First Rider's Call

Page 12

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Mysteries.

Despite the annoyance of riding with the delegation, despite the element of danger, Karigan felt a certain thrill at the possibility of being one of the few to enter the Elt Wood. One of the few in what must be centuries, if not ages.

She patted Condor’s neck. “Well, boy, as long as I’m up, I ought to find Sergeant Blaydon and see where he wants me tonight.”

Condor jerked his head up, ears alert and flickering, but it wasn’t her he was listening to. Crane’s head came up next, and he whinnied. Like a chain reaction down the length of the picket, the other horses and mules came awake, shifting and whickering.

“What is it?” Karigan peered anxiously into the dark, her hand trailing along Condor’s shoulder, and she wondered what the horses sensed that she could not. She saw nothing, and perhaps nothing out there had roused Condor, but . . . Now he scraped his hoof on the ground and yanked at his tether as if to break free.

Had they caught a whiff of some wild predator prowling in the woods? Even if it was just a catamount or wolf, Karigan thought it best she inform the watch that something was bothering the horses. Trying to quell her own apprehension, she left Condor and searched for the soldier who was posted near the picket, but couldn’t find him. It occurred to her that she hadn’t seen him come by while she was with Condor.

Where was he? If he was off taking a nap or dicing with companions, she would make sure Sergeant Blaydon heard of it immediately.

When she made one last sweep down the length of the picket line, she found some mules at the very end churning up the earth with their hooves, their eyes rolling, and sweat foaming on their necks and flanks.

She peered into the darkness beyond the encampment made more immense by the thick canopy of the woods that blocked the glow of the moon. In the distance, something pale on the ground caught her eye. A sunbleached piece of deadwood? A rock or mushroom?

She wavered for a moment on the fringe of the encampment, then, drawn forward by her own relentless curiosity—and a desire not to rouse the sergeant unnecessarily—she left behind the flickering lights of the encampment and plunged into the forest shadows ahead.

A branch promptly snapped beneath her heel and its splintering cracked through the woods. She stifled a yelp and put her hand over her racing heart.

Calm down, she told herself. If Bard heard of this idiocy, he’d be sure to make a ditty about the Green Rider who frightened herself to death.

She proceeded forward again, stepping more carefully this time. When she came upon the object, she gasped and stumbled backward.

It was not bleached deadwood or a rock, nor was it a mushroom. A hand, pale fingers open . . .

The rest of the soldier lay obscured behind a bush, face up, an arrow jutting from his chest. A tendril of moonlight gleamed in the whites of his eyes. The scent of his blood in the air must have disturbed the horses.

Catamounts, Karigan thought uneasily, did not use arrows. The arrow was crudely made, the type that groundmites used when they could not steal something better.

She glanced frantically into the dark and thought she discerned a glinting—a flash of yellow eyes?—then nothing. She backed a step with shaking legs—she could not seem to make them obey her need to run. She put her hand against a tree trunk to steady herself, her breathing harsh in her ears. She perceived movement and then—

Thwack!

Bark shattered into her face. Through stinging eyes she saw the arrow quiver in the tree trunk just above her hand.

Karigan backed away, and then swung around, racing toward the encampment.

She crashed through a cluster of saplings, batting away pine branches that wanted to cling to her clothes and limbs and hold her back. When she was clear, another arrow sang past her and impaled a tree just ahead of her. She zigzagged her course between the trees to elude any other arrows that might be aimed at her back.

She chanced a glance over her shoulder, but saw nothing beyond the wall of dark.

She stumbled over roots into the encampment’s perimeter, and put on a new burst of speed.

“Groundmites!” she cried as she tore past the horse pickets.

She ran through the ashes of a dead campfire. Without shortening her stride she leaped a sleeping soldier who came underfoot.

“Groundmites!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

Faces of those on duty turned toward her.

When she reached the heart of the encampment very near the clearing, she skidded to a halt, panting raggedly. Soldiers stared incredulously at her. Some peered at her with groggy eyes from their bedrolls.

What were they waiting for? She grabbed the nearest soldier by his tunic and started shaking him. “Groundmites!” Her scream, by now, was half hysterical.

The soldiers sprang to life, grabbing weapons and heading toward their posts. Others who had been asleep emerged from bedrolls as they were jostled to wakefulness by their comrades. Swiftly word passed among the ranks and Sergeant Blaydon appeared, barking orders.

The sergeant strode toward Karigan, arms swinging, a no-nonsense expression on his face. Undoubtedly he wanted a word with her to ensure this was no fancy on her part, that she was not overreacting to some little noise in the night. She feared that by having revealed her feelings about the clearing earlier in the day, she had probably done little to instill the confidence of others in her.

Just five steps from her, an arrow ripped into the sergeant’s stomach.

When the sergeant fell, panic seized the soldiers who, without someone to shout orders at them, didn’t seem to know in which direction to go. They scrambled, pushing into one another, shouting ineffectively into the night.

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