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1. Clan Mistress
Ilyenna’s horse danced nervously beneath her, the animal’s hooves clicking against the snow-covered stones that coated the land like dragon eggs. Reaching down, she patted her mare’s golden neck. “Easy, Myst. What’s the matter, girl?”
“There.” Her father pointed at the base of a forested hillock not fifty paces beyond the road. Ilyenna saw the shadowed form of a large animal.
Bratton soundlessly pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. “Bear?” He directed the question at their father.
The word stirred currents of tension in Ilyenna’s body. The cold stung her cheeks and formed a vapor no matter how shallowly she breathed. As she glanced up and down the road, her hand gripped the knife belted around her bulky wool coat.
“I think it’s a horse,” Bratton finally said.
Ilyenna eased her mare forward for a better look. It was a horse—a bay. “Then where is his rider—” The words died in her throat when she spotted a motionless gray lump at the horse’s feet. Without thought, she rammed her heels into her mare’s ribs.
“Stop!” her father cried at the same time Bratton called, “Ilyenna!”
But the healer in her couldn’t be denied. In three of the horse’s strides, she was in the forest. She pressed herself flush against Myst’s muscular neck. Still, larch trees managed to slap her, leaving the sharp scent of their needles in her hair and clothes. Clumps of snow shook loose from their sagging boughs, falling across her horse’s mane and into her face. Yet Ilyenna barely registered the icy shock.
The other horse shied away. Myst tossed her head and balked, but Ilyenna didn’t have time to hesitate. She jumped from the saddle, and her heavy boots sank into drifts up to her thighs. Grateful for her riding leggings, she struggled toward the man, whose face was blue with cold.
Her heavy riding skirt spread around her as she knelt beside him. Strangely, even in this frigid weather, he wore no coat. Beneath him, the white snow was stained crimson. An arrow shaft stuck out of his left side, and his mouth was coated with bloody foam.
A quick assessment revealed the arrow head had passed completely through his chest, but the shaft was still lodged inside him. Ilyenna couldn’t imagine riding in that kind of pain. Each of the horse’s strides would’ve reopened the wound and spilled more blood.
Fear rose in Ilyenna’s gut, and she wondered what had driven this man to ride himself so close to death. The lump rose higher when she recognized the knots in the stranger’s clan belt. “An Argon,” she announced as her brother and her father reined in behind her. Instantly, her mind went to the Argon clan, and her brother’s best friend, Rone.
At the mere thought of the boy from her childhood, a hundred memories came unbidden. Memories she wished to banish forever. But over the last six years, that had proven impossible. She bit the inside of her cheek, forcing herself to concentrate as she pulled her sheepskin-lined mittens from her hands and probed the man for additional wounds.
“You can’t just run off,” her brother growled as he dropped beside her. “What if his attacker was still here?”
Ilyenna kept her expression neutral. Even though she was seventeen, her brother would never see her as anything but a child—one incapable of caring for herself, let alone their clan. Thankfully, the calm sureness that always accompanied her healing steeled her voice. “He’s not breathing well. Get him on your knees.”
Despite his obvious annoyance, Bratton quickly obeyed.
“Why would an Argon appear in Shyle lands with an arrow in his side?” she murmured as she worked to stop the bleeding.
Bratton’s grip tightened around his axe hilt as his gaze probed the forest. “Only Raiders would attack the clans.”
Ilyenna suppressed a shudder at the mention of the Raiders, men who survived by pillaging and enslaving those they conquered.
“Raiders don’t come this far inland,” her father said. He handed his coat to Ilyenna, who draped it over the man. Her father pointed to the arrow that rose and fell with each of the Argon’s labored breaths. “Besides, I saw a Raider’s arrow as a boy. This isn’t one.”
“Then whose arrow is it?” Bratton asked.
Ilyenna eyed her brother carefully. There was something odd about his expression, as if he suspected more than he was saying.
Her father frowned. “It looks clan made.”
Neither Ilyenna nor Bratton had a response for that. It was an impossible thought. The Clans didn’t fight among themselves; they banded together to fight against outsiders. Pressing her ear to the injured man’s chest, she listened to a sound like the gurgling of a gentle stream. She sat back on her heels. “His lungs have filled with blood. He’s drowning.”
Even as she said it, the urge to fight against death pulled at her, though she knew all too well how useless fighting it was. All things served the Balance. Life and death were no different. Though Ilyenna’s calling was to battle for life, without death, there would be no birth.
Her father bent down and gently shook the man’s shoulder. He moaned softly before settling back to his labored breathing. The death rattle. Her father looked at her questioningly. “Should we take him to the clan house?”
She shook her head. “You know he won’t make it.”
With grim determination, her father leaned over the man and shook harder.
Had something happened to the Argons? To Rone? Ilyenna had to know. She applied pressure where the wounded man’s thumb met his palm. His lids fluttered, revealing the whites of his eyes. She pinched harder. His eyes opened wide.
“Who did this to you?” Ilyenna’s father asked.
The Argon’s gaze focused on his face. It was clear he didn’t understand.
Ilyenna brought her face so close she could smell the blood on his breath. She gently brushed his hair from his forehead. “You’re in Shyle lands.”
The man snatched her hand, his icy grip surprisingly strong. “I didn’t fail?”
Ilyenna wasn’t sure what he meant, but she shook her head anyway. “No. You didn’t fail.”
He guided her hand to his pocket. She reached inside and pulled out a piece of rolled vellum. Her hands shaking, she slid off the leather band and unrolled it. The dying man echoed the words she read, “The Tyrans attacked us during the night . . . Clan Chief Seneth sent me to call for aid.” The man seemed to be fighting to keep his eyes from rolling back. “So much dying . . .” The words strangled from his lungs with his last breath.
Death had claimed another. Somewhere, a child filled its lungs for its first squall. Ilyenna handed the vellum to her father, then closed the fallen man’s eyes and rested his hand on his axe hilt. “So passes a warrior,” she said.
“So passes an Argon,” her brother and father replied in unison.
After gently laying the man’s head back on the snow, Bratton leaned toward her father and read the note with him. A plea for aid that was written in Seneth’s own hand. It affirmed the truthfulness of the dead man’s words.
The Tyrans had attacked the Argon clan.
Bratton shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Ilyenna couldn’t understand either. Undon, the Tyran clan chief, might be renowned among the clans as a dangerous man with a short temper, but this was far beyond killing a man in a drunken brawl. This treachery made him and his Tyrans even worse than Raiders.
She studied her father and brother, like twin images in a mirror. The only real difference was their age. Both men had the clan’s typical blond hair and blue eyes. They even had the same braying laugh.
Ilyenna had inherited all of her mother’s foreignness, right down to her dark brown eyes and black hair. Tears pricked the back of her throat. Her mother—the other half of her mirror—was dead, and it was her fault.
Her father gently retrieved his coat, then hauled himself into his saddle. Bratton wasn’t far behind.
“Hurry, Ilyenna. We’re near the border. It’s not safe.”
She heard the warning in her father’s words. If the Argons had been attacked, the Shyle could be next. Even now, the killers could be close. But her eyes stayed fastened to the dead man. One death, one moment, and the peace of decades had been shattered. “We should take his body.”
“We’ll come back if we can,” her father said sternly.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Her father was right. But the man had died trying to find help. He deserved better than for the wolves to pick him apart. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed, hoping his ghost would hear and understand, that he wouldn’t come for revenge against her family for this insult.
“Ilyenna!” Bratton snarled.
She turned and shoved her foot into the stirrup, then pulled herself into the saddle. Myst pranced impatiently. Ilyenna leaned low over the mare’s neck to shield herself from the wind that whipped away warmth and breath.
This deep into winter, the only passable path was an ancient, snow-packed road that cut through the heart of the Shyle and led to their village in the center of the valley. They galloped along, only pausing to maneuver through herds of sheep—their dense wool proof of the high mountain’s harsh winters—or to send other men off to warn people living deeper in the canyons and along the mountain bases.
Why had the Tyrans attacked the Argons? Ilyenna thought again. What if Rone was already dead? She’d hardly seen more than a passing glance of him in years, but for some reason she feared his death the most. Other Argon faces flashed in her mind—people she’d met over years of feast days and hunts. A growing sense of fear settled over her like a cold, wet blanket.