The night wasn’t quiet, but it was peaceful. The moon had just begun to peek above the horizon, the start of its slow drift across the deep blue of the heavens. Its round border was solid and very nearly full, a promise of good light in the cloudless night sky. Stars winked furtively in places that the moon was not. The woman staring up at the sky shifted the bundle of cloth beneath her arms and resumed her walk down the worn dirt path that led to the outskirts of the village and eventually to the cottage she called home. She liked the night. She always had, ever since she was a little girl growing up far away from where she was now. She’d liked staying awake late at night and looking at the stars for hours, long after her parents had gone to bed for the night. Often they would find her asleep at the open window in her bedroom the next day, and each time her mother would scold her for leaving it open.
When the woman had moved to Aldur’s Way—a tiny village hardly anyone knew existed aside from the people who lived there—she’d tried to adapt to their lifestyle, including their habit of going to sleep soon after sundown and waking before dawn. In the summer, some of the villagers went to bed before it had even gotten properly dark outside. She had tried, but somehow she could never quite manage to sleep so early. It felt like it was against her nature. A small thing really, but then she’d never planned on being a farmer. Growing up under the bustle of city lights had instilled in her a love for the restless night.
The woman walked along the path deep in her own thoughts, enjoying the feeling of the cool night breeze on her skin. She came to an old stone bridge that spanned a gurgling river. The bridge had no name; villagers simply called it “the bridge,” as there was only one bridge near the village for miles. The river was called the River Taragel, after the Taragel Mountains from which it sprung. With spring now in full force, the river’s waters swelled its banks and rushed onward, its current so strong that large branches were being sucked along in the churning flow.
She watched the water only for a moment, but when she lifted her head again to continue across the bridge, she saw a man standing at the other end. There was no telling where he had come from, and he’d not been there a moment before, she was sure of it. That in and of itself was odd enough to count as alarming, but that was not the only disturbing thing about him. It was night, but the moon and the stars provided enough light to illuminate most things within a few yards. He could not be more than five long strides away, yet he was so wreathed in shadow that she could not see his face. In fact, he seemed to almost be made entirely from shadow; neither his skin nor his clothes were visible. The only thing she could be certain about when looking at him was that he was man-shaped.
The woman stiffened, feeling suddenly very much like a deer spotted by a hunter. She knew who he was, or at least what he was. A thing from her past she’d not thought of in years. She glanced back over her shoulder. The closest house to her was several minutes’ walk away—perhaps she could reach it in one or two minutes if she ran.
“Don’t try it,” a voice came from the man-shadow. Its words sounded like dry twigs crackling underfoot. “You know you will not get far.”
The woman turned back to face the thing at the other end of the bridge. She knew he was right; she would never make it to the houses. “I was wondering when you would come. You took a long time.” Somehow, her voice was not shaking. She was afraid, but also surprised at how calm she felt. She’d had endless nightmares of this moment. Dread and bone-deep fear had haunted her steps for nineteen years. Yet, now that she stood facing it, a curious sensation of tranquility fell over her.
“I am here now,” the shadow rasped. “You have not escaped your fate.”
The woman laid the bundle of cloth carefully in the middle of the bridge, so that the wind would not carry it into the water. Then she raised a hand to her neck and undid the pendant that hung there. This, too, she placed on the worn stone of the bridge, beside the bundle. Then she straightened, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She faced the shadow in front of her, shoulders squared. “You have found me,” she conceded, “but you have not won.”
The shadow at the end of the bridge seemed to flare angrily before it rushed forward, moving too fast for anything made in nature. The woman closed her eyes, knowing it would be better not to see it coming.
The Bluebird Inn was much busier than Ril was used to. She finished pouring ale into the last mug on her tray and twisted the tap shut before carrying them out into the common room. A merchant caravan had stopped in Aldur’s Way that afternoon, and the Bluebird’s rooms had suddenly filled within the hour. Now the common room was practically overflowing with people, both from the caravan and from the village. News was a rare thing this far north, and the villagers had pounced on the merchant and his crew for stories of the kingdom: how was the war going? Did the queen give birth to her baby yet? Who was Prince Aerin courting now?
The merchant’s men were dealing with the bombardment fairly well, though Ril suspected the steady stream of ale and wine were helping to put them in a good mood. She weaved through the crowd of people—some sitting at tables, others standing—and stopped at the table the merchant had claimed for himself and a handful of his men.
“Here we are,” she said cheerfully as she set the mugs down in front of them. “Another round for Master Flinek’s table.”
Flinek was a large, red-faced man with a hooked nose and dark eyes that sat perhaps a little too far into his hooded eyelids. He had a booming voice that seemed accustomed to shouting orders that could be heard by all his men at once. The merchant raised his mug now and said, “to a good crew!”
His men all rumbled agreement and upended their mugs, drinking deeply as only men who are already three-quarters drunk can. Ril waited for the merchant to set his mug down before she asked, “You’re from Illen, aren’t you?”
Flinek looked at her, surprised. “I am at that. Born and raised there. What gave it away? My accent?”
Ril shook her head. “The brooch on your cloak. It’s got your family crest on it, and I know that members of the merchant class in Illen almost always wear them so people know what family they’re from. Also, your left ear’s pierced. Piercings aren’t common outside of Illen.”
The merchant leaned back in his chair. He looked impressed. “That’s a lot ‘o detective work for a servin’ girl in a little village like this.”
Ril grinned. “My mother came here when I was a baby. She brought all her books with her, so I read quite a bit. I wouldn’t have bothered you, but I’m reading about Illen right now. Its history is fascinating.”
Flinek laughed, and when he did his ample belly shook. “I would never ‘ave guessed I’d run into such a little scholar in Aldur’s Way of all places. If ye decide ye want to know more, we should be here for a day or two. I don’t get to talk about home much.”
The big man sat up suddenly, sniffing the air like a hungry dog. “Whatever that smell is, I want a whole big plate of it. And maybe another ale with it I think.”
Ril nodded. “I’ll go see what the Mistress is cooking, and if it’s ready I’ll bring you some.” She folded her tray beneath her arm and headed to the kitchen.
“And another ale!” the merchant called after her.
“And another ale,” Ril said over her shoulder.