Nora was out here because the baker’s wife couldn’t keep her mouth shut. Here, under the windswept trees. Here, on this hillock poised so neatly above the vast Plains she was tempted to believe the gods had created it to show off the horizon. The possibilities. The unfinished world to come. Nora stood with her brother at the brink of the Plains, in the wet, cold, gathering dark. It would take two days’ journey on foot to get back to the Ridge, half a day to the nearest homestead. But after Mother Sara’s death, the twins were four years away from anyone caring.
The sky was tall. A huge crest of waves headed inland, shading the last of the sunlight in hues of orange and gray and purple. On clear days when the wind swept away the clouds, herding them over the Plains, Nora could just make out the line of the Crest Mountains in the distance. The Plains were a vast, flat bowl. Sometimes, when the summer sun shone down, the silver streams of water sparkled like jewels strewn among the green. It was pure pasture ground. Now though, no herds of sheep on the Plains. There were no trees, no roads, no shelter but little flocks of trees leaning against the wind. The long Plains were spoiled with space. You could see nothing but grass for miles and miles. And the sky. The ever-changing sky.
Crossing the Plains would take nearly three weeks. She sniffed the air. The autumn had been mild so far, unusually so. But surely Owen had no plans of actually crossing the Plains. It would be madness in the gathering winter without enough warmth or shelter or food. They should sneak back home and at least stock up on provisions and warmer clothing. Maybe the clouds would bring more than rain this night. Maybe frost in the morning.
Her twin brother stood silhouetted before the glorious sky, unmoving, the high collar of his long cloak pulled up to his cheekbones. He turned when she threw down her backpack on the hard ground. Here the brown grass was undergoing its winter death. There was moss under the trees at the edge of the forest. A fine a place as any. They would camp here. And tonight, she’d talk to Owen. If she let him do the deciding, their bones would still be perched on this damned hillock before he reached a conclusion.
“It’s been two days. You want to go back already?” Owen said, watching the rolling sky before him.
“I’m getting a fire started,” she said. “It’ll be cold tonight.”
“Yes, do that. And cook us something hot while you’re at it.”
“You could help set up camp, you know.”
“I could.” Owen remained where he was, staring into the sky.
Nora set her mouth, stepped into the twilight under the trees, and kicked a dead branch. Dirt scattered. The earth was dark brown under the needles of the firs, closed cones lying around the visible roots here and there. She spotted some blueberry bushes under the conifers. It would be a good spot in summer to collect the berries. But now there was nothing, and they wouldn’t be here in summer anyway. They each had a little bread and jerky left. If they skirted the woods, maybe she could catch hare or fowl.
She heard a screech of a falcon and ducked. It had sounded so close, yet above her in the branches there was nothing to be seen. A falcon cry at dusk? Nora crouched beside a tender young tree, the rough bark flaking under her hand. She waited in the sudden silence and her breath escaped in thin wisps, one at a time, one at a time.
A branch cracked.
Men passed her by. She held her breath. One of them was so close she could smell beer on his breath. She counted seven men in the dark, moving, not silently, but as stealthily as the leaves and needles under their feet would let them. Nora’s heart was thumping in her chest. Her hand rested over it. She peered down. Her fingers seemed unnaturally white amid the black of her clothes. Or what had once been black but was now washed out, more charcoal gray. Still fitting, though—for a charcoal burner. And dark enough to fade into the twilight under the trees. Which was good, seeing as the men had weapons. And although they moved among the shadows with ease, no group of hunters would convene this large. For what prey? No large game lived at the skirts of the woods, though occasionally deer ventured onto the Plains to feed with utmost caution. Soldiers perhaps, but no uniform clothing. Mercenaries?
She sensed others moving among the trees behind her and remained as still as she could. The seven men were bent low, creeping toward the last of the trees. They had spotted Owen for sure, although Nora couldn’t see him from where she crouched. Slowly, she let out her breath and took a deep one. Her thighs tingled, making her want to rake her fingernails over her legs to massage the numbness out of her flesh. She ignored it, accustomed to wearing light garments in all weather. They made it easier to go from motionless tending a charcoal burn to frenetically working hard and fast should a burn go wrong. Now, it seemed, she’d have to move hard and fast to save her brother.
She had a long knife tucked into her belt at her back. Slowly she reached for it. Eyes fixed on the men before her. Wary of the men she heard behind. Careful not to let any motion give her away. Just as her fingertips touched the smooth hilt, a soundless edge of steel slid close to her throat.
The man’s whisper sounded as loud as the falcon’s cry had, though none of the creeping men had heard him. Or none turned around to see. The cold steel bit into the skin just below her chin. A warm hand took her own knife. The dagger at her throat remained. It tipped twice against her jawline, the thin cut burning. She rose.
“Be still.” His whisper was a deep growl.
Nora watched as the seven men in front of her moved out. One of them gestured to the others with gestures. They had seen Owen and were fanning out to encircle him. She forced herself to breathe calmly. In through the nose, out between parted lips.
The blade moved to a hair’s breadth away from her skin. Pins and needles in her feet now, the cold numbing them. She felt the warmth of the man’s body radiate against her back. He was close. Very close. But he was careful not to touch her. She licked her lips. Of the seven men in front, she could only see four now. The one farthest back, closest to her, nodded toward another man in front.
She rammed her left elbow into her captor’s face and ran.