The sun was setting behind her. It cast its funny, hazy green light through the trees at her back and made long shadows on the tall grass that grew in place of the choking bushes of the deeper forest. It was with some relief that Mia realized that she knew where she was. A few more minutes and she would reach the edge of the big pasture. She could smell it already, the almost overpowering smell of horse. Mia took a deep breath of it, in through her nose, out through her mouth. Her time was running out, and she still had no idea what she was going to say to Orden when she saw him.
It’s not my fault. She told herself for what had to be the millionth time on the long walk home. It was hard not to notice that with each repetition, her certainty of that statement faded. It isn’t though, Mia insisted. It wasn’t like she’d planned to fall out of the tree, and she definitely never would have expected him to catch her. If anything it was his fault.
His fault you’re clumsy? Mia snarled in frustration. There was no way this could go that wouldn’t end with her looking like the guilty one.
Mia’s head snapped up at a painful speed and she went completely still. Somewhere behind her the rub and swish of grass stopped; he’d heard it too. Heavy movements, careless and loud in the sudden quiet. A branch snapped, the sound reverberating like a gun shot through the thick air. Mia tensed as her eyes picked out a shadow moving between the trees and relaxed as she recognized the shape.
A warm gust of air escaped through her lips as Mia released her pent up breath and started toward Orden. He hadn’t seen her yet, in fact he seemed to be looking everywhere but at her. There was something off about him, the way he was casting about, his movements fast and jerky. He seemed to be looking for something.
“Orden!” Mia raised a hand to wave when he didn’t immediately see her, and felt her fingers go numb when their eyes met. Even at this distance Mia could see the wild, panicked look in his eyes. The skin surrounding them was pale and waxy, stretched too tight over the bones of his face. What on earth? He had almost reached her and showed no sign of stopping. “Orden, what—?”
He caught her by the arms, his grip like iron, biting her skin. “What happened?” He demanded, as he scanned her from head to toe with a half-crazed look, taking in her dishevelled hair as well as the sap and needles that clung to her clothes. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine! I—”
Orden shook her so hard that her head rocked back and forth on her neck, “What. Happened? Why did you use your Power?”
“I—wait—” Mia’s eyes narrowed, “How do you know about that?”
“She ambushed me.”
Orden went rigid at the same time as Mia cringed. His grip on her upper arms became unbearable as Orden’s eyes flicked from her face to a spot just above her shoulder. Mia got to watch as first his mouth opened in shock, and then closed abruptly, lips pressing into a hard, furious line.
An eternity dragged by in the time it took for Orden to drag his eyes from the Dragon standing behind her, and look down into Mia’s face. In all the time she’d spent with him, all the times she’d pissed him off, Orden had never looked at her like this. It sucked the warmth right out of her bones.
“Is. This. True?”
“No!” Mia struggled against Orden’s grip, needing to put distance between herself and that look. “No I—I was on my way—”
“She was in a tree. Waiting for me.”
“I was not!” Fuelled by the anger stoked by the smug tone of his voice, Mia twisted out of Orden’s grip and rounded on Vander.
He didn’t even do her the courtesy of looking at her before continuing his story. “She fell; I caught her,” his eyes flicked down to hers briefly, “and then she repaid me by attacking me.”
Mia flew at him, “You called me a—”
Mia froze, her face inches from Vander’s. A lock of his straight blond hair had spilled over his high forehead to hang in his eyes. Mia lowered herself to the soles of her feet so quickly that it sent a jolt up her legs.
She turned her back to Vander before she had to spend another second looking up at him, and instead, took the full brunt of fury written on Orden’s face. A muscle twitched in his cheek as he looked first at Mia, or rather, in her general direction—his eyes sort of passed over her, like he couldn’t stand to look at her—then Vander.
Mia felt like Orden had slapped her across the face. She sagged, her shoulders turning inward. He was asking for Vander’s side of the story over hers. How could he do that to her? He might as well have announced to the world that he didn’t trust her. Mia dropped her gaze to the scuffed toes of her boots, blinking against the bitter sting in her eyes, and listened as Vander answered Orden’s question.
In the quiet that followed Vander’s retelling of their encounter, Mia felt Orden’s eyes on her, “Well?” His tone was rough, disappointment evident. Mia clenched her teeth, and lifted her eyes, regarding Orden from beneath her brows. “Was that the way of it?”
She raised her chin, “Yes.” She wouldn’t make any excuses, they wouldn’t do her any good anyway. There was nothing she could say that would help her case, and Vander, to his credit—and her surprise—hadn’t lied. Still, she hated that no-one was interested to hear her side of things.
Orden straightened, his eyes narrowing. He seemed to be waiting for Mia to say something; to defend herself, or to argue. When she failed to meet his expectation, he sighed, some of the tension leaving his face. Orden ran a hand over his bare head and cupped the back of his neck. “I suppose there is no help for it. A commandment has been broken, whether it was intentionally done or not, no longer matters. There is no undoing it.”
“So what happens now?” Mia asked, shifting her weight to her other foot.
“Happens?”Orden repeated. “Nothing happens. You will take Reyne back to the homestead and see to her needs. Then you will muck out the stalls.”
“But I just—”
“Do it again.”
“What about him?” Mia jerked her head over her right shoulder in Vander’s general direction, “How are you planning to punish him?” Neither man said a word in answer. Mia saw a flash of warning in Orden’s gaze as he met Vander’s over her head. There was a short grunt from behind and then the dry rustle and crunch of grass as Vander walked away. Mia took a quick step toward Orden and lowered her voice, “You’re really going to punish me for this? It wasn’t my fault.”
“You would prefer I punish Vander for catching you before you could fall on your arse like a fledgling bird?” Orden crossed his arms over his massive chest and regarded her from beneath raised brows. Mia bit down on her molars to keep from saying anymore. If only she could control the blush heating her face. The lines in Orden’s face lost some of the harshness, “Take the horse and go home now. Leave me to sort through this mess.”
As if on cue, Vander stepped around Mia, leading the horse in question by the reins. His face was as blank as hers as he offered her the lead. Mia refused to look away. She didn’t so much as blink, or jerk when her fingers brushed lightly against his. Vander’s brows— a shade darker than his hair— drew together, and then Mia turned her back on him and Orden.