As the morning progressed, a feeling of uneasiness nibbled at me, then began taking greater bites of the peace of mind I tried to maintain. Shadowy shapes seemed to move in the corner of my eye, then vanished when I looked directly. The hair prickled on the nape of my neck, tingling as the White Monk’s magic had.
Sometimes snow sifted down from the branches and the wood creaked when a hand of wind fisted through the limbs high against the wintery sky. It seemed other things moved there, too. Wrong things. My memory flashed onto those strange oily creatures that had invaded Ordnung when the Tala attacked and came after Andi. I tried to get a better look, but they were like the childhood monsters that disappeared when you lit a candle.
“What do you see?” the White Monk asked, riding close, speaking for my ears only.
He said it in a serious tone, not as if I were being a silly girl, but as if I might see something he didn’t. Still, I hesitated to say anything. “I…I’m not sure.”
“Don’t think. Describe.”
That helped. “Shadows? Like a cloud when it crosses the sun, that kind of chill when it touches my skin. Flashes of…something out of a nightmare. Like the kind you have when you’re a kid and it’s mainly that you don’t quite understand what it is you’re afraid of.” I shivered.
He only nodded and pushed aside the hood and cowl, head bare to the cold while he studied the landscape. “I can’t feel it,” he said finally. “I thought I might.”
I opened my mouth to ask what he meant, but his horse sprang ahead into a trot until the White Monk reached Graves. They halted our procession, Graves squinting up at the trees and then back at me. They fell into a discussion, heads close so none of the rest of us could hear. Finally Graves shook his head and we moved forward again. The path grew steeper and narrowed, so we rode two abreast, Marin falling behind us.
The White Monk rode at my side, looking grim, his blade drawn, resting on his thigh. “Do you have a dagger?” he asked in a conversational tone.
“Me? Glorianna no. I’d likely prick myself as anyone else.” He didn’t say anything to my standard joke. I suppose it wasn’t funny to a man like him. “Why, what’s going on?”
“Graves is a bold soldier, but he was a poor choice for this. He wasn’t part of the Siege at Windroven, nor the last attempt at Odfell’s Pass. Neither he nor his men mixed with Ursula’s Hawks on the journey from Avonlidgh, so he knows nothing of what they encountered. Fools.” His frustration filled the air, grit from a whetting stone.
“But you did?”
He laughed, under his breath and without sound. “I do my research.”
“And what did you find out?”
“To take the unseen seriously. And that the Tala aren’t the same as humans. ”
Oh. “Is that who you think I’m seeing?”
He lifted one shoulder. “I wish I knew. If we could combine my knowledge with your senses, we might get somewhere.” Absurdly, given how much tension he radiated, he grinned at me, that scar hitching the lip on one side, eyes bright. He looked…happy, of all things. “Guess we’ll have to figure it out as we go, huh?”
I didn’t know how to reply to that. Such an odd man, that this was fun for him.
“But you expect them to attack—that’s what you told Graves.”
“I think they’re aware we’re here, and we have the advantage because you can sense them. We should use that advantage.”
“Maybe we should go back.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
No. Even though fear nibbled at the edges of my mind, I didn’t want to give up, just because I saw some shadows. They hadn’t made any overt threats. Besides, Andi invited me.
She didn’t invite the rest of them, however. Only me.
“Why can I see them?”
He sighed out a long breath of a person practicing patience. “It’s in your blood, Ami. Your sister is the witch queen of the Tala—did you think you had nothing of that in you?”
I had thought that. Until Lady Zevondeth showed me how to work the spell by using my blood. Maybe that’s why she wanted to keep our blood in her little vials. Like keeping keys that fit certain locks. “I can’t work magic,” I reasoned, thinking it through, “but my mother’s blood gives me certain access, a kind of sensitivity.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“So why did you think you would?”
“What do you mean?” He seemed to be surveying the woods, but I sensed the evasion, a shifting silver thread.
“You said you hoped you’d feel it.” The realization dawned on me. “Are you—is that why you can do what you do?”
I’d tried to be oblique, but he flicked me an irritated, burning glance, then returned his attention to the woods and shadows. “If I were, if I could live in paradise, why would I be living this life of exile in the Twelve Kingdoms?”
“I don’t understand why everyone thinks Annfwn is so wonderful. If it’s really paradise, why haven’t I heard more about it?”
“Consider your upbringing.”
“You were raised in a bubble. Your father, far more than most parents, controlled what you knew of the world—as who he is, he had total control of your world, and made sure you only knew what he wanted you to, until you married and left home. After that…”
“You went from one bubble to another.”
“You talk about me as if I’m some hothouse rose.” I meant to score a point, but he considered that thoughtfully.
“An apt analogy. Beautiful. Precious. Protected. Meant only to be touched and seen by a privileged few.”
Like Hugh had treated me, too. And worthless outside of that. He didn’t say it, but I smelled the weedy accusation beneath. It rankled, but I couldn’t argue with it. We fell silent. Snow began to fall, as if forming from the fog between the trees, fat flakes that landed on my horse’s hide and lay quivering before melting into nothing.
With a whoosh, a clump of snow landed off to the side and I started, my nerves twanging. The conversation, though uncomfortable, had been at least distracting.
“So what didn’t my father want me to know?”
The White Monk glanced my way, a quick assessment, and went along. “Only you can be the judge of that, but consider who he is. He placed his seat—the High Throne that was the trophy of his Great War—at the back door to Annfwn, as close as he could get to it without violating his pledge to your mother. Between his forces and the landscape, no one goes in or out of Annfwn without his knowledge. He cut it off from the rest of the kingdoms. If he couldn’t have it, no one would.”
It made a weird sense. I remembered minstrels thrown out of court for singing the “wrong” songs. I was framing my next question when something that wasn’t the wind soughed through the trees, strumming my nerves so they sang in response.
The soldiers ahead halted. We were against a steep wall on one side, a drop-off on the other, and the curve of the path kept us from seeing where Graves led the group.
Odd grunting noises floated down, disturbing in their formlessness.
The White Monk slid off his horse, holding a silencing finger to his lips, and gestured to Marin to go back down the trail. The soldier next to her shook his head—but obeyed the rule of silence—and pointed emphatically to show his desire to go forward. His fellows agreed, showing their impatience to help in the restless stamping of their horses’ hooves, an urgent cadence pressing them forward.
But we blocked their way.
The White Monk held up his hands in a gesture for me to dismount. So pressed together were we on the narrow trail that it forced our bodies into contact. Despite my tense nerves—or maybe because of them—that frenzied desire for him, complete with dark fantasies, leapt through me. I stepped away as fast as possible, but took the hand he held out, following him past the horses, smashing myself against the snowy stones to ease past the soldiers’ mounts.
We reached the clear space just past them and the White Monk pressed his blade into my hand. “Use it if you have to,” he said. Moving fast, he returned to our horses and, as near as I could see, moved his ahead of mine, nodding for Marin to slide hers behind his, pressed tight against the cliff wall. She’d been too stout to slide past as we had.
Freed, the soldiers trotted past in single file. Too fast, and perilously close to the cliff’s edge, for one horse’s hoof slid off the uneven rocks, unbalancing them both. For a heart-stopping moment, they hung there, teetering on the brink. Then, with twin shrieks of terror, they fell together, horse and soldier, plummeting down to the far canyon below.
I cried out with them, taking an involuntary step forward, as if I could somehow catch them. The White Monk clamped me against him, hand over my mouth. I sobbed, tearlessly, of course. He pressed his cheek against mine. Not in remonstration, I realized, but in mute sympathy. Dampness made them slide together and I looked at him to see silent tears running down his face. Marin had her hands clamped over her eyes, as if she, too, wished she could unsee what had just occurred.
The White Monk released me and urged us down the trail to a place where we would be less likely to be knocked off into the crevasse.
We waited. I opened my mouth once to ask what the plan was, but the White Monk made that gesture of silence again. I didn’t see why. By his own estimation, the Tala already knew we were here. We’d been talking until the attack, so it made no sense for us not to talk at all now.
Still, I followed along. Do you trust me? he’d asked, and for no good reason, I did.
After a while, the White Monk stood and, taking his blade from me and motioning for us to stay put, crept up the trail again. I nearly protested. We hadn’t heard any sounds, not even those odd, soft grunts, for quite some time. He returned fairly quickly.
“They’re all gone,” he told us without preamble, crouching in front of me, “even the horses. You need to make a decision.”
“What does ‘gone’ mean? Dead? Did they all go over the edge of the cliff, too?”
He shook his head. “Vanished. The snow is scuffed, but there’s no sign of the men or the horses. No bodies. Just gone.”