Orielle guided the dapple-grey gelding along the narrow trail traversing the steep slope of the mountain.
Lights winked in the trees ahead, like the spectrum glints in her mother’s diamond pendant, a gift for the spell she’d worked for the king.
She reined in the horse to watch the dancing lights. On the trek to this height, she’d seen the rainbow-colored lights a few times. The old man who had warned her of the Wilding said that she would see strange things, but this strangeness was beautiful. The lights flitted among the autumn-changed leaves. A cluster darted in and out, winking in unison. Light reflected from sun-glinted water moved randomly. These lights had a fascinating pattern.
Ghost snorted. Orielle patted his neck. At the light tap of palm to horsehide, the lights flashed then blinked away. She sighed and hoped the glints would return.
“Sprites,” she told Ghost. “Flower-lights.” She remembered reading the description while she studied in the archivist’s tower. Old Rombrey wouldn’t let students carry the thick tome out of his tower, and her tutors required that she con information from its multiple pages. For hours she’d perched on a stool and shivered in the stony room, far removed from the brazier that the old man kept near his table. Before today’s flower-lights, she’d thought that old book contained nothing more than myths. Before she ventured into the Wilding, she should have had another dip into the Creatures of the Hinterlands. She hadn’t bothered to read the chapter about dragons.
She hoped she didn’t encounter dragons.
The sprites were not the first odd things she’d encountered since entering the Wilding that verged the Shifting Lands. She wanted to see them again.
She hoped she did not see another stunted creature like the one that had invaded her campsite last night.
Enclave-raised, with never a toe ventured beyond the settled lands, Orielle had compassed her world with mundane and powered, wizard against sorcerer, Rhoghieri against wyre. Wizard-trained, she came into the border lands to renew the Enclave pact with the Rhoghieri. She expected mountain cats and vipers, bears and hornets, not the stunted creature that tried to drag away her food bag while she slept. Ghost had woken her. When she sprang up, the thing abandoned its prize and scuttled into the darkness.
When her heart stopped racing, she paced her wards, designed to keep her safe from mundane and the evils of Frost Clime.
Her wards weren’t damaged.
Where the creature had crossed, the ward spells remained linked, limning golden when she checked their strength.
Orielle spent the rest of the night watching for more trouble.
These glinting lights were the second oddity. They looked too pretty to be dangerous. The claws that had punctured the thick hide of her food bag would be lethal.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have volunteered when Adorée backed out,” she told the horse. His ears flicked forward. Safe in Mont Nouris, her wizard trials appointed a year away, Orielle had itched for adventure. Her sister hadn’t given a reason for changing her mind about the ArchClans’ request to go to Iscleft Haven. Orielle snatched at the opportunity before someone else did.
“Too late to back out now, Ghost. Come on.”
When the grey horse refused to move forward, she dug in her heels. Iron-shod hooves remained firmly planted. His ears flicked forward.
Orielle sat back and stared at the trees with their riot of changing leaves, red and orange and bronzy, colors so rich she wished she knew the name of the trees. She hadn’t excelled at flora and fauna.
The leaves shivered at a vagrant wind’s touch. The sprites had vanished. Nothing moved under the trees’ canopy. The well-traveled path she followed, pointed out by the Lowland farmer who had warned of the Wilding’s dangers, maintained its easy route along the slope and into the trees. The path worked up and down until it reached the rocky escarp that towered above the trees.
There, at the rocks, the path switched back and forth to climb the slope, just as it had cut on itself as it began the climb from the valley.
If a mundane creature menaced, Ghost would snort a warning. He had neighed last night. Whatever lurked was neither mundane nor stunted creature with stubby talons.
No birds chirped or flitted about. No little mammals scurried along the limbs or scratched at the roots.
She wished she had Fire or Water, to spook whatever lurked. She wielded Air, and that not as well as she wished.
The bulk of the mountain loomed above the rocky escarp. Once she achieved the crest, she would overlook the Wilding, land untrammeled by civilization, inhabited only by magic users. Far east glimmered the Shifting Lands. Far north was an off-shoot of Faeron, and farther north the forests and tundra of Ultima Thule.
Orielle wanted to achieve the crest by sunset. Did a creature lurked on the escarp? Did it wait to leap upon her and Ghost? Or did it plan to rush them when they started the upward trail? Spook the horse, and she and Ghost would fall hundreds of feet to the valley.
For a solid week she had listened to one Lowland farmer after another tell of ogres lurking in the boulders, hiding in caves, and creeping through trees. Orielle shivered with the children while the wives bustled about and old folk smoked the ubiquitous puff pipe, saying “aye” at dark times in the stories.
Now that she’d seen sprites and that creature, she couldn’t dismiss those warnings as stories to keep the little ones from wandering off.
Ogres. Trolls. Wyre? Shape-shifting wyre, sent by the sorcerers of Frost Clime to block the way to Iscleft Haven. Wyre and sorcerers, waiting for Orielle to ride into their trap.
Imagination would doom her one day.
Trained to alert to sorcery, Ghost had warned her of last night’s unnatural creature. The mundane didn’t affect him. Loud noises would, like the soldiers who had drilled in the well square of the last town of the Lowlands.
Outcasts lurked on the fringes. She hadn’t kept her mission to the Haven secret. She was a young woman traveling alone; easy prey, the lawless would think. She had more than enough power for them.
Orielle put her heels into Ghost as she clucked. He snorted but started obediently.
A dark shape slunk from one tree trunk to the next.
She reined in Ghost. Once again she peered at the shadow-draped trail. Once again she spotted nothing and no one.
Stripping off her riding gloves, she tucked them into her saddle bags. Then she started the horse forward.
When they passed close to the first tree, his ears flicked. He snorted at the third tree. He balked when the trees surrounded him.
She could still see nothing and no one. After peering around, Orielle lifted her hand. Golden magic limned her fingers, both warning and threat. “Come out and play,” she offered. She tried to breathe slowly, deeply. A vagrant wind cooled her cheeks.
For several breaths nothing moved. Then a tall figure separated from the tree that had hidden his wide shoulders. Even in the shadows, his blond hair glistened as it fell over his bare shoulders. Slanted eyebrows slashed together over eyes as blue as the sky. His features were sharply boned in a narrow face. A golden pelt covered his broad chest. He wore only leather breeches, with no shirt and no boots on his bare feet.
And he stood on his toes. Yellowed claws dripped from his fingers.
Wyre. Partially shifted. Real trouble, for wizardry had little defense against a shifted wyre.
“Good morrow,” she told him.
He grinned, a flash of white fangs that were sharp and scary. “Playtime.” And he leaped for her.
Ghost chose to rear. Orielle lost her seat and slid back. She landed on her feet, sheer luck. The drop jarred her, scared her. She stumbled sideways.
And into something. Something that loomed higher than her.
A tree? A wyre! No. Hands had caught her. They shoved her backward. Panic flashed over her then winked out when she realized the man wasn’t a shifted wyre. He wasn’t a wyre at all. And he stood between her and the wyre.
Ghost tore the reins free of clawed hands. He bounded away. His white tail flashed as he thundered through the trees.
The wyre didn’t look at the lost horse. He ignored Orielle. His narrowed eyes rimmed gold as he scanned the man, brown hair, brown leathers, brown boots, shining sword. Then the wyre grinned. “Rho.”
“Wyre,” the man retorted. With the steely blade between them, he lifted one hand.
The wyre flew back. He thudded into a tree trunk. Red leaves scattered over him. Claws scratched the ground, then he scrambled up. Those gold-rimmed eyes flickered to Orielle. He grinned, sick anticipation stretching his lips. “Don’t leave, pretty wizard.”
The Rhoghieri’s hand came up again.
The wyre laughed then dove behind a tree.
While she gawked, the Rhoghieri grabbed her hand. “This way.” He headed back, towing her along.
He didn’t stop. He didn’t acknowledge her protest. They passed the sunny spot where Ghost had stopped before.
On the switchback to the lower trail, Orielle lost her footing and began sliding. The Rho’s strong grip kept her upright. Her free hand scraped over rock and sedgy grass. The stiff riding boots kept her ankles from rolling off roots and rocks that skittered under her. When she stumbled again, he kept her from tumbling downslope, but he used her momentum to leave the well-worn trail. They rushed downward several feet, then he tugged her along as he climbed higher and higher.
When he stopped, she fetched into him. “Oof.” She grabbed his arm to steady herself.
Sun dazzled her eyes, so she looked down and away.
They stood on a thready trail, ribbony compared to the path she had followed. The trail coursed the mountain’s flank. Behind him, grass gave way to boulders. Below them, far below them—the wyre stood on the wider path. Clawed hands rested on his hips. The sun gleamed on his sweat-slick skin.
He grinned. “Come out and play,” he shouted her words.
Wind whooshed down the slope. It blasted over the wyre. He tumbled backward, down the slope.
She nearly came off her feet when the Rhoghieri jerked her forward. “Don’t stop.”
He didn’t, so she couldn’t.