“You must be Vander.”
Vander looked down into the girl whose face 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 stood out large and round, glowing like amber 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 from him?
Vander had been utterly oblivious to her presence. Was thinking of other things, of home, when the quiet of the forest was shattered by a panicked squawk. Then the girl had come tumbling out of the foliage. It had been instinct to catch her. He’d regretted it the moment she crashed into his shoulder 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--Eldhor, but she really was rather short, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder. He took in the raised brows and the expectant look on her face. Then he realized what had 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 came out clipped and harsh. The slight tremor in his voice, speaking to the rage rushing beneath his skin.
Her eyes were wide in her face, surprise mingling with confusion, and the smallest amount of fear. Good, Vander thought. He could almost read the thoughts swirling behind those luminous eyes. He wasn’t surprised when her brows slammed down, their shape hard and angular above narrowed eyes.
Vander 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 toward him.
Her lips pulled back in a snarl, “Spying?”
They were as close to nose to nose as they could be, given their considerable height difference. “Yes, spying. Or do they call it something else wherever it is that you’re from?”
Her brown eyes blazed with the fiery heat of a forge. “Oh!” The word exploded out of her, “You mean like the way you watched me?”
That caught him off guard. “What are you—?”
“Cut the bullshit,” the girl snapped. “I know it was you. You watched me train 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 did he tell the truth?
Vander drew himself up to his full height, and she had to tilt her head back even further. The smoldering heat in her eyes intensified. “You’re right,” Vander said. 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. Utterly incapable of being the Guardian Nethea needs and deserves.” Vander had the immense satisfaction of seeing the effect of his words. Her mouth popped open with a sharp intake of breath, cheeks coloring as if he’d physically struck her.
Then she surged toward him, face pale with rage save for two spots of bright color burning high in her cheeks. “And I think you’re a spineless, arrogant creep, whose head is too big for the rest of his body.” She spat the words in his face like a hissing cat. Then she dug her bony shoulder into his side with surprising force and stalked past him.
Vander twisted after her, watching in disbelief as she stormed through the brush. Oblivious to the branches that caught at her clothes and pulled her hair from its messy braid. 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 could taste his anger, like burning coals on his tongue. It was evident that she’d learned a few things in his absence. His pride would never recover from 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 despite himself, despite the situation. 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 plowed on, ignoring her sounds of protest, “you broke one of the commandments 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 other, from a teacher who’s skills are wasted on the likes of her?”
Vander felt the unmistakable draw of Power 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. He lay among the rust-colored needles, breathing through his mouth in an undignified manner. A shadow fell, blocking 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 labored breathing. The girl pressed her lips together and expelled a burst of air through her nose. She nodded her head once, and then, without a word, she turned on her heel.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 radiating from the center of his chest where she’d hit him. When he looked up, she’d disappeared between the trees.
Vander didn’t stay down for long. Mia heard the faint rustlings of him moving through the brush behind her. More than that, she sensed him there. The heat coming off 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 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 felt 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 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? Asked a snarky little voice within her head. And he’d accused her of spying on him! The arrogant jerk. Rude—plain mean—
He didn’t like 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 and glittering like cut emeralds. Cold and luminous as the jewel itself. That she hadn’t turned and ran when he’d flashed his teeth at her, 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.