew what they wanted…

The chief repeated the phrase, more intense this time.

Fighting panic, Grey rolled his eyes and gestured helplessly to the gag in his mouth.

Beyond the fire, a gleeful cry rose from the party rummaging through his saddlebags. Grey looked up in alarm, face draining of color.

Oh, Fates. They found it…

Two of the grakken had extricated Grey’s staff from its baldric and were holding it triumphantly in the air between them. Multicolored glints of firelight reflected off the jewels embedded in its head as they bounced it to and fro.

Grey gritted his teeth harder. He could not allow that to fall into the hands of the grakken, not under any circumstances.

The chief’s lips peeled back over its grimy teeth, a disturbing leer growing as it took in the horrified expression on Grey’s face. Tipping its dusky head back to the others, it made a sudden grunt, drawing their attention. A muttered comment passed between the chief and the pair holding the staff, and, hissing in acknowledgement, they proceeded to scratch and scrabble at the stones, attempting to pry them loose with their thick, gnarled claws.

Heedless of the potential consequences, Grey shouted past the interactable gag, scuffing and rolling his neck in wide circles, working with single-minded purpose to push the binding down the back of his neck.

It shifted, but not by enough. He kept an eye on the little beasts’ warty hands as they dug at the priceless stones, trying to convince himself he shouldn’t worry; the staff was spell-crafted wood. It would take a great deal more than those grimy claws to wrest the precious gems loose.

A fingerbreadth more progress on the gag and Grey was able to shove the dirty mass of cloth out from behind its cord. It fell to the ground before him with a soggy flop, and he sucked in a triumphant breath. A thin strip of the twisted homespun still remained between his teeth, but with the bulky wadding now out of the way, it was much more maneuverable.

Lifting his head, his efforts to worry away the rest of the gag froze.

The enterprising little gnomes had given up on their attempts to prise the gemstones from their settings by main force in favor of levering the heavy staff between them to hover above the fire.

Flinging himself forward, Grey shouted at them, thrashing against his ties. Chief Feathers cocked a warty brow at him, considering. Then, with noted deliberation, thrust his torch directly at Grey’s inner thigh.

Grey screamed. Hair shriveled and flesh seared, flames licking right up to—and over—exactly where Grey had desperately not wanted that fire to go.

The contact was brief, but blinding. Sweat poured down his body, and his chest heaved from both pain and exertion as phantom sensations went on burning beneath his skin.

Evidently content with the state of him, the grakken chief turned away to check the progress of the pair holding the staff. Jeers and chants were rising from the rabble, and they watched in wild anticipation as a thin film of char began to spread across the bejeweled head. Grey didn’t know if the staff’s wood was durable enough to withstand fire, but he knew he could not afford to find out.

Panting, he lifted his head once more and began methodically rolling his neck around, scraping the side of his face as best he could against his raised shoulder over and over, pulling the cloth down bit by bit over his jaw.

At long last, the binding fell to loop around his sweat-plastered neck. His dark hair, no longer restrained by the encompassing gag, fell forward into his face to hang in lank, sodden tendrils.

Mouth finally clear of any impeditive debris, Grey tossed his hair to the side and spat a few remaining fibers from his tongue. Curling his lips tight against his teeth, he whistled—loudly.

As one, the gnomes all turned to stare.

He hung there, awkwardly, spread wide between the two sturdy trees—an offended silence the only accompaniment to his shrill outburst.

The fire popped and crackled.

Grey held very still.

Chief Feathers muttered something back to the startled clan. A wicked laugh rippled over the mob, and they began to slowly converge on him en masse, Chief Feathers in the lead.

Grey threw his head back over his shoulder and shouted, “Steed!”

The gnomes were closing in on him now. Frantic, he whistled one last time as he fought to escape the chief’s inexorably advancing fire.

Hoofbeats sounded in the distance, rising in a measured two-part beat.

Grey craned his neck in the direction of the sound but could find no visual signs of impending assistance. He turned back, recoiling when he saw the mob had completely closed the distance. Dozens of toothy faces stared transfixed, gleefully following the course of their chief’s hissing torch, now making its way back to what Grey knew would surely be a point of no return.

“Steed!” Grey cried, voice shriller than intended as the heat from the nearing torch became tangible again. “Put a little effort into it!” And the cadence increased to a heavy, pounding canter.

Heat blossomed into pain. Grey dropped his chin and gritted his teeth against the noises the fire was dragging from his throat. He felt the hiss as the glowing tip made contact with his skin, and he lost grip on his restraint. Throwing his head back, he howled in agony.

Underbrush exploded to his left. Shadow and muscle and mass burst into the camp, and the grakken scattered before the oncoming hooves of the giant black charger. Grey gasped as the flames disappeared, dropping his head and panting as his vision drifted in and out of focus. Then he blinked, squinting over at the flicker of light hovering at the edge of his vision.

The torch was still there. The little chief had apparently discarded it in favor of his spear—which he was now brandishing at the large stallion. The discarded torch, however, so quickly and carelessly tossed aside, had come to rest at the base of the fat-pine which held firm the tie attached to Grey’s bound left leg. Desperate, he thrust his foot forward, angling the rope to hover above the sputtering flame.

Chaos ensued around him. Steed was dancing and kicking at the grakken as they attempted to surround and overtake him. One powerful hoof struck out and sent a smaller gnome tumbling across the ground to land beside Grey’s staff, now lying, apparently forgotten, on the forest floor. Firelight rippled along Steed’s glossy black coat as he reared up, tossing his massive head and flinging away a gnome who had managed to leap up and seize a handful of his dark mane.

Thunder rumbled beyond the trees, and a cool breeze rippled along the forest floor, lifting the hairs at the base of Grey’s neck as leaves brushed by his ankles. The suddenly heavy air smelled of water and dust, and Grey looked to the sky in time to feel a single cold, wet droplet plop onto his face.

Hadjaa ghas…” he swore through clenched teeth. Then, because that didn’t seem nearly sufficient, he continued to swear in the common tongue as he stretched to the very limit of his reach, closing the distance between his ropes and the rapidly shrinking flame.

Another gust of wind blew through the clearing, rustling the underbrush and billowing the central fire to further illuminate the surrounding battle. Steed had seized a wooden club in his teeth, the owner of which was still attempting to maintain its grip, screeching as Steed swung it wildly through the air.

The wind rose again, fanning the stuttering flame at Grey’s feet.

Suddenly, the brush at the base of the fat-pine whooshed into orange and yellow flickers, the infant flames licking merrily at the extended rope.

“Hah!” Grey cried in triumph as the twisted cloth began to crackle and smoke. He struggled, pulling and twisting until abruptly, the charred fibers gave way and he staggered, catching his balance with his one free leg. Cold rain began to patter on his exposed flesh, and his body gave a convulsive shudder.

Shaking off the sensation, Grey flexed his ankle and knee in a brief moment of relief before returning his attention to the torch, still burning at the base of the tree. He reached out with his foot, hoping to nudge the stick to the opposite side and, maybe, free his other leg. Though, how he would get his arms free… Well, he would just have to be creative.

His foot brushed the shaft of the torch, but, try as he might, he couldn’t quite wrap his toes around it. He leaned and stretched, but the more he struggled, the farther out of reach the torch slid.

With a flash of heat, the bark of the fat-pine ignited. Tendrils of burning sap raced up the papery bark in fiery rivulets, consuming the towering, resinous pine. Grey could only gape in disbelief.

“This really! Can’t! Be happening!” he shouted, gritting his teeth and punctuating each word with a furious jerk on the rope.

Steed was still stomping and kicking at the attacking gnomes as Grey fought in vain to escape the trees. Rain was beginning to fall steadily now, the heavy, cold spatters causing a new level of horrid sensation as the water ran down his contrastingly overheated skin in icy runnels under his extended arms and down his body.

And yet doing nothing for this bloody fire!

Grey could feel the veins pulsing in his temples as he pulled with all his strength, arms bunching and shaking with strain before the attempt died. Gasping in a quick breath, he tried again, but the heat was overpowering him, and he soon began to sway and sag against his bonds, fatigued muscles continuously twitching with involuntary shudders.

A stray grakken, having been unwittingly turned into a projectile by one of Steed’s massive hooves, tumbled against Grey’s legs, dazed. It flopped over as Grey used his free leg to weakly kick it aside, spear still clutched in its knobby grasp.

Grey took one heavy breath. Then another. Then one more…

The rope attached to his left wrist was actively burning now, but the skin of his hand felt like it was about to burst apart, leaving Grey with serious doubts as to which would burn away first—the ropes, or his skin.

Raindrops hissed as they fell against the flaming trunk, misting impotently away on contact. He wouldn’t be getting any help from the sky.

Rotating both hands around in desperation, Grey closed his fingers around the twisted wool, grasping the bindings tightly in his strong, broad grip. Muscles quivering with strain, he pulled with all his remaining strength. Flames licked at his clenched fist, and he screamed through rigid jaws as his whole body began to shake. Still, he pulled harder.

The tie snapped.

Grey collapsed to one side as the shock of searing heat gave way to the icy prickles of rainfall. He panted, leaning against the far tree, cradling his burned hand against his chest. Blisters were already rising on the abused flesh, and some of the skin along the outside of his palm had blackened and peeled away. A wave of nausea nearly took him to his knees at the sight, and he struggled against a sudden burst of stars in his vision. Breathing deeply, he fought to remain conscious.

Finally shaking the stars from his eyes, he turned to stretch out with his free leg toward the spear, still held by the stunned grakken gnome lying at his feet. Grey struggled until he hooked the little spear with his foot and then drew it to his side where he was able to maneuver it up into his free hand. The tool was difficult to manage, hand badly burned as it was, but after a moment, Grey was able to begin sawing at his remaining bonds.

The chief, having finally caught notice of what was happening between the trees, gave a furious howl and charged at Grey, spear upraised. Grey didn’t slow in his work but gathered up what little strength remained to him and coiled it all into the kick he delivered to the chief’s bony head.

His balance faltered a bit from his momentum, but the blow was sufficient, and Grey savored a moment of vindictive pleasure as he watched Chief Feathers tumble out of sight.

Not pausing to gloat, he turned back to his work, continuing to saw at the remaining tie. As the last of the fibers finally gave way, Grey let out a primal, choked exhalation, suddenly able to stagger free of the trees and release the strangled breath he’d been holding on to. He allowed himself only a moment to steady himself before recklessly diving over to the fire and snatching up his coveted staff, using it to help propel him over to Steed, who was still dancing nervously among the few remaining gnomes not yet scattered during the melee.

Grey swung the staff like a club as he ran, mowing down attackers as he cut a path toward his towering mount. Reaching the stallion, he grabbed a fistful of black mane and used his momentum to swing up onto the horse’s back.

Digging his bare heels into Steed’s ribs, Grey wheeled him around and fled, bareback and naked, into the rainy night.

Part One: Coryul Village

I turn my eyes to meet the sun,

And dance the coursing river’s run,

With all I am, and all I’ve done,

I greet the rising day.

And with my stepping and my sway,

I gift unto the Fates, my praise,

Who know my path and guide my way,

And yield the rising day.

And when my being and my bones,

Become these valleys and these stones,

The Fates shall see me safely home,

To greet the rising day.

–From: The Song of the Praise Dancer

Highland Verse

Chapter 1

The Task

The mountain breathed.

Alieda breathed with it, inhaling the scent of new autumn as it passed over her.

A cool gust caught the fragile curls as they drifted through her spread fingers, and she watched, absently, as they fell to rest a few steps away from where she sat, perched on her garden fence. Reaching her hand back into the bag, she let drift another handful. Long, thin spirals of oak and walnut floated to the garden bed to rest beside the others.

The mountain breathed again, and the wind shifted, causing the last of the stray shavings to blow back, catching in her drifting, unbound hair. Hooking the bag over a fencepost, she absentmindedly began to pluck the stray remnants of her father’s creative process from her hair.

Elm, walnut, mahogany, she mused, comparing the vibrant colors of the wood to the different glinting strands between her fingers. The sunset seemed to be adding more of a reddish hue than was her normal chestnut brown. Combing her fingers through once more for good measure, she flipped her long hair back over her shoulder and hopped down from her perch to return the sack to the workshop.

* * *

Her father was at his bench, where he hadn’t been a moment earlier when she’d retrieved the shavings for her garden. He looked up when she entered, his bright green eyes, twin to her own, sparkling as he pulled the cloth mask down from over his nose and mouth.

“You’re back,” he said by way of greeting, the casual tone of his voice at odds with the subtle line showing between his brows, one that Alieda had come to associate with relief. A twinge of guilt threatened at the sight, but she smiled anyway, watching as he brushed sawdust from the sleeves of his shirt. There were wood shavings caught in his beard, too, bringing out the early streaks of gray along the short bristles of his still-strong jawline. “I was wondering if you would be home before the festival,” he went on, twisting in his seat as he spoke and reaching up for a large object draped in a protective cloth on the high shelf above him.

“I got back just a little while ago,” she answered, watching as he carefully maneuvered the object down and placed it on the workbench in front of him. “Figured I’d spread the shavings before getting cleaned up.”

She hung the burlap sack back on its hook at the end of the workbench in illustration before taking a seat on her tall stool at the opposite end—her customary perch since she was a little girl and somewhere she always returned to, even after reaching the age where she really should have been working toward a marriage.

“It’s been ten days this time,” he ventured, watching her absently begin to tidy up her corner of his workspace.

Alieda looked up to find his eyes resting in her, waiting. She tightened her lips, her attempt at a smile falling more in the range of a grimace. “I know. It’s just… I needed to—”

“—Get away for a while,” her father finished, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “I know.”

Alieda tried for a shrug, looking away while still trying to appear casual. Now wasn’t the time to dredge up old ghosts. Not when he had been doing so well.

Feeling her father’s eyes still on her, she turned to fabricate some sort of excuse but found he wasn’t looking at her at all; he was staring at her pack, rather expectantly.

Alieda smiled in earnest this time. Despite her frequent need for solitude, she always made a point to return with something special for the shop, adamant about not wanting to make her father feel guilty about her absences.

Gripping her pack by the strap, she hefted it up onto the workbench with a weighty thud. It had been a nightmare toting it all the way back down the mountain, and with a dramatic flourish, she undid the ties to reveal a large, gnarled chunk of wood.

“Rock mahogany burl,” she announced proudly. “Took me three days to chop it free. I’ll need to take my hatchet over to Sera’s to get it sharpened,” she added, casting a downward glance to said hatchet riding at her thigh.

Her father inspected the wood burl with undisguised delight as she spoke, his calloused fingers drawing a line down the prominent grain.

Alieda gestured back to the shrouded object on the workbench. “So… what is it?” she asked, bringing her father’s attention back to his original purpose.

He glanced up. “Oh, ah… yes.” he mumbled, pulling his hungry, imaginative eyes away from the burl. “It’s my festival piece. It’s all finished and ready to be shown, but I just received word a few days ago that the Grand Bazaar at L’Aberohn is being held earlier than usual this year.”

Alieda followed his gaze as he nodded to the corner of the shop and saw a folded piece of parchment, the bright indigo wax of the royal seal just visible through the clutter.

“I’ll need to leave by tomorrow morning at the latest if I want to make it in time. Honestly, I probably should have left already…” His voice trailed off, and Alieda stifled another surge of guilt, knowing he’d been waiting on her. “This, though,” he went on, voice brightening as he slid the piece across the bench to her, “I’ll need you to show for me. It’s already had its entrance fee paid—” he assured her quickly. Alieda nodded, waving away his concern, eager for him to uncover the carving. “—As well as an entrance fee for you in the harvest exhibition,” he continued, pulling the piece back away from her while he made his point. “That garden of yours has done far too well for you to skip out on this competition again. Not to mention, we could use the prize money.”

Alieda lifted her eyes to her father’s as his words trailed away. “You know I’ll never let you starve.”

He snorted in response. “Likewise, my dear—and when did that become your line?” He shook his head. “Regardless, I’d like some meat with my vegetables every now and again.” Eyes turning eager, he gestured her close. “Look, look.” And he unwrapped the windings from the carving. “See how the sheep’s wool really brings out the cherry?”

Alieda stared down at her father’s creation. It wasn’t just a carving. It was a masterpiece. Before her on the bench stood a centerpiece of carved rose bramble, the thorned briars so intertwined she couldn’t follow the course of any one vine. Blossoms had been carved from sweet cherry, polished and burnished to a glowing blush, and in the center, he’d placed a large pillar candle from the chandler’s shop—plain, non-distracting, and tinted a deep red to bring out the color of the roses.

“You’ve outdone yourself,” she said in awe, staring at the piece in fascination. Then she looked up at him, shaking her head as she checked his face. “Papa, are you sure you wouldn’t rather take this with you to the capital? You could sell this for quite a lot.”

Her father waved a hand. “I can always sell it later if I choose. And that’s assuming you don’t find a buyer here, at the festival. People will be pouring in from all over to watch the dancers—they always do.” He began replacing the cotton drape, rewrapping the carving with a practiced hand. “Craftsmanship show is at noon tomorrow. Harvest, I believe, is a bit earlier.” He gave her dirty trousers a telling glance. “You should probably wear a dress.”

Alieda snatched up her pack and threw him a toothy smile as she swung it onto her shoulder. “Probably.” Then with a florid twirl, she exited the workshop through the adjoining door to their home.

* * *

A bowl of apples sat on the kitchen counter, and Alieda plucked one from the top after wiping her dusty hands on a towel. Sighing in bliss, she leaned against the counter and enjoyed the sweet crunch as it filled her mouth. Nearly a week spent in the mountains and not an apple tree to be found. She rolled her head to the side, stretching out the tight muscles in her neck, contentedly chewing on a bite of the autumn-ripe fruit until her father entered the kitchen a few minutes later. Reaching back to the bowl, she tossed him one as well.

One hand darted out and he caught it, juggling the apple awkwardly for a moment before finding his grip. He lifted the fruit to her in a self-congratulatory salute before taking a bite. “Did you say you were going to make a trip to the smithy?” he asked around his mouthful.

Alieda nodded. “I need to have Sera touch up the blade on my hatchet. Why, do you need something?”

He shook his head. “No, no. It’s just, I placed an order over there last week and figured you could pick it up for me. Sera probably ended up making it, anyway.”

His tone was slightly gruff, and Alieda arched an eyebrow at him. “Still having trouble with the idea of Sera being a smithy?”

He held his hands up to forestall any argument. “I just think she does herself a disservice, you know…” he gestured helplessly up and down his body.

“Dressing like a man and binding her hair?” Alieda finished, both of her brows now raised over an expectant smile.

“I never said that,” he retorted, pointing his apple at her. “And, by the way, I’m glad to see you wearing yours loose for a change. It’s very becoming.”

“And very in the way,” she added. “Sorry, but at the risk of ruining my image as a paragon of female society, I will be remedying this state as soon as I can find another tie. It came down when I was walking back into the village. —And Seraphina happens to be an amazing blacksmith, by the way. You should be thankful we have her.”

Her father nodded dismissively. “Of course. Regardless, there should be an order ready when you make it over there. Are you, ah… going today?”

Alieda thought his voice seemed a bit hesitant, but she was too tired to think into it. She shook her head. “Today, I am going to sleep. I miss my bed. Are you alright on your own for dinner?”

Her father nodded, looking down at the counter. “Molynda asked me over for dinner tonight, I’ll be fine.”

Alieda cocked her head to get a better view of her father’s face, knowing very well he wasn’t one much given to romanticism, but, “Papa… Are you blushing?”

He didn’t reply but took another bite of his apple, turning his head to look in the opposite direction.

Intriguing… “This is, what, the third time this month you’ve had dinner with her?”

“Fourth,” he mumbled, but there was no disguising the awkwardly pleased expression on his face. “We met up once while you were away.”

And so the mighty mountain shifts… Alieda could have cried at the rare slip of happiness she saw in his face. But for his sake, she simply grinned wide and began a teasing little squeal.

He brandished his apple at her. “Alright! That’s enough, get on to bed if you’re going.”

Charmed, Alieda danced out of the kitchen, blowing a kiss to her father as she sidled off to her bedroom.

She was halfway down the short hallway when he called her name, halting her. Turning, he found him leaning against the countertop again, studying his apple with a frown. “Papa?”

His frown deepened. “Just… You will be careful, won’t you? While I’m away, I mean.”

Alieda cast a humored glance around the hallway before answering, “I just got back from almost two weeks alone in the wilderness and you’re asking me to be careful now that I’m back home?”

His lips tightened at her words. “Things have been a little …off… in the village lately. Tensions have been running high. Likely it’s just all the hype leading up to the festival, but still. Just promise me you won’t get mixed up in anything while I’m away?”

Alieda had to work to keep from rolling her eyes. “You’re adorable, Papa. I’ll be on my best behavior, I promise.”

She saw his shoulders shift in a soft grunt, but he didn’t lift his eyes from the apple, now spinning restlessly in his fingers. Not knowing what else to say, Alieda turned and headed the rest of the way down the hallway to her room.

* * *

Morning dawned cooler than the evening before, and a heavy layer of fog smelling of resin and wood smoke covered Coryul like a blanket. Leaning out the window as she pushed opened her shutters, she took a deep breath of the chill, misty air, watching as heavy beads of dew dripped down from the slate shingles.

The faintest of silhouettes was just beginning to lighten around the eastern peaks, and, knowing her father would be leaving today, she hurried to wash and dress and then braided her long hair into a single plait, securing it with a tooled leather thong. Sliding her arms into a shearling leather frock coat that had once belonged to her mother, she absently brushed a few stray fragments of leaf and debris from its hem at her thigh before belting it around her waist. Then, feeling industrious and ready to face the day ahead of her, she dropped her hatchet into its customary loop on her pant leg and set off with early morning vigor across the village to the blacksmith.

Alieda had only made it a few steps, though, when she stopped, hesitating just outside the gate to the yard. Maybe it was the way the thick fog eddied in the distance when nothing stood present to have disturbed it, or maybe that the birds had all suddenly hushed, but something… Something made her hold her step as prickles climbed their way up her neck. Motionless, she stared down the darkened road.

A shaft of sunlight broke over the eastern ridge, and just as suddenly, the feeling was gone. Alieda stared a moment longer down the empty roadway, but as the birdsong began to meet her ears once more, she shook her head, starting off again toward the forge.

* * *

The sun was still low in the sky by the time she reached her destination, but she could already hear the ringing of Seraphina’s hammer as she neared. Following the familiar sound, she bypassed the front door and went directly through the open breezeway and around back to where the forge was housed.

Sera was bent over her anvil, wearing her leather apron and chaps, swinging a heavy mallet with a slow, steady rhythm. Her hair, shiny and black, was twisted up and bound at the base of her neck, secured in place with two decorative steel pins of her own design.

Alieda hoisted herself onto a barrel by the glowing coals and sat warming herself while she waited for her friend to finish, not wanting to interrupt her progress. She listened contentedly to the sharp ting-ting, ting-ting of Sera’s hammer as she worked, and after a moment, the tall woman turned and thrust the now dull-gray length of steel back into the coals. Straightening, she wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of a gloved hand.

“You’re up early,” she said by way of greeting, cheeks flushed from the heat and exertion of the forge. “I didn’t realize you were back yet.”

“I made it in last evening—took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.”

The corner of Sera’s mouth lifted. “Don’t blame you,” she replied, reaching up to grasp the worn handle of the bellows. Heat blossomed from the coals, and the forge glowed a bright orange with the rhythm of her arm. “The nights are getting cold fast. It was probably even colder up where you usually go.”

“I found a traveler fig,” Alieda explained with a dismissive shrug. “I was fine. The bedroll gets a bit uncomfortable after a while, though,” she added with a grimace, rubbing at her back.

Sera snorted, pulling the glowing steel from the coals and laying it back down on the anvil. “You should write a book,” she said. “Alieda’s Guide on How to Survive in the Wild.”

“It would be the finest adventure ever written,” Alieda agreed, swinging her nose skyward with a comical flair.

Sera laughed and began shaping the steel again.

Alieda leaned onto one hip and slipped the hatchet from its loop on her pants, setting it on the edge of the forge. “Can I leave this here with you? I really dulled the edge on some hardwood this past week, and I’m going to need it up to scratch, what with autumn here.”

Sera nodded, glancing around the pleasantly cluttered workspace. “You can stick around for a while if you want. I’ll be at a stopping point in just a moment.”

Alieda shook her head though, a crooked slant to her mouth. “I have to find out when and where the harvest show is going to be. Papa entered me while I was out. Then I’m showing his piece for the craftsmanship exhibit at noontime.”

“Did he sign it over to you?” Sera asked, sparing a quick glance in her direction. “You know they won’t let you show unless he turns over his rights to the prize money. And the way people have been acting lately…” but her words trailed away as she stared at the glowing steel. “Just, don’t give anyone an excuse to throw you out of the running.”

Alieda stared at Sera as she refocused on her work. “Papa said people had been on edge recently. What do you think’s going on?”

Sera shrugged as she worked. “Some of the village’s underbelly are throwing their weight around, likely. Papa said as the butcher’s been unusually vocal the past few weeks, and Justice Coldwell’s been up in arms, too.”

Alieda gave a soft snort. “Handing out harsh sentences to sheep spookers again?”

Sera lifted a brow in her direction. “He had the Weaver boys caned bloody at the pillory not three days ago. All for sneaking some milk from the neighbor’s cow.”

“Sweet Fates,” Alieda breathed, eyes wide, “are they alright?” The three Weaver boys were notorious mischief makers, but to whip them bloody over a bit of milk…

Sera nodded away her concern. “Mama Greenleaf got them patched up. They’ll be a little tender for a while but otherwise, they’re sound.”

“I’m sure they will be,” Alieda agreed, relieved to hear of the herbalist’s intervention on the boys’ behalf. Then, thinking back to Sera’s original warning, she saw why she’d made the point to tell her. “I’ve had to show for Papa once or twice before when he was away. He knows how to arrange it properly.”

Sera motioned with her chin toward the front of the building. “Check in the shop, then. I’ve got the event flyer on the wall. The door’s still locked but you should be able to see it through the window.”

Alieda turned where she sat, looking in the direction of the shop. “Thanks, I’ll do that.” Then she hopped down from her perch, giving Sera a quick touch on the shoulder in farewell as she turned to leave.

“Are you going to be competing with the dancers?” Sera asked casually as Alieda was walking away. Alieda turned back, giving her a bland stare, but Sera hadn’t stopped to look at her.

“No,” she answered simply.

“You could,” Sera replied, not breaking the rhythm of her work. “I’ve seen you dance.”

Alieda rolled her eyes. “Once, in my backyard—while I was doing laundry.”

“And you were damn good at it,” she insisted, still not taking her attention from her steel. “You can pay entry fee up to until a competition begins—just saying.”

Alieda didn’t respond. “I’ll be back after the shows to pick up the hatchet.”

Sera waved her hammer in acknowledgment. “Say hi to Reggie for me.”

Alieda snorted once and then headed back around to the front of the shop.

* * *

The event flyer was just visible through the window, as Sera had said. Alieda had to squint a bit, but she was eventually able to make out the time and location of the harvest competition: center square in just a couple of hours. Timeline now properly fixed in her head, Alieda set off for home, running through a mental inventory of the crops in her little kitchen garden. As she approached her home, though, she paused, one hand on the gate, motions stilling as she carefully assessed the area for signs of unwelcome attention.

A light touch on her shoulder made her jump. Spinning, she clutched a startled hand to her chest.

“Bloody Fates, Thomas!” she exclaimed, finding the tall young man standing behind her, arms raised in seemingly innocent surprise. “Honestly, you shouldn’t do that to people!”

“I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you,” he insisted, his concern irreparably marred by a poorly suppressed dimple in his chin. He brushed back his blonde hair as he turned his head to hide his grin. “What were you so intent on that you didn’t hear me coming up behind you?”

Alieda sighed, turning back to face her house. “Trying to avoid Reggie.”

Thomas shot a glance over at the house, then rolled his eyes back toward her. “Really, Alieda, if things have gotten that bad why don’t you just…” He made a significant gesture involving a finger across the throat, followed by a little kick.

Alieda sighed again. “If only… It’s not that easy, though. Papa really likes him.”

“Your papa isn’t here now,” Thomas reasoned.

“He’s not?” Alieda turned at once to the side yard, noticing—as she hadn’t before, being so intent in her other pursuit—the jarring absence of her father’s wagon. “He’s left already?”

Thomas nodded, brow furrowing. “I just finished helping him load up and leave a little bit ago. He told me he let you know yesterday he’d be leaving at first light. …Did he not?”

“He did,” she hedged, brow furrowing. “That’s why I got started so early. I didn’t think he would leave before I got back.”

Thomas grunted a short laugh. “Let’s be honest here. Jaran Carver was never one for elevated levels of emotion, and it only got worse after your sister died.”

“She didn’t just die, Thomas,” she bit back, coming to her father’s defense a little more sharply than she’d intended, “she was killed—and on her way to be married. You don’t just get over something like that.” She clenched her teeth. No, her mother had died. They had been prepared for that, as much as one could be, anyway. Shaking her head, she took a breath, pulling her emotions back in where they belonged. Shades and Fates, I’ve only been back in the village one bloody day and already their ghosts are coming out. “He’s been doing a lot better lately,” she added, affecting a lighter tone for Thomas’s benefit.

Thomas gave her an assessing look, as if to ask, but how about you? He didn’t though, and he didn’t comment on her silence when she didn’t reply, either. “Well, be that as it may, I’d be willing to bet he waited for you to leave before making his escape so he wouldn’t have to strain his emotional reserves by struggling through goodbyes.”

Alieda looked again at the side yard where her father’s wagon usually stood, then smiled tightly, trying to bury the sudden swell of disappointment. “I suppose.” Looping her arm through his with a sigh, she passed through the gate and started toward the house.

They rounded the corner of the side yard arm in arm, Alieda scanning the grounds of her kitchen garden as they walked, her eyes finally landing on the large barrel squash she’d been waiting to harvest until the weather cooled a bit more.

“Do you think you could help me load up for the show?” she asked Thomas, a dubious cant to her brows. “I’m almost sure I won’t be able to lift that thing on my own, and since Papa has the horse…”

Thomas nodded, eyeing the squash in appreciation as she handed him a garden knife from her tool crate by the fence.

“Thanks, I’ll go get the wagon. Be right back.”

With one hand on the fence rail, Alieda vaulted over the far corner and made her way to the woodshed to retrieve the wagon. As she approached the edge of the building, though, she slowed, cocking her head at a suspicious rustling from around behind the weathered panels. Eyes narrowing, she stopped altogether, a deeply ingrained sense of self-preservation halting her steps.

Maybe it’s just a hen looking for a place to lay her eggs…

She heard Thomas’s footsteps approaching from behind, but she kept her eyes focused on the corner of the shed, watching intently. He reached her side, and she threw out a cautionary hand, whacking him hard in the middle.

He grunted, catching at her arm. “What is it? Where’s the wagon?”

Saying nothing, Alieda gestured with a hooked finger to the corner of the building, trying to indicate without words that it was still around back but not yet trusting their situation enough to speak.

Thomas looked at her with a raised eyebrow, clearly uncertain regarding her suddenly cagey behavior. Luckily, though, not fully dismissive either.

The weeds at the corner of the shed began to stir, and Alieda watched with a sinking feeling as a glossy, red-combed head bobbed out from behind the wall.

Hooded, red-gold eyes locked on to her where she stood.

“Reggie,” she swore, eyes narrowing.

She heard a low intake of breath from Thomas and felt him shift to angle himself further behind her.

“Really?” she hissed.

“Shh,” he cautioned. “Look sharp—he can smell fear.”

Alieda wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation but, instead, found herself taking an involuntary step backward as Reggie oriented on her, dropping his head and flaring out the black and gold feathers at the back of his arched neck.

“Nope!” Thomas cried, and he darted for the door of the woodshed, completely abandoning her.

Reggie lunged.

Heavy wings beat at Alieda’s thigh as she spun to the side, attempting to at least partially deflect the violent attack. She felt spurs rake and catch at her pant legs as she dodged sideways, knocking him away with a backward swipe of her arm. The rooster leapt again, striking out with his beak but catching only the leather of her coat as she twisted again, swatting at him as if she were fighting off a swarm of angry bees.

Flailing like a punch-drunk duck, Alieda reached the entrance of the woodshed and flung herself inside, slamming the door closed behind her. She leaned against it, panting hard enough to sway the cobwebs in the low rafters and then opened her eyes to find Thomas, holding a concealing hand tightly over his grinning mouth.

“You are dead to me,” she breathed. “Completely dead.”

Thomas snorted in muffled humor but didn’t risk a reply. After a long moment, he whispered, “Do you think it’s safe?”

Alieda risked cracking open the door and peered outside. Reggie was nowhere in sight. She opened it a hand’s-width more and, straining her ears, was able to make out the sound distant clucking from the opposite end of the yard, a familiar summons to his harem of hens.

She exhaled, daring to open the door the rest of the way. “It’s safe.”

Even so, she kept a wary eye as she led them out the woodshed, Thomas gripping a broom defensively by its handle as they did.

They managed to retrieve the wagon without incident after that, and between the two of them, were able to lift the giant barrel squash into its bed. Thomas offered to help her to the square, and as they passed the entrance to her father’s wood shop, Alieda ducked inside to dip a rag in some of his polishing cream—a homemade mixture of beeswax, castor oil, and vinegar.

Turning to leave, she paused. There was a letter. Neatly folded and meticulously centered on top of her father’s show piece, its sharp creases carried the heavy aura of guilt. Alieda hesitated only briefly, reaching out with a regretful twist to her lips before snatching it up and fastening the door behind her.

She brandished the folded paper at Thomas as she caught up with him. “Looks like you were right.” Then she stuffed the letter into her coat pocket for later scrutiny.

Thomas shook his head in amusement as she began rubbing down the giant squash, brushing away bits of dirt and debris to buff it to a glowing blue-gray shine. “I told you,” he ribbed. “Your father is a good man, for sure, but I only need one hand to count the number of times I’ve seen him indulge in sentimentality, and none of those were happy occasions…”

Alieda silently pressed her lips together.

“…Of course,” he went on, sensing her abrupt change in mood, “it could’ve just been around me that he was like that. He was always convinced I was going to marry you away from him. I mean, he did catch me in bed with you that one time.”

Alieda let out a short laugh, his overly chastened façade successfully lightening her mood. “Yeah—when we were children. I told him you were just keeping the nightmares away, but a father can’t be reasoned with, it seems.” She thought back, remembering for a moment the comfort she used gain from simply not having to sleep alone when she was little. Then she shook her head, determined not to dwell. “Now I think he keeps on hoping you will marry me away. Just the other week he asked what was going on between us and if we had plans to settle down soon. I had to stumble through this horrible ‘I don’t think I’m his type’ concoction, but I’m not sure if he bought it.”

Thomas grinned crookedly. “Not completely untrue, I suppose. Fates, Jaran must be desperate if he’s trying to push you off on me.”

Alieda smiled back at him, tucking the polishing rag away in her pocket before threading her arm through his again. “I don’t know, I still think you’re a pretty good catch.”

“Emphasis on the ‘pretty’,” he agreed fervently, tossing his blonde hair back with a dramatic flip. Alieda laughed, leaning against him as they walked arm-in-arm toward the square.

Evidence of this year’s Harvest Festival was growing more noticeable the deeper they moved into town. Garlands of grapevine and smilax hung in verdant archways along the roadway, and taprooms and bakeries alike had moved their tables outside and were serving patrons in the street, the main routes in and out of the village having been blocked for the occasion. The wide, slate-paved streets were already awash with people flitting here and there in the excitement of the festive morning, and Thomas was forced to slow his forward momentum to avoid mowing down roving villagers.

As they slowed to maneuver though one such crowd congregating at the cross-street, Thomas surprised Alieda with a light snort and nudged her in the arm. Turning to look, she found a gaggle of children, all bedecked in flowers and sprigs of golden wheat, gathered in rapt attention around the ominous figure of Mama Greenleaf, the village herbalist. She had shrouded herself in a dark veil, a broken flowerpot encircling her head like a ragged crown, and was leaning in close over her captive audience.

“…‘but my power is not my own,’ the Sixth of Dur contemplated from his dark tower’.” Her voice was low and raspy, her dramaticisms reminiscent of an old man. “‘That which the Maker has given me is being pilfered by the reach of the unworthy! I stagnate in my immortality while the multitude reaps the essence of what should be mine alone!’ And then, despite the misgivings of his brother and only council, Dark King Moriin loosed his legion of soul servants amongst the people, culling the spark of magic from humanity, destroying any and all who carried the gift to channel power within them.”

At this point, Mama Greenleaf reached behind her and emerged holding strung puppets of dark specters and leapt at the crowd of children. A chorus of squeals greeted her attack, and she chased them from their seats, cackling madly as she capered amongst them.

Alieda smiled at the old woman’s antics, earning a passing wink from the herbalist as they trundled by.

“She knows you’re back now,” Thomas murmured. “She’ll be asking.”

Alieda took a deep breath, pressing her lips together. “I know. And one of these days, I might just have an answer for her.” Giving his arm a quick squeeze, Alieda loped ahead to secure a table for the exhibition.

* * *

“I think you’re going to win,” Thomas remarked casually, peering around at the other contestants. “Nothing else here comes close to this.” He placed his hand on the giant squash, giving it a fond pat.

“They’re judging on more than just size,” Alieda told him, carefully watching the judges as they meandered past each exhibit. “Haven’t you ever seen the harvest competition before?”

He shook his head. “Nah. Never been that interested in vegetables. I’ll sometimes take a fresh catch to the livestock and game tables, but that’s usually it.” He cocked his head to peer around Alieda. “Looks like Ana’s done well.”

Alieda pulled her attention from the judges and followed his gaze. After a moment of searching, she found Ana’s thin, pale-haired figure beaming from behind a large basket of plump wheat, accepting a red satin ribbon from the event coordinator. Alieda grinned and raised her arm, stretching her hand up to catch her friend’s attention as Ana straightened from pinning the ribbon to her basket. Ana caught the motion and smiled, raising her arm to wave back just as enthusiastically, earning some sideways looks as she tugged meaningfully on the award.

“Looks like the Millers have won the grains division,” Alieda said as she dropped her arm back down.

“Yeah, unfortunately for the Ackersons…” Thomas replied in low tones.

So Thomas had noticed the dark looks, too. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” Alieda said absently, still watching the disgruntled farmer stationed next to Ana. “Their families adore each other. They wouldn’t let something as frivolous as a festival show stir up trouble.” But, watching the subtle curl ripple across Dale Ackerson’s lip, Alieda suddenly had her doubts.

The judges eventually approached the tables surrounding Thomas and Alieda, one of the visiting official’s eyebrows rising when he took in the size of Alieda’s entry. He said nothing on his approach, though, nor as he inspected it, and after a thorough examination, the group gave Alieda and Thomas each a respectful nod before withdrawing a few paces in conference.

They didn’t deliberate for long before the coordinator nodded and pulled a red ribbon from her skirt pocket. Alieda bounced discretely on her toes as the woman approached the tables, bypassing the other contestants in their section. Thomas’s elbow nudged her affectionately as the coordinator smiled and placed the ribbon into her hands.

Beaming, she turned and rested it on top of her squash. Then she looked up at Thomas. Thomas, though, was still looking back over her shoulder. Glancing down, he gave her a meaningful thrust of his chin, prompting her to turn back around.

The coordinator was still standing there, smiling at her. And as Alieda watched, she again reached into her skirt pocket and withdrew a large, gold ribbon. “Congratulations, Alieda,” she said. “Good job.” And she placed the second ribbon into Alieda’s stock-still hands, grasping them firmly in a warm shake.

Chapter 2

The Surprises

Alieda stared wide-eyed at the shimmering gold ribbon resting in her hands. This is… incredible. Looking up, she saw Ana skipping over to her through the light spattering of disinterested applause from the other farmers. Alieda got her arms up just in time and rocked back from the impact as Ana threw her arms around her. Alieda squeezed the other woman’s shoulders in a bewildered hug, eyes still wide from the unexpected victory.

“Congratulations!” Ana exclaimed, still holding Alieda tightly. “Everyone knew you were going to take Best in Show when you wheeled that beast in. How, by the Fates, did you get it to grow so big?”

Alieda released her and raised her hands, mystified. “Table scraps? Sawdust? Maybe squash likes cedar shavings?”

“Clearly,” she agreed, turning to give Thomas a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.

“Everything alright with ol’ Dale?” Thomas asked in casual tones as she sank back down to her heels.

Ana turned to look, seeming surprised. “Dale?”

Alieda turned to look too, but the disgruntled old farmer had already vacated the square.

Not finding him present, Ana just shrugged and shook her head. “As far as I know, why?”

“—Nothing,” Alieda hurried to answer as Thomas made to open his mouth. “Probably indigestion or something.”

Ana turned to look back at the booths in concern, affording Thomas the opportunity to mouth, indigestion? behind Ana’s turned head.

Alieda flashed him a tight-lipped, pleading look, not wanting to upset Ana. He took a breath and rolled his eyes, clearly disappointed in having to drop his bone. “…Yeah, definitely looked a bit pained in the gut. I’m sure Mama G will sort him out later.”

“Oh…” Ana gave a small pout as she turned back to them. “Well, have either of you eaten yet?” Thomas and Alieda both shook their heads and she brightened, regaining a modicum of her earlier cheer. “Come then, Bonnie’s has breakfast tables out and it smells amazing.” Stepping between them, Ana looped both of her arms firmly through theirs and marched them off in the direction of the baker’s shop.

* * *

After they had gorged themselves on fried eggs, sausage, and apple tarts, Alieda leaned contentedly back in her chair, breathing in the steam from a hot cup of apple tea.

“So, what’s next?” Ana eventually asked, sipping at her own cup.

Alieda set her mug down and leaned forward on the table, craning her neck to see the large clock in the center of town. “I need to be back at the square for craftsmanship at noon.”

Ana lifted a curious eyebrow at her. “Craftmanship?”

She nodded. “I’m showing one of Papa’s carvings for him since he’s away.”

“Are you, really?” Ana asked brightly. “Sera’s showing in it, too! You should see the piece she’s made. It’s so beautiful.” Her voice was wistful as she smiled, clearly picturing the piece in her mind.

Thomas grunted, amusement quirking up the corner of his mouth and he leaned back in his chair, threading his fingers together behind his head. “Well, don’t expect Best in Show this time, Shortcake. Sera’s never lost once she’s entered. Truth be told, it’s probably a good thing she doesn’t compete very often—it gives everyone else a shot at the ribbon now and again.”

Alieda rolled her eyes. Thomas hadn’t stopped calling her “Shortcake” since she was eight years old, despite her having grown to a definite height advantage over most of the other women in the village.

Thinking back to his words, though, she tilted her head, considering as her thoughts roamed back to the intricate centerpiece. “I don’t know… You haven’t seen Papa’s carving. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s beyond impressive, even for him. I wish he could have stayed to show it, himself.”

“—Mm!” Ana mumbled from around a sip of tea, as if just remembering something. “Did you hear about Bulra Upton?”

Alieda glanced once at Thomas, wondering what had sparked the abrupt jump in topics. Finding nothing helpful there, she shook her head.

Ana’s voice dropped conspiratorially. “Bulra’s managed to finagle a competition piece into every event.” She pointed a finger at the two of them. “And,” she added with emphasis, “she’s competing in the dances, too. You know what that means.”

Thomas barked out a short laugh. “Yeah. It means Alieda just crushed her little Upton dreams of winning High Season.”

Alieda stared incredulously at Ana. “High Season? She really thought she could win Best in Show in every division? No one’s managed that in…” she paused to think, “…thirty years? Maybe more? It was well before I was born, anyway.” She sipped at her tea but then quickly set it down again. “Besides,” she added, voice heating, “her harvest crop wasn’t even that impressive. Sugar beets? Honestly?”

Ana shrugged. “She did win the ribbon for her division.”

“Which, I was honestly surprised at. You saw the other entries, most of them were much more impressive.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what she’s entered in the craftsmanship division,” Thomas added. “I don’t know of anyone in her family who’s exceptionally crafty. I mean, her father’s a butcher and her mother’s never really had a trade.”

“—And Bulra has never worked a day in her life,” Alieda finished, disgusted. “Honestly, if she had won High Season, it would have been the biggest insult to anyone who’s ever worked to produce a competition piece.”

Ana stared at Alieda from over her cup of tea, one pale eyebrow arched like an egret’s wing. “You’re saying ‘honestly’ quite a bit.”

“Keeps her from saying something really nasty and ruining her ladylike sense of class,” Thomas allowed in a dry voice. “I’ve heard some of the things that can come out of that mouth… Absolutely shocking.”

Alieda shot him a level look before tipping back her cup and swallowing her remaining tea in one gulp, scalding her throat a bit in the process. “I’ll be back in a while,” she said with a pained grimace, tossing a few coins down on the table as she rose. “I need to get home and back to the square in an hour. See you at the exhibition.”

* * *

Alieda approached her home with the usual amount of caution, pausing vigilantly at the gate, alert for any signs of clucking or rustling grass. Honestly, the village should’ve labeled Reggie a public menace by now and had him put out of my misery.

There was no sign of the infamous rooster lurking around the front of the workshop however, and Alieda managed to slip in without incident. Safely inside, she took the time to pull out her father’s letter, now wrinkled and creased from being in her jacket pocket all morning. She sat down on her stool at the workbench and carefully unfolded the sheet of crumpled paper.

Alieda,

I’m sorry for leaving you so unexpectedly. It was a cowardly thing to do, I know, but recently, as I’ve gotten older perhaps, saying goodbye to you has become one of the hardest things I ever have to do. Even as I write this, my heart is becoming heavier with the knowledge that you will, once again, be out of my protection. Even though I know you are grown, and even though I know my absences are only temporary, a father’s duty is to protect, always, and you, my dear, are all I have left to protect.

I write this only so you will know my lack of farewell is not a sign of indifference, but in fact, quite the opposite. I love you, my daughter, with all my heart. I will think of you constantly while I am away, and I hope to return to you before the snows fall.

Love always,

—Papa

Alieda breathed deeply, trying to keep the burgeoning tears from spilling over as guilt hit her like an avalanche, causing her insides to go all cold and squirmy. How he must worry about her every time she escaped to the mountains. Here she was, always running away; away from the suffocating confines of her far too-empty home, away from the nauseating mix of sympathy and judgement from chattering small-town minds. But her father was always so stoic, so strong. She often forgot he had lost just as much as she—maybe even more. How does the loss of a wife and child compare to that of losing a mother and a sister? Could they even be compared? Could grief even be measured in such mundane concepts?

Whatever the case may be, Alieda felt their absence keenly, now.

She glanced out the window to gauge the level of the sun. She had a little bit of time.

Entering the house through the adjoining door to avoid any run-ins with Reggie the Rooster, Alieda made her way down the hallway to her bedroom and pulled open the door to her closet. Kneeling down, she grasped the handles of her carved cedar chest, slowly sliding it out through the doorframe and lifting the heavy lid. Reverently, she folded back the protective layer of fine, cream-colored linen.

Ripples and folds of red silk glistened like the sunset as she lifted the heavy dancer’s skirt from the trunk. Alieda ran her fingers down the shimmering fabric, remembering in flashes of red and gold how she would watch, mesmerized, as her sister danced, graceful and strong, moving to the sound of beating drums.

A soft knock startled her back into the present and she blinked, turning to find Sera standing at her bedroom door, a large parcel tucked beneath her arm.

“Sorry,” she said, her soft voice still a shock against the silence of the room. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I thought I would walk with you to the square, and it’s getting late…” She trailed off, looking at the silken layers of fabric in Alieda’s arms. “Was that Corinne’s?”

Alieda blinked rapidly and nodded, dropping the skirt back into the trunk. “Just getting a little nostalgic being so close to the dances, I suppose.”

Sera nodded, saying nothing. She was usually like that, quiet—the most reserved by far compared to Ana and Thomas. Maybe that was why Alieda enjoyed her company so much.

Nearly as soon as she thought this, though, she turned and saw the burgeoning determination rising in her friend’s face.

“No.” Alieda said firmly, cutting off Sera’s all too familiar argument.

Sera’s expression became frustrated. “I don’t see why you’re so dead-set against it. You’re good—I’ve seen you. You have the silks right there!”

Alieda pressed her lips together, quickly arranging the silks back into the protective confines of the trunk and closing the lid. “It isn’t a matter of not wanting to, Sera—I’d love to be up there on that stage, happy and smiling and dancing…” She sighed again. “But the fact remains that I’ve never had any formal instruction. I don’t know the first thing about being a praise dancer.”

One of Sera’s brows lifted. “Wasn’t Corinne teaching you?”

“That was nearly seven years ago. And we didn’t have that much time before—” She cut off before she went any further down the road of regrets. It wasn’t a safe place for her to be. Silently, she lifted the lid of the trunk once more, carefully straightening the white linen over the vibrant silk. “This was theirs—Mama’s and Corinne’s. Not mine.”

Sera gave her a penetrating look, watching as she lovingly nestled the silk back into its resting place. “You wouldn’t be taking anything from them,” she said, making Alieda’s hands pause in their work. “You would be doing them proud.”

Swallowing the sudden heat in her throat, Alieda shook her head. “Maybe another time.” Then, closing the lid firmly down over her memories, she rose and cast Sera a bright smile. “Shall we?”

* * *

They made it to the square with plenty of time to set up—Sera, with the metalsmiths, and Alieda with the woodcrafters. Sera had finally unveiled her piece and was drawing very notable attention from the judges, who had just approached her section.

Ana had been right; it was beautiful.

In short, it was a candelabrum, but it had been wrought to so precisely resemble a blossoming cherry tree that Alieda expected it to sway in the breeze.

It was no one’s surprise when Sera was handed the red ribbon, and Alieda watched from a distance as she thanked the judges and tied the ribbon to an arm of her piece.

A little nervous now, Alieda looked down the row of woodcarvers. She was sure she would win her division. Artisans had come with puzzle boxes, gilded frames, and hand carved furniture—among other, more mundane, crafts—but not one of them came close to the level of skill her father would have needed to produce the rose bramble centerpiece. But as for vest in show…

What does it really matter? she silently chastised herself. It’s not like I’m the one angling for High Season. Then, remembering Ana’s words from the bakery, she swept her gaze over the crowd of competitors, but Burla Upton was nowhere to be seen. Very interesting.

She graciously accepted the red ribbon from the coordinator when the time came and, satisfied for the moment, leaned against the side of her table to wait until the judges had finished with their other examinations.

Alieda chanced a glance at Sera. Catching the look, Sera raised her brows, tilting her head at Jaran’s carving.

She knows it’s down to the two of us as well. Butterflies wiggled in Alieda’s middle. Nervous, she showed her teeth, conveying her flurried anticipation to her friend, who then made an exaggerated gesture as if she were looking around for someone. Frowning, Alieda glanced around too before turning back to her, confused. Sera rolled her eyes and mouthed—Bulra.

Alieda’s brows lifted in understanding. Sera had noticed Bulra’s absence too.

She then pointed meaningfully at Alieda as if to say, your fault, and Alieda snorted a short laugh, supremely unaffected by the fact that she had caused Bulra so much disappointment.

The judges were nodding their heads now, flipping through some written notes and comparing references. This was one of the longest deliberations she had ever seen—not that she blamed them.

One of the judges, a tall, burly man with starlight scars spattered on his meaty forearms kept gesturing over to Sera and then bringing his hand back to his own chest in an unmistakably self-indicatory manner. Alieda tilted her head, trying to make out what they were saying, but they were too far away for her to hear. Whatever point the man had made, however, seemed to decide the rest of the judges, and he walked off in Sera’s direction, leaving the others bobbing their heads over their final marks.

Alieda suppressed the tiny sting of disappointment in favor of indulging in the pride she felt for her friend. Besides, there would be an auction later for the division winners. She would see if she could get a good price for the centerpiece there.

“Aleeda Carver?”

Alieda spun. “Sorry? Ah—Alieda,” she corrected, automatically phrasing the long ‘I’ vowel to her name. Then she paused, suddenly realizing who was addressing her. The event coordinator stood before her holding a large, bright gold ribbon.

Alieda gawked, most unbecomingly. Turning her face back up to him, she watched the sturdy judge nod in understanding before he lifted the large ribbon at her in a brief salute. Smiling crookedly, he placed it in her cupped hands.

“Please convey the judges’ appreciation of your father’s craftsmanship when next you see him.”

“I will,” she breathed, accepting the ribbon in astonishment. “Th-Thank you.”

* * *

Sera was shaking the burly judge’s hand by the time Alieda made her way over through the milling spectators. Sera turned to Alieda as she approached and raised her arms in excitement, leaning in to give her a congratulatory hug.

“Jaran outdid himself,” she announced. “I mean, I could forge that vining out of metal, easy, but… carving all those brambles and thorns from a single piece of wood… it’s incredible.”

“He has a gift,” Alieda agreed. “What was that judge saying to you? I thought for sure you’d taken Best in Show when I saw him walking back over here.”

Sera smoothed a stray wisp of hair down into the knot at the back of her head. “Well…” she hedged, not quite looking Alieda in the eyes, “…he was offering me a job.”

Alieda stared at her, not knowing how to respond.

“Apparently we both tied for Best in Show,” she hurried on, “but they could only award one winner, so…” She nodded in the direction the tall judge had retreated to. “That was Arch Abner. He owns one of the most prestigious metalsmith forges in Aralynd. According to him, the judges basically decided between the two of us by offering you Best in Show—which would benefit you more, locally—and offering me a position as artisan with him, which would benefit me more, professionally.”

Alieda didn’t know what to say. The glow of excitement she had been riding was now rapidly cooling, confronted with the unexpected news that one of her closest friends might be leaving.

“So, where is this forge he owns? Is it far?” She couldn’t help herself asking.

“L’Aberohn,” Sera answered, not looking at her, and Alieda’s heart sank. L’Aberohn was in central Aralynd, nearly a month’s journey in good weather.

Alieda ran her fingers over the fine-veined leaves adorning the intricate candelabrum. “Did you accept?”

“Not yet. I told him I needed some time to consider and talk to my family. My father depends on me a lot, now.”

Alieda nodded, feeling a surge of hope that immediately sickened her, selfish as it was, at the prospect of Sera feeling too guilty to leave home. “Well,” she said, trying to put her head back in the right place, “we should find Thomas and Ana and tell them the news.”

* * *

They eventually located the two at a ring tossing booth. Thomas had managed to loop two of his rings onto the same peg, to the apparent disgruntlement of the booth’s owner, and was gearing up to toss his third.

Alieda and Sera approached the booth and watched Thomas, his third and final ring held at the ready, surrounded by a crowd of hopeful and attentive onlookers. He squatted slightly, stuck his tongue out to one side, aimed… then gently loosed the ring. It soared gracefully through the air before landing neatly on top of its companions, circling the peg a few times before settling into place.

They joined the crowd in applause, watching a few small coins pass between eager and disappointed fingers as Thomas picked a prize from the far counter—a bright red spinning top, no doubt soon to end up in the possession of one of his younger sisters. He winked at the young man running the booth and bounced the top up and down in his palm a few times before turning away.

After they had maneuvered themselves from the gaming area, Alieda and Sera filled in the other two regarding events surrounding the craftsmanship exhibition and the suspicious absence of Bulra Upton.

“We saw her, didn’t we Thomas!” Ana exclaimed, tugging on Thomas’s jacket sleeve as they walked. “She didn’t look happy, either.”

“She was arguing with a man I didn’t recognize,” Thomas elaborated, extricating his sleeve from Ana’s grasp and moving her hand to the crook of his arm. “Probably someone visiting for the festival. We couldn’t tell what they were fighting about, but we heard her father mentioned once or twice.”

“Fates only know, then,” Sera remarked dryly. “Corban Upton is about as unscrupulous as they come. ‘Questionable’ is likely the nicest word I could use to describe some of his on-the-side business dealings.”

Alieda shook her head in distaste. “Whatever the reason, she obviously didn’t feel the need to continue showing after I took the harvest ribbon.”

“You don’t seem too upset about it,” Thomas observed, sounding amused.

“Not one bit,” she immediately agreed, not at all ashamed of the snarling quality to her voice. “When you grow up with a spoiled child like that calling you an urchin and saying you dress like a man because there are no more women in your house to teach you how to act—ostracizing you because you’re a motherless daughter—you tend to lose your liking for her. And if I’m the one who got to teach her that life doesn’t always turn out like she suddenly wants it to then I am perfectly fine with that. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if she and her father had tried to rig the competitions. How else could she have expected to win all the divisions? Especially knowing Sera was competing in craftsmanship.”

Thomas’s expression became thoughtful. “It might be worth mentioning to Elder Morrow, now that you put it that way. He would be able to look into the visiting judges.”

Alieda shut her eyes, attempting to calm the growing heat in her cheeks. “Why bother? The Uptons pretty much own half of the Eastonds. Besides, what could he do about it, anyway? I doubt anyone would actually be able to prove he arranged anything—or even if they could, would they be willing to.”

She kicked a stray stone out of the road, perhaps a bit harder than she really should have. Between the news of Sera’s employment offer and the thought of Bulra’s father rigging competitions, she suddenly didn’t feel like indulging in the festival anymore.

“I’ll catch up with you at the dances,” she said abruptly. “I want to take care of some things at home before it starts to get dark.”

Without waiting for a reply, Alieda departed.

* * *

Reaching her home, she shoved open the gate and kicked it closed behind her with a crack. A glossy black and gold head popped out from behind one of the rose bushes, issuing a low, avian growl.

Alieda hesitated, but then her brows dropped into a dangerous scowl. “Not a good time, bird.”

Predictably, though, Reggie lunged, beating his wings and lashing out with his taloned feet. Beyond frustration, Alieda kicked out, the top of her boot connecting squarely with the giant rooster’s chest. Reggie flew back several feet, undeterred, then rounded on her again, flaring his collar and coiling to spring. Alieda crouched in anticipation of his imminent attack.

Reggie leapt, and Alieda struck out with her hand.

She snagged the hurtling rooster by both legs and jerked him upright. Then he simply hung, upside down, wings spread, bewildered and still.

“Guess what, bird?” Alieda panted, adrenaline making her voice a bit shaky. “Entry fees can be paid up to until a competition begins.”

* * *

Alieda stared in giddy shock as she accepted the gold satin ribbon from the livestock and game coordinator. She could see Thomas from across the square, where he had set out a large line of river trout for display, wiping poorly restrained laughter from his eyes as he leaned against his table. Reggie, one scaly leg tethered to the tabletop, ruffled his feathers in frustration.

“See,” Thomas said as he approached, still laughing at the irony, “it’s a good thing you didn’t roast him after all. Who knew black and gold were such rare colorings?”

“Not to mention he’s the size of a turkey,” Alieda added, staring at her prize rooster with newfound appreciation. When no immediate reply came from Thomas, though, she turned to look at him.

He was staring at her—or, through her, really—in a deeply considering sort of way. His smile slowly went stale on his face as his eyes lost focus. Alieda watched, curiosity growing as this odd mutation took place.

“Thomas?”

He made no response.

“Thomas,” she called again, snapping her fingers beneath his nose. “Bring it back home.”

He blinked, visibly realigning some thought process he’d been turning over in his head. “Sorry, I-ah… just remembered—I need to go see Sera, about… something.” He paused again. “See you in a bit!” Then, with a parting wink, he turned with a bound and hurried away.

Alieda stared after him in confusion for a moment before shaking her head. Not the first time he’s wandered off on a tangent without me. She looked back at Reggie. “Suppose I should take you back home now.” Usually, exhibits were left on display until the festivities ended, but she wasn’t entirely sure if it would be advisable to subject the uninitiated to Reggie’s unpredictable temper. So, gathering him up beneath her arm, she set off for home.

The heavy bird was surprisingly pleasant away from his yard and harem, and he clucked low in his throat as Alieda meandered her way home, for once, in no real hurry to be anywhere. The dances weren’t for another couple of hours, and she didn’t have plans to meet up with anyone until then.

Reaching her home, she quietly latched the gate and lowered Reggie to the ground. He ruffled his feathers once as she set him in the grass, then strutted off in search of his ladies. Alieda smiled. Maybe this would be turning point for them.

Crossing the yard to the house, she reached for the handle of her front door, only to stare in bewilderment as the latch turned on its own initiative beneath her hand. Confused, Alieda simply watched as the door swung inward to reveal Sera, flanked by Thomas and Ana, all wearing expressions of the utmost gravity.

“What are you all doing here?” she asked, still confused. “Better yet, how did you get here before me?”

“We ran,” Sera answered succinctly, and she pulled Alieda inside by her still extended wrist.

“What are you doing?” Alieda pressed as Sera dragged her down the hallway toward her bedroom.

“You’ve won Best in Show in three out of four competitions. You dance like a goddess. You are going to compete for High Season.”

Sera’s reply was so matter of fact that Alieda had a hard time phrasing a refusal. “Sera, I can’t compete in the dances, I told you, I’ve never been taught.”

“Just because you haven’t been taught doesn’t mean you haven’t learned. You’ve learned from every dancer that’s ever walked across that stage, and you can win this.”

“Sera, honestly, I can’t—”

Sera jerked hard on her wrist and spun to face her. “You are going to compete for High Season. You are going to dance like you do when you think no one is watching because you are good, and because you will win, and most importantly,” she looked at her closely, “because you are a motherless urchin who never learned how to act.”

Alieda stared dumbly at Sera for a moment, her own words describing Bulra’s childhood torment of her ringing in her ears. Then she was spun by the shoulders to see Ana standing over the open trunk in her bedroom, holding up her sister’s dancing skirts and veils.

Moments passed as Alieda gazed at the silken costume in front of her, slowly becoming aware of a cautious, dawning sense of determination. Hesitantly, she reached out and took the heavily layered skirt from Ana’s hands.

She looked back, intent on her friend’s gaze. “Be completely honest with me, Sera. Do you really think I can do this? I’m not about to go up on that stage just to make a fool of myself.”

Sera rolled her eyes. “You should’ve been competing since you were twelve. Besides,” she added pointedly, “we already paid your entrance fee. Put it on.” Then she walked out of the room, closely followed by Thomas, and then Ana, who closed the door behind herself with a parting grin.

Chapter 3

The Dance

Alieda held the layers of delicate fabric in her arms. Heart pounding, she ran a finger over the gold embroidered beadwork and bells adorning the wide satin belt. How many times had she watched Corinne glide across the stage in these silks, seeming to float, swaying and undulating like autumn leaves…

She laid the skirt over the open lid of the trunk and reached down inside to retrieve the top, its elaborate beading and fringe glinting like a beacon in the evening sunlight coming in through her open window. She cringed. It looked so small now that she was faced with wearing it. She wasn’t exactly modest, but, all those people…

Alieda heaved a breath. “I’m going to regret this.” And she slipped loose the ties securing the back of the garment.

#

The door creaked treacherously a moment later when Alieda exited her room. She felt very exposed, wearing just her pants and the red beaded top. The decorative garment bared her entire midriff and a good amount of décolletage, as well.

Crossing one arm over her middle, she rubbed her opposite arm as if chilled. “The silk will need freshening,” she murmured. “It’s clean, but it’s been sitting in a trunk for about seven years. I figured I should probably be wearing the top before someone starts painting and powdering my face. At least, that’s how I remember Corinne always doing it…” she trailed off in memory. “And all of that is going to have to be someone else’s responsibility! I don’t know the first thing about all that—stuff…” and she fluttered her fingers around her face in attempted explanation.

Ana, who had not stopped smiling since Alieda had opened the door—honestly, the woman was practically bouncing in excitement—quickly rested her hand on a hinged box on the kitchen table. “I came prepared. But that braid is going to have to go.”

“Well, I’m not wearing it loose,” Alieda countered with a glare. “It’ll be a disaster if the wind picks up or if it gets all tangled up in a spin—absolutely not.”

Ana’s expression became beseeching, but Thomas stood up and walked past her, back into the bedroom. “It’s ok, I’ll fix it.”

Three surprised stares followed him out of the room.

Shrugging, Sera turned and took the pressing iron from its shelf and set it atop the stove in the kitchen, lighting it from the hearth fire with a practiced hand.

Thomas returned a moment later with a bag of accessories from the trunk, which included several long streamers of red silk ribbon, arm cuffs, bells and bangles for her ankles and wrists, and a broad silk veil, embroidered along its hem with gold thread. Plopping it down on the table with an approving nod, he made a grand inviting gesture toward one of the chairs.

Ana, taking the lead from Thomas’s prompt, steered Alieda over to the kitchen table where she sat her down and, without pause, began sweeping a powdered brush over her face. Thomas spun around another chair, taking up position behind Alieda. He fluffed loose her tight braid and began running a hairbrush through her now-wavy cascade of waist-length brown hair.

Alieda allowed herself a moment of peace, despite the turmoil in her middle, as she sat having her face caressed with soft brushes and her hair neatly arranged with gentle tugs.

“Where did you learn to braid hair?” Came Sera’s amused voice out of the distance of Alieda’s meditation. How much time had passed…?

“I have four little sisters,” he remarked dryly. “I can probably braid hair better than any goodwife in this village.”

Alieda smirked a bit at that.

“Ok, done,” he announced.

Alieda blinked her eyes open. Sera was standing before her, holding the skirt, which, having been freshly pressed, floated gently about the hemline, full bodied and liquid.

Alieda drew a fortifying breath and took the skirt from Sera’s hands, retreating into her bedroom to finish dressing.

* * *

The circular skirt wrapped fully around her waist and tied, but not snugly. It left nearly a hand’s-width gap between the beaded waistband and the flesh of her midriff. Alieda exited her room, still attempting to tighten the ties to achieve a more secure fit.

“I don’t know if this is going to work,” she muttered, pulling at the ties as she walked. “The skirt is too big.”

Sera heaved a put-upon sigh and stepped over, jerking the waistline down several inches to rest securely, very low, around her hips. The hemline just brushed the floor, and Alieda could see the soft outlines of her hip bones showing above the glittering waistband as she looked down.

“Nice boots,” Sera remarked, looking down as well.

Alieda blushed. “I’m not trudging all the way up to the temple in my bare feet,” she argued. “And I’m wearing Papa’s cloak. The last thing I need is for someone to see me like this on our way up there.”

“Planning on wearing it on stage, too?” Thomas asked, running a camouflaging hand over the amused expression on his face. Alieda kicked at him.

She jingled.

Thomas snorted.

Sera, looking exasperated, snatched Jaran’s cloak from the peg at the front door and tossed it to her. “Time to go.”

* * *

They did, in fact, see a few flutters of bright silk on their march through town as other dancers made their way to the temple amphitheater. The Temple of the Fates was situated at the highest point of the village on a rise heading deeper into the mountains. The entrance of the large marble edifice was oriented to face the east, while the rear amphitheater faced the west and the setting sun.

The benches were already nearly full by the time they made it up the rise, and Ana and Thomas wished her good luck at the entrance before disappearing around back to find seats. Sera, meanwhile, continued with Alieda all the way through the interior of the temple, right up to the door of the performance hall; only dancers allowed beyond.

Wordlessly, Sera held out her hands.

Heart pounding, Alieda slid the cloak from her shoulders and handed it to her.

“Boots, too,” Sera urged, waggling the fingers of her free hand.

With a slightly terrified grimace, Alieda scuffed her feet out of her boots and bent to pick them up.

Prying them from where Alieda clasped them to her chest, Sera traded them for the bangles meant to be worn around her ankles. Before turning to head back out the way she came, though, she grabbed Alieda’s chin, staring at her.

“You can do this,” she said, straightforward and calm. “Just get out on stage, then go somewhere else.”

And then she was gone, and Alieda was left to enter the performance hall on her own.

* * *

Dancers filled the interior of the hall, fluttering around the room in every color imaginable. Many stood lining the walls, using shelves or rails to stretch against, while others had retreated to private corners, eyes closed, subtly moving through muted gestures of routines long practiced.

Alieda had no routine. Alieda had no idea what she was doing here. All the vengeful determination that had carried her (though grudgingly and hesitantly) to this point had withered away to tiny, cowardly whimpers in the back of her mind at the sight of all the manicured and practiced dancers. All that remained now was the overwhelming desire to run—with or without her boots—and as the first dancer was announced and passed through the stage door, Alieda turned to do just that.

She stopped short with a jerk, nearly colliding with Molynda, who had apparently been hurrying to approach Alieda from behind. Molynda jumped as well, clasping a slate roster to her chest, clearly startled by Alieda’s sudden motion. She recovered quickly, though, smoothing down a lock of dark gold hair and beaming at Alieda before marking something down with a satisfied tic of a chalk stylus.

“You made it in time!” she breathed, clearly beside herself with excitement. “I just couldn’t believe it when Sera and Thomas came and told me you were going to be dancing tonight, oh I just couldn’t believe it!”

“Molynda, I really don’t—”

“Oh, no worries, dear. Of course, this is your first time competing, I forget myself. Most of these young women have been competing for so long I hardly need to direct them anymore. Come, over here.” Alieda stared, dumbfounded, as the normally mild and soft-spoken woman jabbered on in excitement and steered her over to a large slate board dominating the wall nearest the stage door. “Dancer’s positions are assigned first come, first called, according to when your fees were collected.”

Alieda searched until she saw her name, scrawled in uneven letters at the very bottom of the list. Across from each dancer’s name was a song title, some of which she knew, many others she did not. Alieda stared helplessly at the giant board, dazedly shaking her head. After a moment, Molynda squeezed her arm, bringing Alieda back to herself.

“Don’t worry. I know your first time can be daunting. Your father is going to be over the moon when he hears you were up here dancing tonight. I can’t wait to tell him. Oh, I can’t believe he’s going to miss this.” Molynda’s hand rested absently on a wooden brooch pinning the hem of her shawl to her dress—an intricate interweaving of circles and knotwork.

Alieda recognized the brooch as her father’s work and was suddenly reminded that he and Molynda had grown very fond of each other recently. She imagined her father’s face if Molynda were to, instead, relay the tale of his daughter’s flight through the village, running in panic and dressed in her sister’s old silks.

Alieda stared once more at the looming notice board and, resigning herself to the act, took a long, steadying breath. Another dancer passed through the doorway to the sound of ringing applause. Alieda swallowed back a surge of bile.

She heard someone call Molynda’s name.

“Alright, alright! Alieda, I’ll be back in a little bit. Go over to the mirror. Your left eye is a little smudged.”

She watched the tall, motherly woman move away through the remaining dancers, calling out directions and pointing her stylus at passing individuals. Alieda, as instructed, turned toward the large mirror on the opposite wall—and froze.

A wave of longing and heartache nearly had her reaching out, but then the movement of her arm broke the illusion. Not her mother—not even Corinne, who had always favored their mother so much. But there could be no denying the blood running through her veins, staring at this beautiful, wild, vibrant woman in front of her, looking like autumn herself wreathed in flames.

Her eyes had been darkly outlined and brushed in black. Her cheeks seemed higher, her features sharper. Thomas had honored her wishes to keep her hair braided, but he had started it up much higher on her head, rather than at the nape of her neck where she usually wore it, and it was no longer the single, tight plait, but an intricate interweaving of tiny braids and silk ribbons, all intertwined together and fluffed out in a complicated cascade down her back.

Ana had painted her lips a startling shade of red, matching the silk of her outfit. Her frequent treks into the mountains had left her strong and lean, and the soft lines of her abdominal muscles showed beneath the pale skin of her midriff, contrasting sharply with the crimson veils draped from the middle of her back to flow down like redbird wings and attach again to the gold beaded cuffs around her wrists.

Standing there, staring at the image of her heritage, Alieda finally began to wonder if this might just be possible.

She still held the gold bangles in her hands from when Sera had rushed her inside the performance hall. Slowly, with a strange mix of deliberation and numb fingers, she bent and clasped them around her right ankle, exposed through the split in the wrap-tie skirt.

Straightening, Alieda closed her eyes, trying to think back on past festivals, trying to remember the moments that had fascinated her, watching the graceful women of the temple praise dancers. She stood there a long time, eyes closed, silently listening to the drums from the stage beyond.

Finally opening them again, she caught the reflection of the room behind her. Nearly all of the dancers were gone.

 Molynda was making her way back over from the stage door, a quizzical expression on her face. Alieda quickly glanced back at her reflection, wiped away the smudged corner on her left eyelid, and turned back to face the other woman.

“Alieda, I need your song to give to the musicians.” Her stylus was hovering over her board as she stared at her, waiting.

Alieda stared back, mind racing. More applause from the stage drifted in as another dancer exited. Alieda’s face went white.

“Alieda?”

“I don’t really have a song,” she admitted in a rush.

Molynda blinked, not seeming to understand. “I’m sorry?”

Alieda took an exasperated breath. “Look, in case you didn’t pick up on this from Sera, this wasn’t really my idea. This—” she gestured harshly at herself, “—was kind of just sprung on me, and right now I’m really just trying to keep it together.” She sighed at the shocked look on Molynda’s face. “Look, just… tell the drummers to surprise me, and I’ll just try to keep up. I know most of the older rhythms, I’ll just…” Just, just, just… I’ll just what? she thought in frustration, mentally berating her own babbling. “…make it up as I go along,” she finished, trying to keep the whine of resignation out of her voice.

Molynda stared at her a moment longer before Alieda simply responded to her silence with a defeated shrug.

Blinking, Molynda shook her head as she regained her thoughts. “Well, I suppose… but Alieda, dear… are you sure?”

“Of course I’m not! But everyone in here has seen my name at the bottom of that board, and I’ll be damned before I give them the satisfaction of being able to gossip about how the carver’s daughter ran out on the competition!” Alieda sighed deeply. “I’ll just have to do the best I can.”

Muffled applause rolled in through the closed door leading out to the amphitheater stage. No other dancers remained in the hall.

She turned to look back at Molynda. “I guess that’s me, then.”

Molynda’s head flicked around to look at the board. Then, with one final glance at Alieda, she left to give the drummers her instructions. Alieda followed her path over to the stage door and rested a steadying hand against it, listening to the announcer beyond.

“A new face to the stage…” she heard called out in a carrying voice, then her name, followed by a hesitant, but polite, ripple of applause. Alieda took a deep breath, lifted her chin, then opened the door and stepped through onto the stage.

* * *

The golden light from the setting sun was momentarily blinding as Alieda passed from the darkened room out into the brightness of the amphitheater. She blinked, swallowing against the sudden tightness in her chest, and then she began her journey to center stage.

Her bare feet whispered against the stone floor as she moved, creating a subtle half-cadence against the rapid pounding of her heart. Oddly, she found herself finding comfort in the sound, each step becoming part of a progression in a vital rhythm that resounded in some primal way deep within her. The bells at her hips and ankles, chiming in tempo with her steps, only served to reinforce the sudden, deep-seated feeling of tradition growing within her as their time-honored sound signaled her entrance as one of a praise dancer.

She reached center stage and halted, not quite knowing what to do next. Her frantic eyes swept the crowd for any sign of her friends.

There. She saw them—Sera, Thomas, and Ana. They had finagled seats only a few rows back from where she stood. Ana was gripping Thomas’s arm in barely restrained excitement, but Sera seemed to be reading Alieda’s panic. Holding her gaze, she mimed taking a deep breath, moving her hand up and down in front of her as she did.

Alieda followed her lead, breathing deeply before moving her unsteady gaze to rest on the drummers at the opposite end of the stage.

Molynda was there, passing along what Alieda knew to be her unorthodox instructions as to her accompaniment. The drummers were nodding, some even smiling, and as Molynda made her way off stage, one of the drummers turned to Alieda and winked.

Well, that’s… comforting… Alieda’s stomach surged, but she managed to give a return nod and then listened carefully as the low thrumming of her rhythm began.

She closed her eyes.

Doom, doom, tec-a-tec, doom tec-a-tec.

The beat rippled through her as one she recognized—a beginners beat, used when teaching forms.

Doom, doom, tec-a-tec, doom tec-a-tec.

She raised her veiled arms out to her sides to frame her body, slowly rolling her hips in time with the drums, punctuating each heavy beat with a measured pop of a hip, using her body to illustrate the sounds.

She thought of afternoons spent in the back yard as a child, her mother teaching Corinne the precise and strenuous motions of the dance frames while Alieda followed in the background, one of her father’s shirts drifting around her hips like a little dancer’s skirt.

More drummers began joining in, and the complexity of the sequence increased. Alieda stepped easily into the beat, feeling the deeper reverberations in the pit of her stomach as they pounded on.

The wind blew through the trees surrounding the temple, rustling the leaves in a rippling hush. The sound of it as it lifted the silk at her arms joined the rising accompaniment of her drummers, and she moved to its call, imagining her secret places in the forest.

Go somewhere else

Alieda wove her fingers through the air, allowing the movement of the wind and the sound of the drums to pass through her hands like water in a mountain stream.

And then, Alieda let go of the stage. She was dancing, alone in the forest, with nothing but the trees and the setting sun to witness her movements. She followed the beats as they passed into the imagery of jagged slopes and river rapids, moving instinctively, creating the rise of the morning fog with the rolling of her spine.

Her cadence increased again, and Alieda spun before dropping to her heels, back straight and erect, sinuously gliding one leg out to the side. Her legs were strong, and the frame of the Rushing River was effortless for her to hold as her arms and wrists snaked outward and up. She rose slowly, undulating her rib cage in wide, strong circles, feeling the summer tempests in the rolling sway of her back.

The drums matched her—pulsing, throbbing—pulling Alieda deeper into their pounding lure. She spun twice, thumping her heels in time with the increasing beat, snapping her hair around like a whip as she dipped forward, following the spin around.

Continuing the motion, she slowed, halting with a trailing hand beckoning out to the hills. Sliding one foot out behind her, she leaned backward, lowering herself and rolling her shoulders as she bent, arching her back until her braid dragged on the floor of the stage. She paused there, holding the frame of the Crescent Moon, one hand extended lightly behind her, reliving so many nights spent sleeping alone beneath the sky.

Curling back up, Alieda fully gave in to the insistence of the drummers as they continued to broaden their performance. Her hips blurred around and around in ever increasing circles as her knees fluttered, keeping pace with their wild enthusiasm. The fringe along her waistband danced madly as she lowered herself to her heels and back up again, holding her wrists pressed tightly together before her, making the frame of the Vessel with her hands and lifting herself, as if ascending, into the frame of the Rising Sun. Casting her arms wide, she stepped into another spin before tossing one leg up and over her head as she dropped her upper body into a wide, diving, circle—once… twice… three times… carrying the crimson silk up and over in fluid circles, her body telling the story of nights giving way to dawns.

She could feel, rather than hear, the drummers working to a climax. Alieda stepped out of her last Dawn Circle, turning and throwing herself backward over her extended arms, kicking her feet up and over her head before springing over once more in a tumbling flip she had never actually seen a woman perform on stage before, but one she had always practiced secretly, when she was alone.

She landed solidly, dropping to her knees in the back-bowing frame that traditionally signaled the conclusion of a praise dance. The drummers caught the queue, and on the last measure, Alieda gave one final, primal sway of her body, then swung her face and arms forward onto the stage floor, hands clenched into triumphant fists.

Alieda’s lungs were heaving, but as the ringing in her ears began to fade, she could hear applause. Loud, enthusiastic applause, in fact, complete with whistles and cheers. She chanced looking up and saw the audience on their feet. She turned to face the drummers, who were also applauding, faces red and sweaty from exertion, their expressions suggesting to Alieda that this was the most fun they’d had on stage in a long time.

Standing, Alieda turned to the crowd—which she now realized had grown considerably from when she had arrived earlier—and performed a sweeping dancer’s curtsy, bowing her head nearly to the stage floor. As she straightened from the low genuflection, she saw her three friends maneuvering their way to the end of their aisle. Gathering up her skirts, she hurried toward the edge of the stage to meet them.

Molynda was there first, though, when she reached the steps, and she swept Alieda up in an exuberant embrace.

“You were absolutely incredible, Alieda! That was stunning! I can’t believe you’ve never danced with us before now. Oh, I can’t wait to tell your father!”

Alieda laughed in exhilaration, riding the waves of adrenaline still coursing through her limbs. Then Ana was there, and Alieda staggered from the impact as her friend collided with her, arms squeezing tightly in effervescent joy. Thomas reached her next and, after Alieda had extricated herself from Ana, he lifted her bodily into the air, swinging her around like he had when they were children, veils and silk flying in her wake as she laughed.

He settled her back on her feet. Steadying herself, Alieda searched for Sera.

She was there, standing a bit behind Thomas, holding Alieda’s cloak and boots, and wearing an extremely satisfied expression.

“No gloating,” Alieda warned.

Sera smirked. “All gloating will be reserved until after the judging.”

Alieda furrowed her brow. Oh, right… this is a contest. Caught up as she’d been in the euphoria brought on by the vibrant dancing, she’d momentarily forgotten the significance of her presence here at the competition. Glancing around the still raucous audience, she searched until she found the table of judges, heads still lowered in conference.

Biting at her lip, she turned back to stare at Sera, unable to keep herself from knitting her fingers together in restive tension. Dare she even hope?

The crowd abruptly stilled and Alieda spun to find the judges standing. Molynda reached out to give Alieda’s hand a brief squeeze and then hurried over to the table. A call for the dancers to return to the stage echoed over the amphitheater, and Alieda felt her knees go weak.

Maneuvering her way back up the steps, she fell in line with the other dancers, fidgeting as she watched Molynda weave her way back up to join them, two cards folded securely in her hands.

She halted at center stage facing the audience, her trim figure and dark, honey-gold hair looking right, somehow, paired with all the flamboyantly dressed dancers. Taking a breath, she flipped open the card labeled as number one.

“The honor of best male-form presentation,” she read in a clear, ringing voice, “goes to Haden Ackerman, of Khona.”

Applause rose and fell as a tall young man with black curly hair met Molynda at center stage, fine layers of black and white linen billowing at his sleeves and pant legs as he moved. He gripped her hand briefly as he accepted his ribbon, bowed once to the crowd, and then returned to his place in the line-up.

A pregnant hush settled over the ridge as Molynda turned once more to the audience, faces static and alert in their anticipation. Alieda could feel her body going hot and cold by turns, and she bit her lip, not wanting to hope…

“The honor of best female-form presentation, and winner of dancer Best in Show, goes to…” Molynda paused dramatically before flipping open the card labeled as number two.

Alieda’s nervous gaze bore into the woman, but she could read nothing from Molynda’s posture as to the name she was reading on the inside of the card.

Finally, Molynda’s eyes returned to the audience, and Alieda could hear the pride in her voice as she announced, “Alieda Carver, of Coryul!”

The crowd erupted.

Alieda sank to her heels and covered her face with her hands as a tidal wave of emotion crashed over her. She had done it; she had won High Season.

Arms flew around her, and she felt herself being lifted to her feet. Dancers and drummers and spectators were closing in on her from all directions, and she yelped as Thomas unexpectedly hoisted her to sit atop one of his wiry shoulders. She laughed in wild exhilaration as she found her balance above the press of surrounding faces. Thomas bounced her up and down in celebration as he turned on the spot, causing Alieda to shriek and grab a fistful of his blonde hair to keep from losing her balance.

Wincing as he laughed, Thomas steadied her with a squeeze of her knee. Then he marched her off stage amid the roaring of the crowd, down the mountain path leading into the village, accompanied by the sound of music, laughter, and the beating of drums.

Chapter 4

The Shindy

Harvest festivals in Coryul Village normally culminated in an evening shindy with plenty of music, wine, and dancing. This year, with Coryul having its first High Season winner in decades, the event had evolved into a revel. No sooner had Thomas swung Alieda down off his shoulder than Haden Ackerman, the men’s division winner, spun her out into a brisk, whirling dance in the center of the square.

Alieda had never danced with a man before, other than Thomas and every once in a while, her father, so the feeling of Haden’s hand, broad and warm on the exposed skin of her waist, was a foreign and heightening sensation. He spun her out, then back in, halting her momentum with his own body. The heat of him as he leaned into her, using the pressure of his body and arms to direct her movements, made her cheeks flame and heart race.

With mingled relief and regret, the song changed, and Alieda was caught up by someone else, moving to a dance that was not nearly so robust. Haden’s hand lingered on hers, however, as he regretfully passed her off to the next hopeful.

Eventually, she found herself in Thomas’s familiar grip. They danced a couple upbeat songs together, stomping and kicking to the drums and fiddles, and Alieda even danced a few with Sera and Ana before collapsing onto a bench, accepting a cup of hot mulled wine from Thomas. The wine warmed her middle, which was welcome, as the chill of the evening was suddenly catching up with her.

Sera saw the gooseflesh prickling up Alieda’s arms and handed her back her boots and cloak. Alieda took them, grateful that Sera had held onto them through the events of the evening.

Once properly shod, she stood to drape the cloak around her shoulders and saw Haden Ackerman seated across the square, watching her from over the top of a large mug of wine. His cheeks were flushed, and he seemed unaffected by the chill in the air. Alieda blushed at the intensity of his stare and finished fastening her cloak before seating herself again.

“He’s a yummy one,” Thomas remarked, following Alieda’s gaze. Ana snorted into her wine.

“And intense,” Alieda agreed. “I barely survived our dance together.”

Sera looked closely at her, amusement lacing her words. “Look at your face. It can’t be the wine yet… You’re swooning all over him.”

“I am not!” she protested, sounding for all the world like a guilty schoolgirl. “We just shared a dance together, that’s all.”

“Well, you must have made an impression,” she insisted. “He’s still staring at you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I am certainly not that impressive.”

Ana frowned at her. “Why would you say that? You’re gorgeous—just look at you.”

“This is Alieda’s first experience actually resembling the female of the species,” Thomas teased in a mock hush toward Ana. “Don’t judge her too harshly.”

Alieda backhanded him lightly in the chest. “Stop it! Honestly, though, what should I do?”

“Depends,” Thomas answered, shrugging. “Looking for a fling? He’s probably leaving town in the morning.”

“Of course not! What kind of question is that?”

He gave her a baffled look, turning beseechingly to Sera. “I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question.” Then, at Sera’s pointed eye roll, he sighed dramatically. “Very well then, shall I let him down easy for you?”

Alieda hesitated, then nodded. No good would come of pursuing anything with Haden if he was only in town for the festival.

She leaned closer to Thomas, expecting him to put a possessive arm around her, as he so often did for Ana when she wanted to avoid unwanted attention. Instead, though, she found Thomas had leaned forward onto the table, nearly brushing her shoulder, encroaching into the line of sight between herself and Haden.

Not able to help herself, Alieda peered around him to look at Haden. He had glanced away to speak to someone next to him, giving Alieda an excellent view of the high color in his cheeks. After only a moment, though, his gaze returned to find Alieda staring right at him. His answering smile was enticing as he lifted his mug to his lips.

Thomas blew him a kiss.

Haden sputtered and choked on his wine. Quickly setting his mug down on the table, he leaned over and plucked his drink-spattered shirt away from his chest. Sera and Ana hid their laughter behind their own mugs, and Alieda turned away, wide-eyed and mortified.

“You are unbelievable!” she hissed.

“What?” Thomas complained. “He’s pretty.”

“And you are outrageous.”

“Mildly, yes,” he agreed, “but I bet he won’t bother us now.” Then he flagged down a passing server for another round of drinks. “Here,” he said, handing her one. “You deserve to celebrate.” And he tapped his cup to hers. “Turrah.”

* * *

By the bottom of her second drink, Alieda’s head was beginning to spin rather pleasantly. She refused a third mug from Thomas but accepted a dance from the Cooper’s apprentice, Jared—who had never showed any interest in her before but was now very keen for her attention. Several others requested dances with her, and others asked to have a drink with her. Some, she accepted, others, like the red-faced old Tom Dombero, she politely refused. Thomas, who was practiced at running interference for Ana, seamlessly accepted the role for Alieda tonight, exercising his impeccable taste in men by swooping in to spin her into a dance whenever unwanted attention threatened.

It was nearing midnight by the time Alieda decided it would be a good idea for her to retreat for the night. Her head was spinning in earnest now, both from the strong wine and the long night of dancing.

She passed, relatively steadily, through an open taproom door and had them fill her mug with water to help cool her parched throat. She’d never realized how popular the praise dancers were at these shindies, and she, having won the competition, had been passed from arm to hopeful arm the entire night.

Alieda maneuvered her way back outside to her companions, who were sitting drowsily around a recently vacated table. Thomas was the first to announce his departure shortly after Alieda joined them, and Ana left with him, taking the opportunity to have him walk her home. Sera lingered with Alieda a while longer, watching the few remaining couples still dancing to the music in the square, but it wasn’t long before she, too, set her mug down and sighed.

“I’m turning in for the night. You ready?”

Alieda shook her head. “I’ll stay just a bit longer,” she said, enjoying the fuzzy lassitude that had stolen over her body, her lips and tongue just a beat too slow for her words. She indicated her half-full mug of water. “If I don’t finish this before I go home, I’ll regret it tomorrow.”

Sera nodded skeptically. “You’re ok to get home?”

“It’s just a short walk, I’ll be fine,” she insisted, resisting the urge to roll her eyes at her friend’s concern.

“Alright, if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” she pronounced carefully. “Goodnight.”

Alieda watched the dancing couples for a while longer after Sera left, sipping on her water in a state of utter contentment. Lost in idle contemplation, she ran her thumb back and forth over the rim of her mug, her thoughts turning automatically to her father, as they often did during his absences. She hoped he was safe. Then, she amused herself by imagining what his reaction would be when she finally told him she’d won High Season. A brief smile passed over her lips at the prospect.

But then her smile faltered, and she pulled her lower lip between her teeth. Now that she had the leisure to think about it, she hadn’t any idea what winning High Season actually meant for her. She knew she would be able to collect the purses for the Best in Show winnings, but beyond that…

Shrugging, she lifted her mug to her lips, draining the last bit of water. It would be a question for another day. Setting the empty mug back on the table, she stood, straightening her cloak around her shoulders in preparation for the walk home.

“Alieda?” The voice was soft and low, one she didn’t recognize, and she glanced up at the unfamiliar sound of it saying her name.

It was Haden.

“…It is Alieda, isn’t it?” he questioned.

“Y-yes, I am… I-I mean, it is,” she stammered, staring awkwardly up at the tall, black-haired young man.

He grinned at her. “I was hoping to speak to you before the evening ended, but it seemed wise to wait until your honor guard departed.”

Alieda blushed, sweeping her lashes to the ground. “Right…” she mumbled, mortified anew at Thomas’s actions on her behalf. “I was actually just about to head home for the night.”

She moved to step around him, but he shifted, angling himself in front of her and reaching out to touch her arm. His hand was very warm.

“Please,” he insisted, “One last dance. And then, if you wish, I will walk you home myself.”

Alieda hesitated, but Haden persisted.

“Just one dance.” He held out his hand to her, expectantly.

Slowly, after a moment of hazy deliberation, Alieda took it. Why not? “Just one.”

Haden smiled and pulled her out into the square.

Most of the musicians had already retired for the night, but a few of the drummers remained, along with one lutist. Haden pulled her into a dance that matched the slow, insistent rhythm emanating from the drums, sliding her effortlessly back into the strong frame of his arms—allowing her to lean on him more than she had originally needed to during their prior dance together. Her cloak fell open as she reached up for his shoulder, and his hand found the skin at her waist, sliding around and down, resting low on the small of her back to press her tighter against him.

Alieda was sure he must be able to feel her heart pounding through the thin linen of his shirt; her middle was pressed so tightly against his own. Not wanting to look up at his face, she stared instead down at the thin wisps of dark hair peeking through his laced collar. Shocked at the direction her own thoughts were taking, she found she wanted to touch them. She turned her face away, looking off to the side instead, licking her suddenly dry lips.

Haden’s hand on the small of her back pressed her pelvis hard against the strength of his thigh, and she could feel it bunching and flexing beneath her as he guided her through the slow gain and retreat of his steps, the rhythmic rise and fall of his movements making her wine-muddled body feel like water cresting against the shore. His warm fingers on her back slipped lower behind the concealing cover of her cloak, gently worrying at the hem of her waistband as they moved as one.

Alieda’s breath was coming much quicker than the dance warranted, and she could feel heat rising to the surface of her skin. Her right hand tingled in his as he stroked his thumb over her fingers, and her left fought the urge to tighten where it encircled the swell of his shoulder, gripping the firmness of his muscle as he supported her weight, leading them in hypnotic tandem.

Suddenly, Haden’s momentum shifted forward, leaning into her, extending her backward until her spinning head lolled back and she hung, completely supported by his strong arms.

Unable to help herself, she trailed one arm up and over her head before reaching back to him as he slowly, so slowly, curled her back up to face him, her fingers sliding through the soft curls at the nape of his neck.

His face was a barely an inch away and he stilled, not moving them back out into the dance, hovering a breath away from her, his chest rising and falling against her own. Alieda held very still, not knowing what to expect. Not knowing what to do.

His words felt hot against her skin as he leaned in close, lips nearly brushing her ear as he whispered, “Come with me.”

Not knowing why, she nodded, not trusting her voice to speak. Alieda felt the rise of his cheek against her temple as he smiled, and he spun her once in an artistic exit before pulling her into the space between two buildings.

They retreated quickly into the darkness where suddenly, Alieda’s back was against a wall, one of Haden’s warm hands gripping her firmly behind her neck.

The heat of his mouth as it met hers was a welcome shock. Fire rushed from her lips all the way down her legs, and she reached up, knotting both of her hands in his soft, black curls. She trailed her hands down his neck as his lips moved and pushed against hers, coaxing her mouth to open to him. Daring to, she felt his tongue slip inside, and they were suddenly sharing each other’s breath. He tasted of spices and wine and she abandoned herself to the wild sensations he was drawing from her, gasping softly when he unexpectedly bit at her tongue.

Haden issued a pleased growl at the sound and deepened his kiss, pressing her harder against the wall. Alieda braced herself against his chest, running her fingers over the coarse hairs at his throat that had so intrigued her while they were dancing.

The heat of Haden’s roaming hand found her hip through the split in her skirt and squeezed, causing Alieda to gasp in earnest, shying away. Warm lips took instant advantage of her exposed neck, and she heard herself moan helplessly in response, immediately giving back in to his attentions. His hand trailed down toward her knee, and he pulled her leg up to hook around over his hip. Running his hand back up her thigh, he leaned into her, pulling at her, rocking his hips forward and causing Alieda to suck in a startled breath as something indecently foreign pressed hard against her.

He made a pleased sound and found her mouth again.

A chill suddenly ran down her spine, one completely unrelated to the sensations rising in her from Haden’s touch. It felt intrusive, wrong. She shivered as the feeling crept down her limbs, but the act only seemed to encourage Haden, and he pressed himself against her again, grinding her back uncomfortably against the wall.

Opening her eyes, she turned her head away, panting as she stared down the dark alley. She thought she heard something, but Haden’s mouth on her neck and the sound of his breathing in her ear was making it hard for her to focus.

The sound came again, louder this time. A sound like crashing—breaking.

“Haden, wait,” she breathed.

Haden didn’t seem to hear though, his hand now kneading the flesh of her backside.

She grabbed his wrist. “Haden, stop—listen.”

“—What?” His voice between heavy breaths was rough and slightly abrupt, but the sound echoed down between the buildings again and he, too, turned to look toward the far end of the alley.

With some difficulty, Alieda angled herself to where she could gently push away and then crept toward the sounds coming from opposite the square. Cautiously, she peered around the corner of the building. Haden followed, close at her side, keeping one hopeful hand on the small of her back.

At first, she saw nothing, save the displays which had been left out for auction. A sudden movement though, dimly lit as it was in the remaining lamp light, caught Alieda’s attention, and she looked around just in time to watch Bulra Upton lift her father’s rose bramble carving into the air—and smash it to pieces against the hard surface of the wooden table.

Alieda stared, shock freezing her in place as she felt her stomach drop out beneath her. Haden’s insistent hand was still attempting to circle around her middle from behind, but she batted it away, all of her disbelieving attention now focused on Bulra, who had swept the wreckage of her father’s centerpiece to the ground and was now raising a foot to finish the job.

“NO!”

Alieda’s cry bordered on a shriek as she completely broke free of Haden’s grip, staggering away from him into the exhibition square. She ran as fast as she could, swiftly closing the distance between herself and Bulra, but not before one booted heel came down hard, shattering the remains of the precious carving. Alieda felt the cracking of the slender wooden vines as if her soul were shattering along with it.

She didn’t slow as she rushed toward Bulra but dropped her shoulder and connected squarely with the other woman’s chest. Her momentum was sufficient to carry them both over the remains of the carving and propel Bulra backward to land in a sprawling heap on the ground.

Polished horn-heeled boots scuffed across slate pavers as Bulra struggled to extricate herself from her tousled skirts. “You filthy w-wretch!” she cried, words stuttering and slurring as she raged.

Alieda glanced up from her frantic gathering of broken fragments to find Bulra regaining her balance with great difficulty. Alieda may have indulged a little more than was her norm this night, but it was clear Bulra had far surpassed her.

Alieda clawed furiously at the ground, scooping up leaves and dirt along with the remaining pieces of rose and vine, bundling them all together in a corner of her cloak. Scrambling upright, she gripped her little bundle protectively in her arms and began backing away from Bulra, who had finally regained her feet.

“That thing wasn’t even s-supposed t-to be here!” she screamed, raging at the broken remains and thoroughly confusing Alieda. “What woodcarver leaves his b-best piece at a backcountry festival when he’s bound for a w-world renown bazaar!” She swung her arms at Alieda, clawing at her face. Alieda ducked, stumbling on the hem of her skirt but catching herself against a tabletop before she could hit the ground. Bulra staggered when her swing missed, and she lurched forward, falling heavily against the same table as Alieda, her unfocused eyes twitching in the dim light.

Steadying herself with great effort, Bulra swept out her arm, reaching for the display piece sitting atop the table next to them. Glints of copper and bronze gleamed bright in the meager firelight.

Sera’s candelabrum.

“And this,” she hissed, grasping the solid piece by the shaft. “Who turns down an invitation to the artisan’s w-world s-stage… to compete against farmers and gypsies!”

Alieda gasped, eyes flying wide as Bulra raised the heavy candelabrum and swung it at her head. She dove to the side, avoiding the blow, but falling in earnest this time. Still holding her little bundle of wood fragments tightly in her arms, she struggled backward, frantically trying to regain her feet amid the tangle of skirt and cloak.

“Bulra, stop! What are you doing?” But she knew her words wouldn’t reach her, swept up in her drunken fury, and she watched in panic as Bulra again raised the candelabrum, gripping it with both hands high over her head. “Bulra, NO!”

“THEY WEREN’T EVEN SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!” Her voice was a clarion shriek, raw in its savagery, leaving Alieda with no doubts; Bulra meant Alieda real and immediate harm. She swung the heavy bronze shaft downward and Alieda squeezed her eyes shut, raising her arm.

Footsteps rushed past her, and Alieda blinked up in time to see Haden dart in front of Bulra, redirecting her descending blow as easily as if he had been leading her in a dance. He was quickly followed by Tom Dombero, old but sturdy, who wrangled the candelabrum from Bulra’s violent grip.

Limbs going cold with shock, Alieda watched as the heavy candleholder fell and struck the paving stones like a bell signaling the end of a match.

As Tom and Haden wrestled with Bulra, more footsteps announced the arrival of what appeared to be all who had remained at the shindy, drawn by her and Bulra’s shouting. Clearly having the clarity of thought Alieda had not when confronted with the destruction of her father’s work, Haden had apparently retreated and returned with what Alieda had needed most just then—witnesses.

Alieda climbed to her feet, cradling the bundle of broken wood to her middle. Looking down at it, she saw with an odd, detached interest, that she was shaking.

Cool hands touched her shoulders and she jumped, finding Molynda there, steadying her. Alieda let out her breath and leaned into the reassuring presence of the older woman, relaxing a bit as Molynda wrapped an arm around her.

“Fates, Alieda, are you alright? What happened?”

Alieda shook her head, still confused. “I’m not sure. I heard some noise from the alley, and when I came to look, Bulra was…” She paused, reliving the image of her father’s painstaking and meticulous work being smashed against the tabletop. Instead of finishing her explanation, she opened the folds of her cloak, revealing the battered remains of the centerpiece. Molynda’s hand flew to her mouth, and Alieda recognized the heartache on her face.

“Oh, Jaran,” she breathed, tears threatening on the edges of her lashes as she brushed her fingers over the broken shards.

“Bulra kept going on about how this and Sera’s piece weren’t supposed to be here, like she expected them to be somewhere else during the festival.” Alieda turned at the sound of someone approaching from the direction of Bulra’s retreating fury.

Haden jogged to a halt beside her, reaching out he slowed. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m fine—thanks to you and Tom. Thank you… for your help.” Her words sounded stilted and awkward, especially considering the state they had been in only a few moments ago.

He looked her over briefly, assessing her, then reached for her arm. “Here, let me walk you home.”

Surprising herself—and Haden, by his expression—she leaned away, tighter into the reassuring fold of Molynda’s arm. “Molynda will walk me home,” she said quickly, turning to look at her as though to ask, won’t you?

Molynda nodded, giving Alieda’s shoulders a reassuring squeeze, “Molly can mind the inn without me tonight. Thank you again for your help, Mister Ackerman,” she said, addressing Haden formally, driving home Alieda’s implied dismissal.

Alieda allowed herself to be steered away from Haden without meeting his eyes, suddenly feeling utterly ashamed of their rendezvous in the alley. What would her father have thought? Right here, in her arms, lay the wreckage of his unequivocal efforts to provide for her, and there she’d been, ducking into a dark alley with a man she’d just met. Her actions shamed her in a way she had never experienced before.

Molynda walked Alieda home in silence, which was good; Alieda had no desire to discuss what had happened after she’d been left alone at the shindy. And when Molynda accompanied her inside, Alieda gratefully accepting her offer to undo her hair and help her out of the more complicated bits of her outfit.

“Go get some sleep,” Molynda finally told her, after she had loosened the ties holding Alieda’s top together in the back. “I’ll lock up for you.”

Alieda nodded silently, a wave of gratitude passing over her as Molynda gave her shoulders a final squeeze. She could feel her body rapidly giving way to the strain of the long night of adrenaline, wine, and dancing. Staggering to her room, she took only enough time to change from her silks into her nightdress before falling onto her bed, asleep before she could pull up the blankets.

Chapter 5

The Remedy

Grey sucked a sharp breath in through his teeth as the herbalist lowered his hand into a basin of cool, green-tinted water. He clenched his jaw, resisting the urge to swear in front of the kind-faced old woman. She clucked sympathetically, relaxing her grip on his hand as the tension in his arm and shoulder slowly did the same. The water in the basin smelled of lavender and calendula, and after a few wary moments, he felt brave enough to attempt flexing his fingers.

It hurt. Not as badly as it had the evening before, but his hand had definitely seen better days. Translucent layers of damaged skin were beginning to float ghostlike out from around his fingers and palm, the specter of what his hand used to be.

The herb woman continued to make sympathetic noises as she measured lengths of clean, white bandages from her apron. “Poor thing… What did you do to yourself? A young man like you should be down at the shindy taking a turn with some pretty girl, not getting bandaged up by an old herb woman. Wouldn’t take long for one of them to snatch you up. No, not with those eyes.”

Grey lowered his pale blue eyes at her remark. “…You flatter me,” he responded awkwardly. “But I’m afraid I’m not really the social type.”

She raised a doubtful eyebrow at him. “Oh, don’t worry. They’d fix that for you before the drop of a drumbeat. One look at you and our young ladies would be lining up to teach you a dance or two.”

He let out a humorless grunt at her remark but was embarrassed to feel his cheeks go red. This woman has no filter on her mouth, whatsoever… Somehow, though, he found the old woman’s blatant speech to be oddly endearing.

The herbalist caught his sheepish look and smiled. “Best thing about being an old woman is that I get to flirt shamelessly without the worry of being taken too seriously.” Hands still busy with the bandages, she leaned forward and peered into the bowl. “It’s doing its job. You just relax for a moment.”

Grey took a weary breath and leaned back into his chair, closing his eyes. This was the first chance he’d gotten to rest in the nearly two days since he’d been set upon by the grakken gnomes. The first day, he thought he’d surely die of exposure, caught in that cold autumn rainstorm with no shelter or clothing. It had been a hard ride since then, and had it not been for an unusually accommodating merchant he’d met on the road, Grey would have ended up arriving in this little village stark naked.

“Thank you again for tending to me so late,” Grey told the old woman, eyes half closed in fatigue. “I’m sure there are many other things you probably wished you were doing tonight, so please know, you have my deepest gratitude.”

The herb women smiled indulgently. “You mean the shindy? My boy, I haven’t danced at one of those in years, not since my husband passed, Fates guard his soul.”

He raised his head slightly. “My apologies, I didn’t mean to—”

But she shook her head, cutting off his fluster with a warm smile. “Don’t you worry, dear. I have my memories. Now, how is the hand?”

Grey flexed his fingers again, wincing.

The old woman pursed her lips. “Had you shown up just a bit sooner, you could’ve had a true healer tend these burns, rather than settling for an impromptu visit from an old herb woman in the upstairs room of a tavern.”

“No, I’m grateful. It already feels much better.”

She snorted, hearing the lie in his words but respecting it all the same. “I hope you were at least able to enjoy some of the festival while you were making your way in.”

Grey tipped his head slightly to look at her as she spoke. “I was wondering about all the merchants on the road,” —Luckily for me— “It seemed a bit remote to have such a congregation.”

The old woman nodded as she worked, measuring drops of fragrant liquid into a greasy-looking salve. “Coryul might be a small village, but our Temple is the largest and oldest in the Eastonds. That, and the fact that we’re pretty central to the surrounding villages, means the harvest festival is usually held here,” she explained. “It’s the largest annual event east of the Brystuls. Merchants and craftsmen from all over come to compete and sell their wares, and then there’s the dancers…”

Grey nodded. “Yes, I believe I caught the very end of the dancers,” he murmured, remembering the woman in red he had seen from the high path. She had been breathtaking.

“Oh, you saw Miss Carver then! Dressed in her sister’s silks and looking so much like her mother—oh, she brought tears to my eyes, poor thing.”

Grey frowned slightly at her wistful tone. “Poor?”

She nodded sadly. “Both dead, her mother and her sister. It’s just her and her father now.”

Taking a seat in front of him, she leaned in over his hand and began to gently lift away the floating tendrils of damaged tissue with a pair of fine forceps. Grayish-black sheets of skin tugged painfully as she gently debrided the burned flesh. Grey clenched his jaw and attempted to focus on her words as he breathed.

“This was her first time ever tasting the stage, too. You’d never know it, watching her. What a talent she’s been hiding. No one knew she had such a gift.”

“Her father must have been pleased, then,” he managed in a tight voice, encouraging the conversation as a means of distraction while squinting one eye against the discomfort.

“Oh, the carver’s gone for the season. Left to sell his wares in L’Aberohn. He won’t be back until almost winter.”

Grey grunted as she tugged on a particularly tender bit of flesh. “…Seems a shame.”

She bobbed her head in agreement, seeming fully content to rattle on about the local Carver family as she worked. “Jaran’s a stoic sort. He’ll be disappointed, of course, but, if we’re lucky, he’ll be able to see her dance next year. No doubt the village will be banging down her door now they know. We Highlanders tend to take these dances pretty seriously, see? Where did you say you were from again?”

Grey worked to keep himself from starting. He hadn’t said. And he hadn’t prepared an answer either. “…Ahmm, not too far north of here.”

“Oh, a Highlander yourself then? You should heal up just fine in that case.” She removed his hand from the soak and gently patted it dry before smearing it with liberal amounts of the prepared salve, now smelling strongly of yarrow and honey. “Strong back, broad shoulders, long bones…” She looked up at his face. “…Good color… Yes, your body should be more than capable of dealing with this temporary inconvenience.”

Grey hoped she was right; he couldn’t afford to let this slow him down—though he knew the damage to his hand was only skimming the surface of his troubles. Not that he was likely to drop his pants to bare the rest of his wounds, even with the horrifying prospect of getting back in the saddle come morning.

Finishing her ministrations, the herbalist carefully wrapped his hand in clean bandages before tying the torn ends in a tidy knot. “Keep this on for the next few days and try to keep it clean,” she instructed, then pressed the remaining jar of salve into his good hand. “Use this as often as you need after the bandages come off.”

Grey took the jar, and, reaching beneath his chair, he exchanged it for a gold common from his saddlebags, one of the few remaining possessions he had been able to regain after the grakken raid. “My thanks.”

She eyed the coin in her hand for a moment before lifting a surprisingly suspicious eyebrow at him. “My skills aren’t worth this much.”

“They were to me,” he insisted, meaning it.

The herb woman stared at the coin a moment longer before slipping it into her apron. “Why don’t you head downstairs and get something to eat, mister…?”

“Grey,” he answered, then added as the herb woman hesitated a moment longer, “just Grey.”

She nodded slowly, as if she were still waiting to hear the conclusion to a story, but she eventually accepted him at his word.

“Well, Mister Grey, the kitchen may still be open, even this late, what with the shindy on tonight. Go down and fill your belly before turning in.”

Grey smiled at the kind-faced old woman and assured her he would do just that.

“And if you’re still around tomorrow,” she added as she exited, “take my advice—find a woman who’ll teach you how to dance.”

Grey smiled despite himself as she departed. Sighing, he decided to heed her more immediate advice by heading down to the common room.

Grey hadn’t actually needed much convincing on the subject of finding food. His stomach had been running hot with empty burning since yesterday and, had his hand not been in such bad shape, supper would have been his absolute first priority upon arriving in the village.

He made his way downstairs, asking for a plate of whatever the kitchen had available on short notice. He was rewarded with a bowl of mutton stew boasting large chunks of floating vegetables and a generous portion of fresh bread with butter. Grey leaned down over the bowl in muted ecstasy as he breathed in the aroma of richly seasoned meat.

His stomach contracted at the first bite, relaxing again as he slowly chewed the chunk of tender meat. He let his eyes slip closed against the mounting fatigue and allowed himself the momentary indulgence of simply being able to slow down and enjoy a hot meal for a change. The sound of drums drifted into his contentment from the direction of the square, and Grey found his mind drifting back in memory, a small smile lifting the corner of his mouth as his toe began keeping beat of its own accord.

Realizing this, he stilled, staring for a long time down at the smooth imperfections of the countertop. That was another life, Grey. Keep your head where it belongs.

Tuning out the sound, Grey turned his attention back to his meal.

He was about half finished when a group of three young men, close to Grey’s own age, entered the tavern with mugs in hand, filling the remainder of the counter seats beside him.

“I almost had her,” the tallest one was complaining, his words holding the edge of a slur as he spoke. He wore black and white linen and was drinking deeply from his mug, which the barkeep had just refilled for him. “I was there, standing right between her legs!”

Grey rolled his eyes, leaning away from the other man’s graphic hand gestures.

“Didn’t get to ruffle your little redbird’s feathers, eh?” the one wearing a brocade vest jeered, clearly attempting to razz the taller man.

“Would’ve, if it hadn’t been for that crazy drunk woman… started smashing up the exhibits…”

Grey laughed inwardly at the thought of this man complaining about someone else’s drunkenness, though it sounded as if Grey had missed a good deal more than just a simple shindy.

The third member of their group passed his mug over the counter as well, accepting it back a moment later, froth brimming over the top. “Let it go Hade, she’s the daughter of a woodcarver, she’s not even worth it.”

Grey stilled slightly, attention refocusing on them.

“You didn’t have her ass in your hand,” ‘Hade’ argued yearningly, the fingers of his right hand contracting in lurid illustration before reaching once again for his drink. He tipped it back and finished it with a groan. “I’ve gotta go find her,” he said, running both hands back through his hair in agitation. “She can’t just work me up like that and then leave without a word.”

“You,” the vested man remarked doubtfully. “You’re going to find her? You just met her—you don’t even know where she lives.”

Hade stood, gripping the countertop with one hand to steady himself. “Like you said, she’s the woodcarver’s daughter. I just need to find the woodshop. Then I’ll make that little redbird spread her wings.”

Grey stared fixedly down at his bowl as the one called Hade exited the tavern with unsteady purpose. His two companions, seemingly familiar with his behavior, took their drinks and moved to sit at an unoccupied table.

Just leave it alone, Grey…

But Grey couldn’t shake the thought that this carver’s daughter was the same Miss Carver the herb woman had said was the dancer in red.

Red dancer… Redbird?

He shook his head, scooping up another spoonful of stew and chewing forcefully.

…The same carver’s daughter who’s lost nearly her entire family and whose father is away on business…

Grey swallowed his bite and set down his spoon. Then he placed both hands down on the countertop, counting knicks and imperfections as he tried to separate himself from the moment. Not your fight… Don’t get involved… Don’t get distracted…

But it wasn’t long before he let out a heavy breath and rolled his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“You alright there, son?” the barkeep asked, one raised eyebrow directed at Grey’s posture.

Grey looked down in regret at his half-eaten bowl of stew. “I just remembered,” he sighed resignedly. “I need to visit the woodcarver in the morning. Can you tell me which way he lives?”

Chapter 6

The Knives

Morning came far too quickly for Alieda’s taste. Contrastingly, though, it arrived with the unmistakable scent of bacon emanating from the kitchen. Rising from her bed slowly, as to accommodate for one last, lingering head spin, she scuffed her feet into her shearling slippers and hesitantly exited her bedroom.

To her surprise, she found Molynda in the kitchen, rummaging around in a tall cupboard, her dark gold hair plaited down into a loose sleeping braid.

“Molynda?” Alieda rasped, rubbing one sleep-glazed eye in confusion. “What are you doing here?” But then her eyes cleared enough to recognize Molynda’s dress as the same one she’d been wearing yesterday… “You stayed last night?”

Molynda gave a small shrug. “It was late, and you had been through a lot.” After a hesitant moment, she turned away, back toward the stove and the hissing bacon. “I heard a scuffle outside the gate, right before I was about to leave. It just made me think you’d be better off with some company while you slept, is all. It was probably just some stragglers from the shindy, but to be completely honest, I wouldn’t have put it past Bulra to attempt something last night, having seen the state she was in. I just didn’t feel right leaving you alone. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No—thank you…” Alieda answered, taking a plate of fried eggs, bacon, and squash as Molynda handed it to her.

“Elder Morrow came by to check on you,” Molynda went on, walking with Alieda over to the table and taking a seat, “but I thought you would prefer to sleep. Though, I did tell him a little about what happened with Bulra last night though, just to fill him in.”

“Did he tell you anything?” Alieda asked, hoping Molynda might have learned what had caused Bulra to fly into such a fury. Bulra had always fostered a …contemptuous… nature, even to the point of being cruel as a child, but Alieda had never known her to become physically violent, nor to be one to engage in such an obvious debauch as she clearly had last night.

“Not much,” she admitted, shaking her head. “Mostly, he just wanted to see how you were doing.” She paused then. “He did ask me something I was hoping you might have the answer to.”

Alieda raised her brows, pausing mid-bite.

“Do you happen to know when the Grand Bazaar is? Your father told me it was earlier than normal this year but didn’t say exactly when. Elder Morrow was asking for some reason, and I wasn’t able to give him an answer.”

Alieda lowered her fork, shaking her head. “I was in the mountains the week leading up to the festival. The first I heard of him needing to leave early was the day I got back.” She paused then, considering. “Now that I think about it, though, that would’ve been awfully short notice if they were expecting artisans living this remotely to be able to make that journey in time. I mean, less than one week from the day he received the invitation to the day he needed to leave? Usually he knows a month or more ahead of time.” Frowning, she poked at the corner of her eggs with her fork. “Regardless, why would Elder Morrow be asking you? Surely he already has that information.”

Molynda shrugged, a wry twist to her lips. “I’ve no idea. Honestly, I thought the same. I suppose I could find out from Meara later.”

Alieda grinned, catching the reference to the near-omniscience of Elder Morrow’s wife.

Then Molynda gestured at Alieda’s plate. “I do have some bad news for you, though.”

Alieda paused with her fork again halfway to her mouth.

“It turns out the first casualty of last night was actually your squash. Elder Morrow told me it was found this morning, smashed open on the ground.”

Alieda sighed, lifting a piece of bright orange squash flesh up for inspection. “Glad to see some of it was salvageable.”

“They saved what they could for you,” Molynda agreed as they ate. “The seeds as well.”

“That’s good, I suppose,” she muttered, disappointed, but also grateful for the villagers who had made the effort to save what they could for her. “The squash is no real loss, honestly—not like Papa’s carving. We’ll never be able to replace that.”

“Don’t sell your father short,” Molynda admonished, a note of pride lacing her voice. “I’ve never seen his equal as an artist. I’m sure he will create many more incredible things.” She paused between bites to point her fork at Alieda. “Mm—that does remind me, Elder Morrow told me that even though the centerpiece was destroyed, it had already been bought and paid for at auction. Bulra is having to pay the merchant who bought it his purchase price back as restitution, but you and your father will get to keep the winning bid. The merchant mentioned he might come by the shop later today though, to make up for the loss.”

Alieda was incredulous. “How much did it sell for?”

Molynda smiled, watching Alieda’s face. “Two silver crowns.”

Alieda dropped her fork. “Two crowns? Two crowns will feed us for the entire winter—that’s… that’s incredible.”

A hurried knock rapped at the front door, startling Alieda out of her bemusement. Coming back to herself, she stood to answer it.

Sera stood outside the door, her dark eyes flashing up to Alieda’s as soon as she swung it open. “Alieda! I just heard what happened—are you all right? Bulra actually attacked you?”

“Yeah, with your candle holder,” she answered dryly, opening the door the rest of the way for her to come in. “How is it, by the way?”

Sera waved away her concern, nodding a greeting to Molynda as she walked in. “It’s fine. One of the arms is a little bent, but nothing that can’t be fixed. Jaran’s carving?”

Alieda pressed her lips together. “Not so lucky.” She gestured to a wicker basket on the countertop.

Sera’s brow wrinkled in sympathy as she walked over to inspect the broken splinters of burnished hardwood. Running a forge-roughened hand over the delicate remnants, she plucked one of the intact cherrywood roses from the jumble. Sera frowned at it for a moment before giving it a brief smile and slipping it into a pocket.

“Looking for inspiration?” Alieda asked, arching one eyebrow.

“Something like that. So tell me what happened last night.”

Motioning her into the kitchen, Alieda busied herself with making some tea while she filled Sera in on events as best she could. To Alieda’s surprise, Sera’s brow furrowed when she reached the point in her story where Bulra had alluded to Sera refusing an invitation to the Grand Bazaar, and furthermore, that Bulra hadn’t even thought Sera was going to be in town.

“That’s strange,” Sera murmured, accepting her tea and following Alieda back out to the table to sit with Molynda. “I mean, I did receive an invitation, but there’s no reason anybody should have known about it.”

Alieda gaped. “You did? Sera, only the very best artisans ever get invitations to the Grand Bazaar. Why didn’t you go?”

“I would have if I’d been given more notice. There was just no way for me to prepare in such a short amount of time. Your father even offered to take me, but I didn’t have anything ready.”

“Well, for some reason, Bulra was counting on you not being here to compete—my father, too.”

“Which is probably why her father felt it was safe for them to try for High Season. I don’t think they would have attempted it otherwise.”

Molynda had remained silent through this exchange, but as the topic of Bulra and High Season continued, she set down her cup and rose from the table.

“If you’re alright now, Alieda, I think this will be a good chance for me to go catch up with Meara. When you have a chance, Elder Morrow does want to see you regarding your High Season award.”

“Award?”

Molynda nodded and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, securing it with the carved wooden brooch Alieda had seen her wearing yesterday. “I’m not sure what he has in mind—there hasn’t been a High Season winner in so long—but I’m sure he’ll go over all the details with you.”

Frowning slightly, Alieda rose and held the door for Molynda, shutting it quietly behind her as she left. She stood there for a moment, staring into the play of ripples within the grain of the hardwood door. Then she sighed. “I suppose I should get up and moving. There’s a lot to get done before the cold weather really starts to move in. Did you finish up with my hatchet?”

Sera’s face blanked, then she slowly sucked her lips in until they were completely hidden.

“You forgot,” Alieda observed.

“I was distracted,” she allowed, standing up and taking her mug to the basin in the kitchen. “Give me until noon, I’ll have it ready. Do you want to come pick it up? I could always drop it back by here if you think you’re going to be busy.”

“I’ll come to you. I need to go see Elder Morrow anyway—and pick up Papa’s order, now that I think of it. That’s finished already, right?”

“The knives? Oh, yeah, those have been ready for a few days. I’ll get everything together for you.”

“Thanks,” Alieda called as Sera headed to the door. “See you at noon.”

* * *

Noon came quickly amid the myriad of preparations necessary to defend a home against a Brystul winter. But it was a routine Alieda was familiar with, and before the sun had reached its zenith, Alieda had finished her tasks and began the short walk to Sera’s.

The tinny rasp of metal on grindstone greeted her entrance to the forge. Sera was sitting at her workbench, rocking back and forth in long rhythmic motions, sliding Alieda’s hatchet against her finest grit whetstone.

“All finished?” Alieda asked on her approach.

Sera sat up from her work, passing her thumb over the angle of the blade. “You could shave the hair off your father’s chin with this thing now.”

“What an appalling thought.” Reaching out, Alieda accepted the hatchet from Sera and tested the edge with approval. Slipping the leather guard over the blade in satisfaction, she dropped the shaft through the loop at her thigh.

Sera rose from her seat, reaching out to pick up a length of rolled leather, about the same length as her forearm.

“These are Papa’s new carving knives?” Alieda asked, eyeing the length of the package uncertainly.

“I never said they were for your father,” Sera contradicted. “He commissioned these for you. I was wondering when he was going to come get them, but, looking back, the fact that he waited for you to come get them alone rather than giving them to you himself is classic Jaran Carver.”

Alieda held the package out in front of her. “He had you make these for me?”

Sera nodded, but after a moment of watching Alieda stand there like a fool doing nothing, she took the package back and unfastened the leather ties. With a flick of her wrist, she unrolled it onto the worktable.

“Boot knives,” she announced proudly, but the description was a brutal understatement.

Alieda reached out, reverently lifting one of the long, double-edged knives from its leather pocket. The rippled, mirror-bright blade glinted in the afternoon sunlight as she held it up for inspection.

The handle was simple, carved to perfectly fit her hand out of wood she recognized as some that she, herself, had procured for her father. The blades had distorted ripples running the length of the steel, and a deep valley down the center had been etched with the ropy pattern of fig branches.

“Your father carved the handles and sheaths,” Sera explained, “and brought me the steel back from his last trip to Port. It’s supposed to be exceptionally fine, and I must say, after working with it, I agree.”

“And he asked you to make them, specifically?” Alieda asked again, remembering her father’s apparent distaste for Sera’s trade and recognizing it as the sham it was.

She nodded. “Brought me everything I needed, too. What do you think?”

Sera didn’t often seek approval for her work, but Alieda could tell she was unusually proud of these knives.

“They’re incredible, truly. Thank you, Sera.”

Sera smiled. “I do have something else for you, though it’s more of a consolation prize than anything else.” She reached her hand in her apron pocket. “I suppose you could call it a memento.”

Alieda held out her hand as Sera placed something into it, a little smaller than the size of her palm. She lifted the delicate item into the light to see it better.

“I had some spare bronze left over from making the candelabrum, so I hammered some of it into a pin, fastened the broken stem to one end, and then just bent the rest over and around itself into a spiral. I designed it to just…” and she took the spiral pin, adorned with cherrywood roses, and with a quick twist, secured it to the braid at the base of Alieda’s head. “There—works perfect.”

Alieda reached back to feel the shape of the wooden flowers riding snugly in her hair. Unexpectedly, her eyes began to warm, and she blinked, looking anywhere but at Sera. What would she do if Sera took the position offered to her in L’Aberohn? How would she be able to adjust to losing this quiet, strong, talented woman?

“Thanks,” she said finally, her voice throatier than she would have preferred. “Nice to see it put to good use.”

Loyally, Sera turned away. “Seemed a shame just to waste it, and, like I said, I had some scrap metal left over just waiting for a purpose.”

A purpose. Alieda liked the idea of even the wreckage of her father’s work being able to give purpose to something else.

She sniffed and tossed her head, comically. “I love it. I shall wear it always and think of Bulra.”

Sera lifted a questioning eyebrow.

“—Falling on her ass,” she finished with a toothy grin.

“Turrah,” Sera toasted, lifting an imaginary glass. “Here, take your things. You should try to make it to Elder Morrow’s before it gets any later.”

* * *

The walk to the Elder’s office wasn’t a long one, so Alieda took the opportunity to move slowly and inspect the pair of finely crafted knives. She recognized the handle and sheath  as burl from a traveler fig she often frequented in the mountains, recalling this specific burl as the only one of its kind she had ever found. She lingered on the memory of her father’s face when he had cut a cross section to inspect the grain. He had been completely entranced by the colors and complexity inside the gnarled root ball.

“Traveler figs,” he’d explained in a soft, fascinated voice, “are predator trees, see? They grow these sweet, seedy fruits high up in their branches and depend on other animals and birds to eat them, so launching their aerial assault.”

Jaran Carver, among other things, was a born storyteller and had made the process of a tree growing sound like a war campaign.

“Once eaten, the fig’s seeds get deposited on the leaves and branches of other trees where they begin to grow rapidly toward the sun, battling with the other trees for light. In just a couple of months, the roots will have stretched all the way to the ground, securing a lifeline for the attacking fig as it continues to grow and reach its way up above the canopy of the host tree. Only once this position of dominance is achieved can the traveler fig rest. The growth slows, but the siege continues.”

 Her father had animated his story, clutching his hands together and then pulling them apart. He trailed his fingers up and down, creating the motions of roots and branches with his fingers as the figurative trees struggled together for predominance.

“The roots slowly grow thicker and stronger, wrapping around the trunk of the host tree and permanently anchoring the fig to the soil. The canopy widens, and the broad, heavy foliage blocks the sunlight to the starving leaves below. Eventually, the host tree is completely encapsulated by the fig’s roots. Deprived of light, the host tree succumbs, slowly decaying away to leave a strong, hollow, towering traveler fig.

“This fig,” he continued, lifting the convoluted cross-section into the light, “didn’t have an easy go at it, it seems. Look how the veins of red intermingle with the darker grain of the fig wood. It looks to me like this fig took on a mountain ironwood—not an easy opponent. The wood of the mountain ironwood is some of the hardest in the world, and there is no limit to how tall they will grow. They simply take their time… and grow—as tall as they need. These two trees must have battled silently for generations, and I don’t think, this time, there was a clear victor.

“These veins of ironwood are still strong and full of vitality. They haven’t begun to rot or decay in the slightest. But this fig, you say, had completely devoured the central tree? Yes, that says to me, this ironwood, instead of quietly giving in and dying in the darkness, grafted itself to the very structure of the attacking fig, living on inside of it and becoming something new, and wonderful, and strong.

“There is a lesson to be learned from this—exquisite—piece of wood,” he concluded, voice quiet in muted awe. “No matter how strong we are, or set in our ways… or old,” he added ruefully, “we are never beyond the ability of accepting change, and we can only be made stronger and more admirable by the act.”

* * *

Pausing in her journey, Alieda bent and slipped the sheathed knives down inside the legs of her boots, feeling the complex relief carving of tangled fig roots as she manipulated the metal clips over the cuffs. The knives felt oddly right, riding there, pressing reassuringly against the sides of her calves. Straightening, she turned to resume her stride—and walked straight into Haden Ackerman.

Haden grunted and caught her by the shoulders.

“Careful,” he muttered—not unkindly, but definitely not warmly, either. He glanced down at her, nodded briefly in dismissal, and then walked away.

Alieda stood frozen.

He hadn’t recognized her. He had been two inches from her face, and he had not recognized her. She stood there for a moment, struggling with the decision as to whether or not she should catch up with him and tell him who she was—to tell him she was the one who had danced on stage, and then again later, at the shindy, with him.

Another part of her, a stronger—and smarter part, likely—held her firmly in place, rooted to where she stood. She didn’t want to see his face when he realized she wasn’t actually the beautiful, graceful woman he had thought she was. She didn’t want to find out what he would think of her like this, as she truly was. Just the thought made her shrink down inside herself.

Instead, she watched him in silence as he approached his horse, checked its girth, and mounted. He eased into his saddle with a hesitant grimace, then raked his fingers through his hair, nudging his mount into motion and riding back by her with a brief nod.

Wait, is that a black eye?

She craned her head to get a better view, but he was already riding away, picking up speed as he went. Alieda stared after him for a moment, watching his strong, upright posture as he disappeared.

Get it together, Carver, she admonished herself, shaking her head. Nothing good could’ve come from growing any closer to a man who was just going to leave eventually, anyway. Gathering up her regrets and casting them aside, she marched off toward the Elder’s office.

Chapter 7

The Rivalry

“First and foremost, Alieda,” Elder Morrow began without preamble after Alieda had been ushered inside and served a cup of tea, “we want to congratulate you. High Season is not an easy award to obtain.” He smiled approvingly at her, running a hand over his short, salt-and-pepper beard as he spoke.

Meara, his wife, nodded in agreement. “Also,” she added, reaching over and tapping Alieda fondly on the knee, “I wasn’t sure if you were aware, but according to temple records, you are the first woman to ever receive this honor, and at only twenty-two years old, the youngest winner, as well. So, not only have you won High Season, Alieda. You have made history in the process.”

Stunned, Alieda sat mute, searching desperately but coming up with no good way to respond to this.

“What that means for you, my dear,” Elder Morrow continued, smoothly covering up Alieda’s awkward lapse, “is that, historically, the villages pull together to grant you an award for the honor, one of your own choosing.”

“My own choosing?” Alieda repeated hesitantly, not fully understanding.

Elder Morrow leaned back in his seat, stroking his beard again as he went on in further detail. “Past winners of High Season have requested anything from supplementary items for their home or business, such as livestock or even land grants, while others have chosen to take the opportunity to do something they might not otherwise get the chance to do, like travel and visit other areas of Aralynd. The choice is yours.”

Alieda slumped back in her chair, stunned. It was like a children’s story. A dirty village girl gets swept up by a fairy who makes her beautiful for a night. The village falls in love with her, and in the end, she gets granted a wish. Of course, in Alieda’s case, it had been a blacksmith, a dandy-man, and one overly excited miller’s daughter…

“You don’t have to decide today, dear,” Meara assured her, bringing Alieda’s focus back to the present. “You think about it and let us know what you decide whenever you are ready.” Nodding as she finished, Meara’s gaze suddenly became troubled, and she cast an uneasy glance toward her husband.

Alieda followed her gaze, confused anew by the sudden change in mood.

“…There is something else we need to discuss with you while you’re here.”

Alieda returned her attention to Meara, drawn by the hesitant undertone to her speech.

Elder Morrow rocked forward, threading his fingers together and leaning heavily on his elbows. He spoke down into his clasped hands. “…Your father and Seraphina, it seems, were intentionally given false information regarding invitation and timing of the Grand Bazaar. Seraphina was kind enough to supply me with the invitation she’d received, and I was able to confirm that it was indeed fabricated. It was an admirable reproduction, but the royal seal was an obvious forgery—a detail that wouldn’t be immediately noticeable except to someone who was already familiar with the image. This being the case, I sent several individuals out this morning to investigate. Out of the few merchants and peddlers who fit the timeline, they were able to find one who eventually admitted to selling a near reproduction of the seal to a local villager.”

Alieda felt the heat rising in her face. “Let me guess—to an Upton.”

Elder Morrow nodded slowly in confirmation. “As far as we can tell, yes.”

“So he did rig the festival,” Alieda said, confirming out loud what Elder Morrow was alluding to. Then she felt a cold squirming in her middle. Her father had no idea…

Meara tipped her head back and forth slightly, indicating a grudging lack of enforceability. “The most we can prove is that Bulra was responsible for damages against you and Seraphina, and that this peddler sold a counterfeit seal, one that may or may not have been used in the creation of Jaran’s and Seraphina’s invitations.” She rubbed her hands together, a slight grimace marring her features. “Unless we were to actually find the seal in the Upton’s possession and compare it to the one used on the invitation, we cannot definitively link them together and therefore, to any foul play within the festival competitions.”

Alieda stared at the two village leaders, not bothering to disguise her incredulity. “But you know they did it.”

“Yes,” Meara answered patiently, “but knowing and knowing are two completely different things.”

“So, what you’re telling me,” Alieda began slowly, fingers creeping toward her temples. “is that the Upton’s are going to face no punishment, whatsoever, for tampering with the festival. They sent my father away from his home, interfering with his business and livelihood, attempted to do the same with Sera, probably paid off official competition judges, and definitely forged royal documents,” she paused, rubbing the sides of her head, “and they will face no consequences, whatsoever. What about those things Bulra was shouting at me last night when she was going after the displays? ‘They weren’t even supposed to be here’. She knew those invitations had been sent. Shades and Fates, she might have sent the bloody things herself!”

“But without either proof, witnesses, or a confession,” Elder Morrow explained in a calm voice, clearly sympathetic to Alieda’s frustration, “there isn’t much we can do. Bulra will pay restitution for the destruction of the competition pieces, and she has been banned from competing in any of next year’s festival divisions, but beyond that…”

Alieda dropped her hands and picked up her cup of tea, attempting to distract herself by concentrating on the heat against her fingers. It wasn’t enough though. It could have been boiling and it wouldn’t have been enough to distract her from the righteous indignation roiling around in her chest.

“The rest of the evidence has been turned over to Justice Coldwell but, aside from the obvious damages that have already been handled, the evidence is circumstantial.” Elder Morrow made a distasteful face then. “Unfortunately, I doubt the judge will be overly concerned with uncovering any further, more concrete evidence. The man is, historically, very fair, but he is an old friend of Corban’s and his wife’s cousin by marriage. It’s a hard thing to expect a man to remain completely unbiased in circumstances like that.”

“I don’t think it’s a hard thing to ask at all,” Alieda retorted without thinking, but then checked her tone and took a calming breath. “What about the peddler?” she asked, changing subjects. “Why can’t we just have him identify who bought the seal?”

“We tried that first,” Elder Morrow answered. “When the news reached me of the counterfeit seal, I sought out the peddler to ask him that very thing. Unfortunately, by the time I made it to where he was supposed to have been, he had already departed—no doubt concerned about the legal ramifications of having been discovered selling items of such a questionable nature. But, for what it’s worth, I agree with you in regard to the likelihood of you getting a fair trial against the Uptons. Therefore, I have already made the decision to bring in an outside justice to preside over any further actions, should any more concrete evidence be brought to light.”

Alieda pressed her lips together, slightly ashamed of having believed that Elder Morrow would turn a blind eye to the Upton’s activities, like so many others often did.

“I know you’re upset, dear.” Meara said with a sympathetic smile. “We are as well, and I promise you, I will keep an ear to the ground for anything suspicious. A village this small isn’t capable of keeping secrets.”

Alieda smiled briefly. She knew well the truth of that. “You might want to start by questioning the out-of-town judges,” she offered. “The Upton’s might have had a business arrangement with one of the harvest judges. There really wasn’t any other way for her to have won her division, and Thomas thinks he might have witnessed an argument between Bulra and one of them after the show.”

Meara looked as if she were about to speak, but Elder Morrow smoothly spoke over the top of her. “—Mister Fisher brought his suspicions to us yesterday. Of course, yesterday we didn’t think nearly as much of the information, it having been before Bulra’s performance in the square, but we have since begun looking into the judges. We will, of course, let you know if we discover anything important.”

Glancing once at Meara but finding nothing else helpful, Alieda nodded, sensing the end of their meeting.

“Now, I want you to stop worrying about the Uptons and put some real thought into what you want as your High Season award. Stop by the clerk’s counter on your way out. He will dispense your festival winnings to you, along with the earnings from your father’s work and restitution for your harvest entry.”

Elder Morrow made Bulra pay for the squash, too? Alieda grinned and nodded at the pair, thanking them as she left.

* * *

In total, Alieda was awarded 1,220 curens. Fifty for each division win, paid out in one silver mark each, with twenty extra curens for the price of her barrel squash. The remaining thousand, paid by the Uptons for her father’s carving, she requested be paid out in another twenty silver marks rather than the two silver crowns the merchant had paid in. In a village like Coryul, people did not trade in currency of that size often. If she were careful, this money alone could last her and her father until spring. Tucking the purse safely away in her jacket pocket, she exited the clerk’s office.

Thomas was leaning against the far wall waiting for her as she stepped out into the road.

“Hey there, Shortcake.”

“Hey, yourself…” she answered with a curious smile.

“Molynda sent me to find you,” he said by way of answer to her raised eyebrow. “I tried looking in at Sera’s, but she said you would be here.”

Alieda nodded. “Had to come collect my winnings—what’s up?”

He shrugged. “No clue. Figured if I tagged along I could find out, though.”

Alieda snorted. “You’re a terrible gossip, Thomas.”

“On the contrary,” he argued, threading his fingers together behind his head as they walked, “I happen to be an excellent one. The fact of which compels me to ask—what, by the bloody Fates, took you so long in there? My left cheek is going all numb,” And he dropped one hand to rub over his posterior.

“Will you recover?”

“Hm, doubtful. Anyway, speak to me. What had you cloistered in the Elder’s office for so long? Simply claiming festival winnings wouldn’t do it so don’t even try.”

Feeling a familiar heat, Alieda filled Thomas in on the conversation she’d had with the Elder and his wife, finally able to vent her frustrations to someone she wasn’t worried about keeping her appearances up in front of—not that she was really any good at that to begin with.

“That bloody, crooked bastard,” Thomas announced, matter-of-factly.

“You have a way with words.”

“Always have—but Alieda, really? They’re not going to pursue anything against the butcher because he’s a friend of the judge?”

“Don’t get me started.” She took a breath. “I honestly do think they want to, but they’re afraid nothing will come of it without more concrete evidence. I think they know that if they were to push for a hearing against Corban Upton as things stand, he would get off without a sentence.”

Thomas scuffed his foot against the road in irritation as they walked. “Well isn’t that just grand. So, what do they plan on doing about your father? Can’t they send someone after him? He still has no idea his invitation was forged.”

Alieda felt a familiar squirming in her middle. “I know. I thought about trying to catch up with him, but he’s nearly two days out, and I’ve no way of knowing which route he took. Depending how the roads looked, he may have gone west, straight through the Highlands Pass, or he could’ve gone south along the foothills until he reached Akham’s Gap.”

“And there’s the small problem of him having your only horse.”

Alieda sighed and nodded her head. “Yes, I suppose there’s that, too.”

“Guess he’s in for a bit of an unfortunate surprise when he shows up in L’Aberohn.”

Alieda wrinkled her brow. “Thomas, I don’t know what he’s going to do. He doesn’t have the kind of money it would take to rent a room for who knows how many weeks until the bazaar actually happens. And we still don’t even know when the bazaar is. Elder Morrow told me he had to compare Sera’s invitation to the one he had from last year. That sounds to me like he hasn’t received this year’s invitation at all, or at least, not yet.”

Thomas didn’t have a reply, but Alieda could read his disquiet. She turned away from him, opting to stare at the ground as she fretted over her father and the struggle he was likely to face.

They walked for the next few minutes in silence until the sign for the Morning Glory, the small inn Molynda ran with her daughter, Molly, came into view.

The interior was tidy with scrubbed wood planks and thick, plush rugs lining the floors. A vase of fragrant blue sage and coneflowers sat on a small table in the entryway, lending the foyer a clean, herbal smell. Thomas strode to the small counter at the end of the hall and, smiling, purposefully bounced his hand off a small bronze bell near the edge. Alieda looked closely at the intricate little bell. Sera’s work?

Molynda’s head popped in from the back room wearing a frown. “I thought I told you that was off-limits, Thomas.”

“I figured that rule only applied after midnight… it’s just so—”

Molynda slapped her hand down over the little bell before Thomas’s could reach it again. “Fates preserve us! I’ll have Sera make you one for Belmenay.” Then she gave him and Alieda a troubled look. “Back room, both of you.” Molynda waited to release the bell until Thomas was well past and then grimly followed them into the back parlor.

“Sit,” she commanded, closing the door behind her.

Alieda did, casting a troubled glance at Thomas. A sudden flash from her youth, as if they had both just been summoned for another schoolhouse caning by Master Tobin, made her mouth go dry. Thomas returned the look, appearing of much the same sentiment.

“You two,” she began, her voice measured, “are both in very big trouble.”

Alieda licked her lips. “I-I don’t understand…”

“You,” she indicated Alieda, “along with Seraphina, have completely and utterly shamed Bulra Upton—and yes,” she interrupted Alieda’s impending protest, “I understand it was through no fault of your own, but bitterness is not rational, Alieda, and Bulra is furious.” She turned to Thomas then. “You and Adriana were both seen listening in when Bulra was having an altercation with one of the festival judges.”

Thomas paled slightly.

“That, coupled with the accusations you made against the Uptons yesterday has put you at the top of the butcher’s least-favorite people list. You and Adriana, both.”

Thomas shook his head, his expression at once becoming defensive. “Ana had nothing to do with—”

“—You and Adriana both,” she repeated, giving him a meaningful look.

Thomas pressed his lips together but said nothing, rubbing his hands as he dropped his gaze to somewhere around his knees.

Molynda nodded once, seeming to take his silence as understanding.

Alieda sat watching their exchange, frowning. “I don’t understand. How did you find out about all of this?”

“One of Molly’s close friends works as the Uptons’ housemaid. She overheard a conversation between Corban and another man—and yes, Thomas, calling you by name—that you and Adriana had been very interested in the argument between Bulra and Judge Van Archer. She has since been dismissed from employment—all the better in my opinion…” she added, rubbing at her arms.

Alieda sat up. “Wait, you know the judge Bulra was arguing with?”

Thomas seemed to perk up at this news as well.

“He was,” Molynda emphasized the word, “registered as a guest, here.” She motioned to the rooms on the floor above them.

Thomas stared at Molynda. “Why didn’t you tell us? Or Elder Morrow, even? We could’ve questioned him before he left town! That could’ve been the information we needed to finally have a case against Corban!”

But something about the way Molynda was shaking her head was making Alieda more than a little uneasy, and she suddenly wondered what Meara had been about to say before Elder Morrow had interrupted.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Thomas—he didn’t leave town. He’s missing.” Molynda paused for a moment to let that information sink in. “All of his things are still up in his room but nobody has seen him since yesterday afternoon. In fact—” she faced Thomas directly, “—you may have been the last person to see him. And the fact that his last known whereabouts involve him being alone in an alley, arguing with Bulra, is a fact I’m sure Corban is not very happy you have knowledge of.”

Thomas swore quietly and ran his fingers through his straw-colored hair. “Does elder Morrow know? Or Meara? Maybe they could do something to—”

“It wouldn’t do any good, Thomas,” Alieda interrupted softly, working past an anxious numbness trying to set in around her lips. “It’s the same situation I was explaining to you on our way over here. Elder Morrow can’t pursue action against Corban unless he has solid physical evidence. We don’t know who told Corban about you and Ana in the alley. We don’t have proof Corban was the one who sent my father away. We don’t have proof he tried to do the same to Sera. We don’t have the peddler’s testimony about who he sold the counterfeit seal to, and we don’t have Judge Van Archer to testify if he was bribed or not. All we have is rumor at this point, and Justice Coldwell isn’t about to go out of his way to convict Corban Upton on a rumor.”

Thomas threw his hands up in the air. “Well, what are we supposed to do then? I’m not about to sit around and wait to find out firsthand how the butcher plans on settling the score!”

Alieda looked back at Molynda, feeling lost.

Molynda stared at them a moment longer before speaking. “I want both of you to go home and pack overnight bags,” she said, answering Alieda’s silent question. “You’ll stay here at the inn tonight. Adriana should be fine, as she still lives with her family, but your cottage is out of sight of the village, Thomas, and the fact that you live alone makes you very unsafe right now. Alieda, even though you live in town, with your father gone, I would just feel safer if you were to spend your nights where others can watch out for you—for a while, at least.”

“Molynda, I really don’t—”

“No,” she said firmly. “I am not going to negotiate this. Stay together, go straight to your homes, then straight back here. We can decide tomorrow how to get you out of Corban Upton’s line of fire.”

Chapter 8

The Ethruu

The large meat cleaver protruding from the front door of Thomas’s home stopped them both in their tracks. Neither Thomas nor Alieda spoke, the pair of them motionless amid the tall broadleafs lining the wooded path. Alieda strained her ears for any telltale sounds, but the forest was silent, save for the breeze and singing of birds among the canopy.

“Do you think it’s still safe to go in?” she whispered, not quite trusting her voice.

Thomas nodded, chewing on the inside of his mouth. “I doubt he would’ve stuck that thing in my door and then waited around for conversation.” His voice was a bit rougher than usual, and he licked his lips, looking around as he spoke. “He came, I wasn’t here, he left a warning. That’s all, I’m sure.”

Alieda watched, biting her lip as Thomas approached his home, suddenly very glad for the knives in her boots. Her hatchet, too; its solid weight at her thigh serving as reassurance that, while she might be scared, at least she wasn’t defenseless. Even so, she ran a nervous thumb over the coolness of the steel as Thomas rocked into motion.

Approaching the cottage with utmost vigilance, Thomas grasped the cleaver by the handle and, bracing one hand against the door, wrenched it loose. He hefted the blade in one of his hands a few times before pressing forward and opening the door.

The inside was untouched, tidy to the point of being stark, but that was simply Thomas’s way. He set the cleaver down on his small kitchen table, rubbing his fingers together for a moment after it left his grip. Then, moving cautiously, he advanced to the bedroom, the only other room in the small house.

Alieda, bypassing him and heading instead through the back door, quickly threw some feed to his chickens and mule, then loosed the fish from the traps he had set in the river behind his house. By the time she returned inside, Thomas was pulling tight the ties on a worn leather pack.

He swung it up onto his shoulder and nodded once to her. “If we hurry, we can make it back to the village before the sun gets much lower.”

* * *

They made good time—Alieda being well accustomed to traveling over forested terrain, and Thomas moving much faster than he normally would due to the specter of that meat cleaver looming behind them—and they arrived in the village just as the sun was beginning to wink below the tallest westerly peaks.

Due to his longer stride, Thomas was slightly in front of Alieda as they approached the woodshop, so when he abruptly halted, still about a hundred paces from her yard, she collided with him and his subsequently outstretched arm.

She threw a quick glare up in his direction. Catching the unsettled expression on his face, though, she took the time to look past him and take in the scene at her front gate.

A man was standing there, wearing a dark green wool riding cloak. His hood was down, revealing a sandy-haired head and close-cropped beard but little else from this distance. It wasn’t anyone she recognized from the village, but with the festival just yesterday, that alone wasn’t anything entirely unusual. He stood leaning against the gatepost with a casual slump, thin curls of smoke rising lazily from the pipe held between his teeth as he waited, presumably for her.

“Whatcha thinking, Shortcake?” Thomas murmured over his shoulder, not once taking his eyes from the man by the gate.

Alieda stared at the stranger, catching Thomas’s meaning. They were still far enough away to be able to turn down the nearest side road and avoid confrontation altogether if she so chose. She took a moment to study the man’s posture. He wasn’t nervous. There was nothing about his stance or behavior that would indicate any murky intentions. He simply looked like a man patiently waiting for someone to return home at the end of the day.

“I’ll see what he wants,” Alieda answered finally. “If he was sent by the butcher, I doubt he would be waiting out in plain sight while it’s still daylight.”

Thomas hesitated, but then slowly dropped his arm, allowing Alieda to move out in front of him. She took in the man’s appearance as she approached.

He was slightly shorter, slightly younger than her father by her eye, and well groomed, though his sandy hair was a bit tousled this close to the end of the day. His pipe was a fine one, while small—easily accessible from any pocket, likely—and the chamber and bowl had been adorned with an engraved silver casing, extending up to include a hinged lid, much like the decorative ale mugs displayed in the village taproom. Here stood a man not often short on means.

Taking notice of Alieda’s approach, he quickly flipped closed the tiny lid, latched it, and respectfully stowed it in a pocket before brushing his fingers clean on his cloak. Smiling pleasantly, he turned to greet her arrival.

Definitely not a hired thug… “Can I help you?” Alieda asked as she came to a halt before him—a bit farther back than she normally would have, but this day had put her more than just a little on edge.

He nodded politely to her. “Yes, though I hope this isn’t an inconvenient time,” he added, glancing over Alieda’s shoulder at Thomas, who had chosen to hang back a few paces, giving Alieda the space she needed for conducting possible business while still remaining close enough to intervene, should the occasion warrant it. “I was hoping to take a look at the works of Jaran, the carver. I was told by the village clerk he may have other pieces similar to the one I lost last night after the festival.”

Alieda slapped a hand to her forehead in embarrassment. “I am so sorry! I hope you haven’t been waiting long.” She had completely forgotten, what with the myriad of distractions she’d been subjected to that day, but Molynda had told her the merchant who bought her father’s centerpiece might be coming by.

“Not at all,” the merchant answered quickly, waving off her initial concern. “I only just arrived a few minutes ago.”

Alieda gave an inward sigh of relief. “I’m Alieda, his daughter. I’d be happy to show you his work.”

“Alieda… Carver?” he mused, then brightened. “The High Season winner?”

Alieda blushed, ducking her head in acknowledgment.

“It is an honor, then, Alieda. —Garrett,” he said by way of introduction, extending his hand to her. She took it, returning the greeting, then turned to usher him through the gate.

Reaching the shopfront, she made a point to stand off to one side a bit to allow the merchant time to appreciate the intricate carvings her father had worked into the wide frame of the doorway.

“I have to apologize,” she explained as she took her time locating the proper key. “Much of my father’s best work is with him right now, but I do have some fine pieces still remaining for you to look at.”

Garrett frowned. “Is he set up somewhere here in town? I must have missed him during my rounds. I wouldn’t mind stopping by his festival booth if that would prove more advantageous.”

Alieda shook her head. “I’m afraid not,” she answered, jiggling the key a bit in its housing before she was able to get it to turn. “He’s an artisan for the Grand Bazaar. He left for L’Aberohn yesterday morning.”

“Seems a bit early for him to have departed,” he mused. “Surely it wouldn’t take him…” he paused to think, “…eight weeks… to reach the Capital? Wouldn’t it have been more profitable for him to have shown here before leaving?”

Alieda pursed her lips, frustrated anew with the butcher’s tampering. “He was given bad information,” she answered simply, pushing open the door and leading him through to the little showroom attached to her father’s shop. “On that subject,” she continued after she had closed the door behind them, “do you happen to know when, exactly, the Bazaar is going to be held? I don’t think Coryul’s gotten the official notice yet.”

The merchant nodded, his discerning eyes sweeping the walls as he spoke. “Mid-autumn. This year it concludes on the Feast of Moritane, so, what… about one week prior to then?”

Alieda briefly added up the days in her head before coming to the same conclusion as the merchant. Four weeks early… Eight weeks until the Bazaar meant it wouldn’t be held until at least four weeks after her father would arrive in the city, none the wiser. Her gut gave a pained clench at the thought of him stranded for so long without means.

Garrett had looked around at her silence, but now looked away again, reaching for a pair of turned cherrywood goblets. “Well,” he began, seeming to pick up on her disquiet, “at least it’s L’Aberohn and not some of the other cities I’m acquainted with.”

Fates, was I being that obvious? she wondered. Then, not quite understanding his meaning, asked, “Sorry?”

“Oh, you know,” he ventured, holding the goblet up to the light to inspect the nearly translucent grain. “L’Aberohn is—well… L’Aberohn. It’s a city like no other. Endless opportunity and endless entertainment. Not a bad place to be stranded for a time, in my opinion.”

Alieda smiled ruefully. “No, I wouldn’t really know.”

He eyed her over the rim of the goblet. “Never tagged along with your father on one of his trips?”

Alieda shook her head. “It’s always been my responsibility to manage the shop, being just the two of us. I’ve never even been out of Coryul unless you count the Brystuls.”

“Never had the desire?”

Alieda quirked a smile. “Plenty of desire, just not the means. Being a merchant like yourself, I can’t imagine you could even conceive of being in one place your whole life.”

Garrett grunted a quick laugh. “We all come from somewhere, and until we leave that place for the first time, we have been there forever, have we not?”

Alieda furrowed her brow, never having considered it that way.

“If your gut is telling you to get away,” he went on, “make the opportunity to get away, even if just for a little while. I promise, you’ll regret it one day if you don’t.”

Alieda smiled with one side of her mouth but then sobered again, thinking of all the times she had escaped into the forest for no other reason than needing to ‘get away’. The realization made her feel more than just a little restless. “Maybe I’ll have to do that someday,” she agreed noncommittally, eager to get the merchant’s inquisitive eyes off her again.

“Someday?” he grunted. “Didn’t you just win High Season?” He raised an eyebrow at her before turning back to his inspections. “If it’s opportunity you’ve been waiting for, here it is.”

Alieda blinked, brow wrinkling at his words, but he was already facing the other direction again. She took a moment, trying to validate what he’d just said, but the notion was absolutely foreign to her, brushing her mind and then rolling immediately away, unable to find purchase, like water off the wings of a duck.

She retreated a few steps to the counter where she sat, allowing the merchant to continue browsing as she turned this novel revelation over and over in her mind. Garrett, meanwhile, seeming unperturbed by her abrupt exit from their conversation, simply continued adding to his growing stack of acquisitions on the counter.

* * *

As Alieda was completing his transaction a few minutes later, Thomas emerged from the adjoining door holding her pack, and it looked as if he had filled it for her, as well.

Garrett glanced toward Thomas as he entered, watching as he placed the pack on the floor and then leaned quietly against the far wall.

“I hope I’m not keeping you,” Garrett remarked, lifting an eyebrow at the admittedly odd entrance of Thomas into the room.

Alieda smiled as she glanced up. “Not at all. This is my good friend, Thomas,” she introduced. “Thomas, this is Garrett, the merchant who bought my father’s festival piece.”

Thomas nodded and leaned forward to briefly shake his hand, but the crease between his brows never fully softened.

“Thomas is just waiting to walk me to a friend’s place for the night.”

Garrett nodded. “I see. Well, I won’t keep you any longer, then. Would it be possible to have these delivered to the Morning Glory Inn sometime tomorrow morning, perhaps?”

Alieda looked at Thomas, who raised his brows and shrugged, agreeing without her needing to voice her thoughts.

“Actually…” she began, “…that’s where we happen to be heading, as well.”

Garrett glanced up at her, an appraising tilt to his brows as he glanced between her and Thomas.

Alieda caught the look and, far from any desire to delve into the drama surrounding the Uptons, suddenly felt it prudent to head off any outrageous rumors that might arise regarding her and Thomas’s relationship.

“We’re friends of the innkeeper, see… and, well, due to some issues surrounding the festival…”

Garrett nodded slowly in comprehension. “You would be referring to the missing festival judge?”

Thomas arched an eyebrow at Garrett, reclaiming his position against the wall. “You seem very well informed for someone only in town for a few days.”

“My boy,” Garrett nearly laughed. Thomas bristled at the epithet but remained silent. “Half of what I deal in is information. Only a fraction of what I buy and sell involves solid goods.” The merchant either didn’t see or chose to ignore the suspicious look Thomas cast him at these words. Clapping his hands together once, he rubbed them appraisingly and took in the packages on the counter. “Well, no matter. I suppose the three of us together have enough hands to tote this all to the inn, wouldn’t you say?”

Alieda wasn’t quite sure what to make of this unexpected pronouncement, but it was getting late, and having this strange, sandy-haired merchant in their company could only work to their advantage at this point. Anything for an extra set of eyes… Affecting a smile, she grabbed a couple of baskets from beneath the counter. “We would be happy to.”

* * *

Angling the full basket onto one hip, Alieda turned the iron key in the lock, securing her father’s shop for the night. The sun was now well below the tall peaks, and the village was covered in heavy black and purple shadows. Dark storm clouds were rolling in from the northeast, promising a turbulent night.

She lifted the lantern from its wall bracket and spun the flint wheel until a bright flame caught the wick. Light bloomed around the trio, and Alieda passed the handle off to Thomas. Cradling the flickering light against the rising wind, he took it and stepped out into the darkening night, leading the way into the village proper.

Thomas, as it happened, was apparently rather curious about what Garrett knew of the missing judge, and he peppered him with subtle questions the entire way. Garrett, seeming somehow amused by his efforts, returned the interrogation with equal fervor. Alieda watched their veiled battle, half amused, half wary.

Garrett was rather well-apprised regarding certain current events in Coryul, especially considering the brief span he had purportedly been in the village; he certainly hadn’t been exaggerating when he spoke of making a business of information.

A flicker of motion caught Alieda’s eye as they passed a narrow alleyway—a shimmer in the shadows where there shouldn’t have been any. She paused, staring into the empty space, eyes squinting as the light from the lantern passed out of range and the ally was swallowed again by darkness.

Alieda looked up and down the line of store fronts. All the businesses on this row had long been closed for the evening, their proprietors likely all home and readying themselves for bed, not piddling about in dark alleys without a light to see by.

A damp wind, too warm for the season, blew up and around her, whipping stray wisps of hair about her head. Alieda’s gaze lingered once more on the alley, but she walked on, slowly returning her eyes to the road ahead of her, which was becoming difficult to see, outside of the circle of light cast by Thomas’s lantern.

Another shadowy coruscation seized Alieda’s gaze at the next alley, and she halted, staring into the darkness, shielding her eyes. She stood there for a moment, letting the light from the lantern move far enough away as to allow her sight to adjust to the deeply shadowed space.

There it went again. Just a faint movement, like dark silk moving in the wind. Inexplicably, she felt the fine hairs on her arms rise, and her heartbeat began to quicken. Something tugged at the back of her mind, the memory of a similar sensation, and her mind suddenly conjured the image of disembodied eddies moving through pre-dawn mist…

“Alieda?”

She jumped, jerking her head around to find Thomas looking back at her, Garrett at his side, both waiting with twin frowns on their lamplit faces. They stood a good twenty paces ahead of her. Was I standing here that long?

A hollow rumble rolled in over the distant peaks, and her eyes flicked skyward. “Sorry,” she called, turning her head back to the alley, “I thought I saw—”

Darkness collided with her in a blow that knocked her off her feet. Alieda felt her back and head smack into the ground and her vision flashed a bright white. Eyes rolling in all directions, her sight finally returned only to be eclipsed by the overpowering shadow of the creature now looming atop her. Confusion warring with panic, she instinctively fought to ward off advancing, wraithlike arms.

A strident keening rose from it, drawing folds of drifting blackness tight against its murky features as it pressed its advantage. Alieda caught the creature’s wrist as a claw-tipped hand reached toward her face, but no sooner had she closed her fingers around it than it simply ghosted away beneath her grip, manifesting again to press inexorably on.

She could hear Thomas shouting her name, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the nightmare pressing down on her. Its eyes and mouth, just visible behind the shroud of darkness, glowed like black voids, sucking away all light to leave a darkness so pure, Alieda thought she might be drawn right down through into their oblivion.

The clawed hand was mere inches from her face now, spindly fingers curling under one by one until a single probing digit remained extended. Alieda screamed through gritted teeth as she caught the reaching arm once, twice… again… each attempt ending with the icy darkness phasing right through her grip.

Beyond the obscuring haze above her, Alieda could see Thomas struggling with the wraith from behind, frantic arms repeatedly passing through its ethereal form, as if it were no more than ripples on a dark pond.

A helpless whimper escaped her lips as the finger advanced, stretching, reaching…

…And then passed, resolutely, into her right eye.

Alieda screamed.

Pain, the likes of which she had never known coursed through her like liquid death. Her head felt like it was on fire, but her eye… her eye was cold. Cold like frostbite. Cold like being stabbed through her eye with a shard of ice.

Images flashed in her head between bouts of blinding pain; a dark landscape littered with broken and cracked earth, ripples of brightly colored light. Wet, moldy stone…

A bright flash passed before her, but then the phantasmal darkness returned. She could feel herself slipping.

It came again, sweeping in low and brightening her vision.

Her actual vision.

She had seen that light—it had been real.

She latched onto that knowledge—the light passing in and out of her vision the only thing that mattered at that moment. The burning cold began to retreat, but then redoubled, piercing back into her as soon as the light moved away, but it came again, swinging violently over and through the shadowy wraith until finally, miraculously, the stabbing tendril of darkness withdrew from her mind.

Alieda scrambled backward, out of reach of the shadowy figure, pressing her hand down hard over her eye as she retreated.

Garrett was swinging the lantern around his head like a whip, forcing the wraith, bit by bit, to give ground. The creature hissed, shying from the light and keening as the lantern made wild swoops, arcing toward it before circling around to threaten again. The terrible wailing was unlike anything Alieda had ever heard, and the sound made her head ring in answering waves of fire and vertigo.

Once Garrett had driven it back far enough for Thomas to scoop Alieda from the road, the merchant dashed the lantern to the ground beneath the dark creature. Rivulets of fire poured from the broken vessel, sweeping up to consume the being like so many cobwebs. Engulfed, it shattered, bursting into shreds of writhing darkness before dissipating with the chilling echo of a thousand distant screams.

Thomas was panting, kneeling down beside Alieda in the road, holding her tightly against him in the now silent darkness. “What in the actual bloody fuck was that!” he hissed, shaking violently.

“A rumor,” Garrett answered from a few paces away, still staring out at where the creature had been just a moment before. “One I had desperately hoped was not true.” Then he looked back at Alieda, gaze becoming inscrutable as he stared at her for a long moment. His attention eventually broke and his eyes began flicking to the concealing darkness all around them, then up at the roiling sky. The storm was growing closer. “We need to get indoors, now.”

But even with Thomas’s help, Alieda couldn’t seem to gather her feet beneath her. The searing sensation of ice, for a moment having abated, was returning with increasing fury, arcing down her synapses, blinding her to everything except the sinister claws raking once more through her mind.

“…Thomas,” she managed to whimper. But then the last vestiges of her sight darkened, and her equilibrium plummeted down around her.

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