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Chapter 2

A creature burst through the brush that lined the road.

No—not a creature-a person.

The unexpected appearance spooked the horse, already made shy by her rider's uneasiness as they traveled the highway under the cover of darkness.

The rider, a tall figure disguised in a heavy cloak, had been close to falling asleep before the emergence of the stranger. She could not react in time to stop the beast. The horse shiied away and reared simultaneously. The rider felt herself slipping from the saddle.

The figure on the road skidded to a stop, inches from the horse. Instead of shrinking away in fear of being trampled, the stranger reached up. Fingers closed around the bridle without hesitation and the horse was grounded once more.

The rider watched in awe, the figure of this stranger was slight. There was no way he should be able to rein in such a beast with what appeared to be minimal effort.

The horse and the stranger made eye contact and the animal, who had been prancing nervously, quieted.

The rider slid a hand down to pat the horse's neck.

The stranger released the bridle.

The rider lifted her gaze to express her thanks, but when her dark eyes met hot amber, the stranger bolted.

The light of the moon revealed little of where the stranger had gone. Not that it stopped the rider from trying. She threw her hood back to improve her range of vision as she glanced around at her surroundings. Midnight colored locks tumbled free in the moonlight.

With her near unseating and her encounter with the dark-clad stranger, the rider was now wide awake. Her mind working overtime to compensate for previous drowsiness. Did the stranger know who she was? What she was? Had he just gone to report seeing her? Was he just as frightened as she was at the idea of finding someone on the road so late at night? Was that why he'd run?

Gradually, panic gave way to reason. The person hadn't expected to find her. He had cut across the road. He wasn't sticking to a path. He didn't have appear to have any belongings with him. They were both on the run it seemed.

At this hour, she couldn't help being curious. Did he even know where he was going? The rider strained to listen to the stranger's progress, expecting to hear him fighting through the underbrush in the dark.

She heard nothing.

What did that mean?

She couldn't afford to think about it. If he was being chased like she was, she didn't want to stick around to find out by whom. She had to forget the stranger and keep moving. All that mattered was getting to the border and finding a way across.

The rider sent one last look around, straining her eyes and her ears to locate the stranger.

Then, she looked and listened behind her, to see if she was being followed.

They weren't within ear shot-yet.

The rider patted the neck of her mount, whether to reassure herself or the horse—she couldn't decide.

Not willing to waste any more time, she nudged the horse into a walk and they carried on their way.

Despite her proximity to the eastern border, the rider found it impossible to cross into neighboring Byard. Not for lack of trying. Every sizable road that led to the border had a squad of soldiers standing by. More than once, she'd pushed her horse down a deer run, hoping it would bring her across the border. There were soldiers there too. They were taking this business very seriously.

A few days trying yielded nothing. She was getting desperate. She swung out of the saddle at one of the larger checkpoints and towed the horse behind her. She planned to push through. She hoped that, in the bustle, she wouldn't be recognized.

She was.

There appeared to be a handbill with her face on it. She didn't notice until a soldier grabbed her by the shoulder and demanded that she put her hood down. The man, with a grizzled face and a stomach that suggested he spent too much time at his local tavern, had a sheet of paper crumpled in his fist. She saw her name and height on the page.

She wasn't going to get through. These people surrounding her were a hindrance now.

The woman whirled out of the man's grasp before he knew what was happening and had one foot in the stirrup before anyone realized something was amiss.

As soon as her other foot was in the stirrup, she urged the horse to turn and run. The bay-colored mare obliged. The pair exploded out of the assemblage of folk preparing to convince the soldiers they would do no harm by leaving.

A few soldiers were able to get to horses and pursue her.

The rider drove the horse onward until the horse had nothing left to give. She'd lost sight of the soldiers come dusk, but she couldn't stop.

She knew she could outrun the soldiers because they were dressed in armor and the rider carried only herself. She didn't know what her mare was capable of, but the horse seemed to know that both of their lives depended on escape.

The rider pushed the horse to take her farther. She couldn't stop until the cover of night was upon them.

When that happened, the exhausted mare was on the verge off collapse. She was unsteady on her feet.

The rider immediately dismounted and made finding water her most important mission.

A task hard to complete at night, she scolded herself.

She could not be discouraged. She had to find it. Without it, the horse would surely die. The mare had gone above and beyond the call of duty today and no person was ever more thankful for their mount.

As the woman wandered, getting use to the notion of using her own two legs after the jarring race that had been her life for the past few hours, she thought she heard the sound of water.

Yes! A babbling brook! She stumbled blindly through the trees as she made for it, pulling the horse behind her by the rains.

A few steps in, she heard twigs crackle and pop.

The rider pulled up short. She did not make those sounds and neither did the horse. The sounds had originated somewhere off to her right, still a ways away.

The woman was immediately on her guard. She turned her head to listen for the sound again. She hoped it was just an animal. Her track record this week meant she wasn't going to be that lucky.

There was no movement toward her from the direction the sound had come from. That was promising.

A few more steps in revealed the source of the noise: there was a crackling fire now visible in the dark. The rider was upwind. Her horse caught the scent and panicked. The mare let out a fearful whinny and tried to run.

The rider was too exhausted to put up the fight that might allow to her hold on.

When the horse reared, the woman fell into the underbrush, letting go as she fell.

With a tired sigh, the rider got to her feet, dusting her cloak off. She didn't blame the animal for running. Considering what she had saved the mare from at the start of her journey, she should have expected it. So far, smoke had been a non-issue. Given the weather, and her circumstances, lighting a fire come nightfall had not been a priority.

The rider peered back towards the fire hoping, by some grand stroke of luck, the mare hadn't been heard. Maybe the fire had been left unattended and she still had time to dissolve into the dark and make a getaway on foot...

Any thoughts of running off died when the rider looked to the encampment. There was at least one person in the party. He had managed to calm and retrain her horse.

The rider let out a breath and threw back her shoulders, steeling herself for the encounter of strangers.

She made her way toward the clearing with the fire, analyzing the situation as she approached.

Based on the amount of gear surrounding the campfire, she would guess that she was dealing with no more than one person. Judging by the small size of the pack, she would guess he was on foot. It was hard to tell direction or allegiance without speaking and she would, at the very least, have to thank him for saving the horse. Manners dictated that much.

The person was unremarkable: shorter than average with an average build. He wore his cloak with the hood up: something of the norm in this kingdom, currently. The rider was donning the same.

When she got within arm's length of the horse, the rider reached out for the bridle, making eye contact with the stranger. The gruff "thank you" she'd been practicing in her head came out too shrill. She knew those eyes.

The glow of fire illuminated just as easily as the moon.

The rider was frozen by those amber eyes that seemed to be glowing, no doubt she had the fire to thank for the eerie effect.

Meeting this person twice seemed a strange coincidence, but the rider was not afraid. She felt confident that she could overpower this individual due to his small stature. She wasn't prepared to go so far as to reveal herself. She smiled and said, "That's twice now you've helped me and this horse."

"She spooks easy," came a voice rough from disuse. "That's not a good trait in horse in these parts."

The rider grabbed for the bridle, "She's been through a lot recently." Whether she was talking about herself or the horse remained unclear. It was true either way.

The stranger released his hold on the horse's reins and watched as the rider crossed through the campsite. "I wouldn't recommend traveling much further tonight," the coarse voice advised as the rider reached the edge of the fire's light.

"Why not?" There was a challenge in her voice.

"You keep going east like you are and you're going to run smack dab into a checkpoint. They're none too friendly at this hour."

The rider stopped and turned back towards the stranger in the flickering light. Did he know about her?

"You should try heading north if you want to skip the inquisition at the border. I didn't see a single uniform up there in the mountains. I wouldn't recommend going there now. Your horse could use the rest."

Was this stranger suggesting she stay the night here? The rider was suspicious now. "I'm better on my own," she replied.

"Lady, if you don't stop right now, that horse is going to die." The stranger's voice was quiet but fierce.

Deep down, the rider knew he spoke the truth, "Just for the night then."

The stranger didn't respond.

The rider took the horse to the water, unsaddling the animal in the dark as it drank its fill. The woman placed the saddle on the shore and washed the horse down-it was least she could do after pushing the animal past its breaking point.

Carrying the saddle and leading horse back to the fire, the rider found the stranger busy at the fire, preparing a meal.

The stranger's hood was down, revealing closely trimmed hair that blazed red in the firelight. Shadows filled the hollows of cheekbones, while the glow of the fire and illuminated the profile of this person she would be spending the night with.

When the stranger sat back on his haunches, the rider took that moment to introduce herself, "I'm Miran." It was the polite thing to do.

She'd considered using a fake name, but after her word exchange with this stranger, it was clear he wasn't local, so he wouldn't know who she was.

The short-haired stranger looked back at her and replied, "Nessa."

Miran didn't say anything for stretch. Nessa wasn't a name native to Tolin and it had a distinctly feminine ring to it.

Was it possible she had misidentified this person in her company? Miran flushed in the firelight, embarrassed by her own mistake. Nessa had boyishly short hair, like that of a soldier. It couldn't have been more than few inches in length. Her face was very angular, with a sharp nose and strong jawline. The cloak didn't give anything away in terms of curves, so the only thing that could confirm her femininity was her small stature and her name.

Perhaps that was part of the charade, Miran thought to herself. A young woman traveling alone would do well to hide her identity. It probably wouldn't hurt to follow Nessa's example. Pretending to be a boy and hiding in the anonymity a cloak provides were helpful ways to avoid detection and unwanted attention. The big difference was: no one was looking for this girl. Miran had that to consider. She couldn't count on a haircut or clothing change to disguise her and fool the people who were looking for her.

Miran was so caught up in her thoughts she didn't consider how she appeared to the redhead, attempting to start conversation by exchanging names and then dropping the matter entirely. It was only when the girl cast a glance back over her shoulder at Miran that the young woman was jerked back to the present. She floundered for words, suddenly aware that she'd been abominably rude.

Nessa didn't seemed bothered by it at all. She seemed to be the sort of person who preferred silence. It was why Miran was caught offguard when the girl asked, "How did you come by the mare?" Nessa had pulled her dinner from the fire and was letting the feast cool before sinking her teeth into it. It appeared to be roasted rabbit.

Miran's eyes glittered with an emotion that couldn't be translated into words as she glanced at the resting horse. The mare looked a better after their trip to the river. Revived was the word that better described her condition, the girl thought. "I rescued her from a burning stable," Miran explained.

Nessa nodded as she weighed the truth of the girl's statement. She didn't mean to imply that the horse was stolen or anything sinister by asking the question, it was just—this was the second time she'd run into the pair and both times the horse had acted out.

There were any number of explanations for such behavior: a novice rider, an unruly animal, the stress of the situation. Nessa knew that animals could pick up on human emotions, like nervousness, or malicious intent.

Nessa had never been any good at reading people, but there was something about this girl that suggested she had a good heart. The way Miran had been ready to flee when she spotted Nessa was promising. She didn't trust humans. Nessa understood, she was in the same boat. When Nessa had pointed out the animal's condition, Miran had caved. Anyone who put animals first was okay in Nessa's book.

The redhead poked the rabbit and deemed it cool enough to consume. As she chewed on a chunk of meat, she reflected on how she got to this point, sitting in the woods of Tolin with a girl on the run. Miran didn't have to say anything. Nessa recognized the wild look in her eyes. Nessa had seen it on many animals being pursued. She knew her own eyes looked that way sometimes, when she let herself think too much about what had happened.

Three months ago, she had run away. She hadn't planned to go far, just into the woods to find her peace of mind. By the time she hit the mountains, she knew she couldn't go back. She'd flown across Magen and into Tolin knowing only that she had to keep running. If she did, her pursuers would have to give up.

There was no telling how long that would take.

She planned to keep running. There were mountains west of Tolin that had proved too fierce for the kingdom to explore and dominate. Nessa planned to disappear into those mountains and make a living there. There were no maps. Parties sent in were unsuccessful. The mountains were too sheer, they claimed, impossible to climb. The valleys were impassable boulder fields. They'd found no running water. Only ice and snow. They'd found no wildlife either.

It sounded like the perfect destination. Somewhere to go and not be found. No one had been able to survive. Nessa knew she could. She had something of a knack for surviving inhospitable conditions.

Everything changed when she'd crossed the border into Tolin. She could feel that something was wrong. When she left the safety of the mountains, she found people attempting to flee. Some were allowed to leave, others were getting turned back. Some had been arrested.

The part of Nessa that had been raised in the wilderness wanted to press on. This was none of her business, just typical human squabbling. If she had learned anything in her short life, it was that humans are not happy unless they are oppressing or killing another band of humans.

The part of her that had been tamed, the part of her that had been trained, the part of her who had skill sets relevant to what she'd been overhearing, wanted to help. She was only one person, and though she was young and tiny (according to some), this was what she had been prepared for. She wanted to help. If she could. If she could figure out who to offer her services to.

Nessa wasn't comfortable talking to strangers so she wasn't trying terribly hard. She only knew what she'd been able to overhear. There was trouble here. She didn't know how to find it. She didn't know who to trust. Who to ask.

She supposed she could ask Miran, but the girl was running from something. Nessa didn't want to spook her by being inquisitive. It would be best for her to hold her tongue. For now.

Nessa let out a breath as she sussed out why this mattered. Why wasn't she still running westward? She should be.

Because she was determined to prove herself.

That man had dragged her out of the woods and instead of civilizing her, turned her into more of a monster. Now, he wasn't even going to let her graduate. He was going to marry her off and not even let her realize her full potential. She needed to know all that training had a purpose. That she was capable of doing good instead of just hurting people. She would serve the people like she'd been trained to do.

She just had to root out the right person to help her.

The redhead made a face as she chewed. She had no idea how to go about doing that.

She turned to matters she knew the answer to: Miran and this horse.

Based on what she'd been hearing about this country: civil unrest, soldiers exercising power, and who knew what else, the horse could be excused for its behavior. This kingdom had everyone on edge. Livestock were no exception. Everyone got jumpy at night. And the fire, well-horses have very specific memories. A campfire and a burning stable could be accused of smelling similarly. Though different, they would elicit the same reaction. A panicked horse.

As Nessa readied for bed, she couldn't stop thinking about her situation. It consumed her thoughts as of late.

Should she go back to the mountains and carry on with her original plan or stay and try to help?

The girl cast a look at Miran who was now nestled in her own sleeping things.

The idea that a girl should be on the run in her own country didn't sit well with Nessa. Maybe it was because of where she was from. There were a number of reasons to run. This girl didn't appear to be an outlaw. She carried a sword among her gear, but she didn't wear it. It was for protection. Not a necessity. Perhaps she had also run out on a marriage. The idea made Nessa grin. What a coincidence that would be.

Nessa promised herself that she would ask Miran in the morning. Why she was running. Why this country was in turmoil. Nessa lay in bed working on the wording and the delivery. She should probably ask the latter first. Miran wouldn't spill a thing if she asked the former first.

She would find out what the source of this problem was. Before, it had just been something whispered about, discontent among the populace. Nessa suspected that this girl sharing her fire had a personal story to share that would make Nessa want to get involved. Hearing it in passing was one thing, but seeing it firsthand was another. She was in this now.

The pair didn't speak for the remainder of the night. Both were lost in their own thoughts.

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