“You must be Vander.”
Vander looked down into the face of the girl he’d spent the last cycle trying to forget, and found a different person looking back at him. Her once pale skin had darkened in the sun; her face sharp and angular, stripped of any resemblance to the child she’d been when he’d last seen her. Luminous brown eyes fringed in black stood out large and round, they glowed almost red as the sun reappeared.
Beneath the sickly sweet smell of tree sap Vander scented lavender and pine, the smell of home on her clothes. But there was something else, something hidden in her skin, something different. How had he missed it?
How had she managed to hide herself from him? And so well?
Vander had been completely oblivious to her presence, thinking of other things, of home; when the quiet of the forest had been shattered by a panicked squawk—and then the girl had come tumbling out of the foliage. It had been instinct to catch her.
He’d regretted it the moment she’d crashed into his shoulder with numbing force, and then again when she’d kicked him in both shins. He should have dropped her on her arse then and there but then she’d started choking.
“Well?” Her voice had lost some of its breathless quality. It drew him back. Vander looked down at her—she was really quite short, he didn’t think the top of her head even reached his shoulder—and took in the raised brows and the expectant look on her face. Then he realized what had just transpired. What she’d done.
His grip tightened on her narrow hips and then he shoved her away from him.
“Hey!” She exploded, stumbling back. “What the—?”
Vander cut her off with a quick angry step that had her shrinking back. “How dare you?” His words were clipped and harsh, a tremor below the surface evidence of the outrage he could barely suppress.
Her eyes were wide in her face, surprise mingling with confusion and the smallest amount of fear. Good, he thought. Vander could almost read the thoughts swirling behind those luminous eyes. He wasn’t surprised in the least when her brows slammed down, their shape hard and angular above narrowed eyes.
That tone! Vander practically saw red. “You heard me. How dare you spy on me! Do you realize what you’ve done?”
This time when he took a step toward her—toward, and not away as he should—the girl didn’t back away. Not only did she not shrink from him, but she took a step of her own toward him.
Her lips pulled back in a snarl, “Spying?”
They were as close to nose to nose as they could be with their considerable difference in height, “Yes, spying. Or do they call it something else wherever it is that you come from?”
Her brown eyes blazed with the fiery heat of a forge made for forming steel. “Oh!” The word exploded out of her, “You mean like watching someone train?”
That caught him off guard. “What are you—?”
“Cut the bullshit,” the girl snapped. “I know it was you. You watched me for weeks. I saw you.”
He knew it for a lie the moment she uttered it—she’d never seen him, he’d made sure of it—the brief flutter of her pulse below her jaw confirmed it. Vander stared at her, biting down on his molars hard enough for his jaw to ache. It was his turn now. The question was, did he lie, or tell the truth?
Vander straightened, drawing himself up to his full height so that she had to tilt her head back even further. The smouldering heat in her eyes intensified. “You’re right.”
The girl’s eyes widened by a fraction.
“I watched you. And do you know what I saw?”
Her eyes narrowed and she lifted her chin. “Enlighten me.”
“I saw a selfish, angry little girl who falls woefully short of being the Guardian Nethea needs and deserves,” Vander had the satisfaction of seeing the effect of his words. Her mouth popped open at her sharp intake of breath and her cheeks coloured as if he’d physically struck her.
Then she surged toward him, face pale with rage save for two spots of bright colour burning high in her cheeks. “And I think you’re a spineless, arrogant creep, who’s head is too big for the rest of his body.” She spat the words up into his face like a hissing cat, then she dug her bony shoulder into his side with surprising force and stalked past him.
Vander twisted to watch in disbelief as the girl stormed through the brush, oblivious to the whipping branches that caught at her clothes and pulled her hair from its messy plait. Half a second later he was after her, trusting the horse to follow. He had no trouble catching up, his legs far outmatched hers. She heard him behind her and whipped around.
“Why are you following me?”
“I am not following you.” Vander stepped around her, refusing to stoop to her level despite the temptation. “We are going the same way.”
He was seething mad. It was obvious that she’d learned a few things in his absence; his pride would never forgive him for allowing himself to be caught so completely off his guard.
“What makes you so sure?” She called after him.
Vander ground his teeth.
“Maybe I was leaving.”
“Then you really are a stupid girl.”
Something struck him between the shoulder blades. Vander stopped in his tracks. Insufferable child. He shot her a look over his shoulder and met with a surprisingly fierce expression.
Vander smirked, clearly he’d struck a nerve. He kept walking. “After the tongue lashing you’re about to receive I’m sure you will wish you had left.”
The snapping of twigs was loud behind him. Somewhere in the distance a snipe called to its mate. “Why?” Asked the girl, her voice heavy with annoyance and perhaps—was that unease he detected?
Vander smiled to himself, he was starting to enjoy this. “You may not have known this when you deliberately hunted me down but—” He continued over her protest, “you broke the rules set in place by Eldhor and the Oluanvi. You do realize that Orden will be furious.”
“So stalking me wasn’t breaking the rules?”
Vander rounded on her, “Don’t use that word. I was not stalking you. I was—”
It was her turn to smile. “Watching me? You admitted it.”
Eldhor help him but he would wipe that self-satisfied look from her face.
“And what is it that I am supposed to have been watching?” Vander demanded, giving over to his temper. “A child, receiving one beating after the next, from a teacher who’s skills are wasted on the likes of her?”
Vander felt the unmistakeable draw of it in the air. And a scent—her scent; at once familiar and wholly different from anything he’d ever smelled before. Then it hit him. A blast of solid air struck him squarely in the chest and sent him sprawling, heels over head, to the forest floor.
Vander tasted spruce on his tongue and in the back of his throat as he lay among the rust coloured needles, breathing through his mouth in an undignified manner. A shadow fell, and a dark figure blocked the light that filtered through the prickly branches of the spruce trees. Vander squinted up into the girl’s face and saw that the color in her cheeks had leached away, leaving her skin pale and waxy in the wake of her Power. Her mouth was open, she was panting. Their eyes met and held.
In the silence that surrounded them the only sound was that of their laboured breathing. The girl pressed her lips together and expelled a burst of air through her nose. She bobbed her head once and then, without a word, she was gone.
Vander lay blinking in the sunlight for a moment longer before he pulled himself up into a sitting position. He winced at the stab of pain that radiated from the centre of his chest where she’d hit him, and looked up in time to watch the girl disappear soundlessly between the trees. Damn.
He didn’t stay down for too long. Mia heard the faint rustlings of him moving through the brush behind her. More than that, she sensed him there. The heat radiating from his giant frame—the horse and leather smell of his skin, even the mint on his breath. Her every nerve, every single cell in her body was uncomfortably, almost painfully, aware of him.
Mia barely noticed the forest growing dark around her. Her eyes were fixed, with some amount of deliberateness, on the ground being eaten up by her hurried steps. She had to look, or risk tripping in her hurry to put some much needed distance between herself and the Dragon following close behind.
From the tips of her fingers to her knee caps Mia shook. Her heart refused to slow its frantic beating, each pump of the organ like being hit in the chest by one of Orden’s wooden blades. God, why couldn’t she breathe?
Mia was tempted to stop; to bend over with her hands on her knees and just concentrate on breathing for a while. She didn’t dare. Not now, not in front of him. No way in hell was she going to let him see her like that.
But he already has, hasn’t he? Mia’s own voice remarked in a snarky tone. And he’d accused her of spying on him! The arrogant jerk. Rude—just plain mean—
He hadn’t liked it when she’d called him out for watching her—a total shot in the dark fuelled by her suspicions—and even less so when Mia had accused him of stalking her. The hairs on Mia’s arms stood on end at the memory of the animal fury in his eyes, green as jade and glittering like cut emeralds. Cold and luminous as the jewel itself. That she hadn’t turned and ran at the flash of his teeth in the dim light between the trees was a miracle. Mia knew she owed her bravery to the adrenaline that still coursed through her veins.
Why did she have to fall? If she’d just stayed hidden—kept quiet until he’d gone and followed him home—then this whole embarrassing ordeal could have been avoided. But no. She had to fall out of that stupid tree. Mia’s face scrunched in a pained expression. It really did look like she’d been up there spying on him.
A flicker of energy spider-walked beneath her skin, the remnants of the Power that had come boiling to the surface at his words. Mia could understand why he might think she was spying on him—she would have thought the same thing in his shoes—but she would never forgive him for calling her a child and a waste of Orden’s time.
Mia had been just as surprised as him when she’d hit him with her Power. She hadn’t known what to expect when she’d taken hold of the coiling chain of Power that had twisted and writhed within, all Mia had known was that she’d wanted to prove him wrong. And judging by the look on his face as he’d stared up at her from the forest floor, she had.
She couldn’t even feel good about it. All Mia could think about now was how Orden was going to react.