About the Book
Eight hundred years before Jame and Tigh, a great hero lived. Destined to be the Queen of Emoria, Hekolatis wants to experience the world before settling down and, after she earns her warrior braid, decides to go to Balderon with her best friend Taine to work in her aunt’s blade shop. Learning the blade trade is interesting enough, but Heko’s warrior heart gets restless and she joins the Balderon Auxiliary Guard and meets Zandar, a university student studying to be a military historian. Between facing love for the first time and the growing unrest in the world, Heko’s wish for some adventure just may come true.
Heko glanced back through the chaos of bramble and trees and glaring streaks of sunlight. She grabbed the lowest branch of the squat mountain oak and hurled herself onto it.
She focused her senses on the path she had just followed. The aroma of moist earth filtered through rotted leaves tickled her nostrils. Even a mountain cat with steps like feathers couldn’t hide nature’s perfume, and her trackers were mere humans.
Not fifty paces away, three warriors moved like shadows through the dapple of sunlight in dense spring leaves as they scrutinized the upper branches of the trees.
Idiot. Of course they’ll check the trees.
She slid around the trunk, careful of the treacherous knots and haggard bark, away from the eyes of her hunters.
Now what do I do? If I only had something to . . .
She mentally slapped her forehead. Now she understood why old Wencer made them carry a handful of small stones. The oldest warriors’ trick. Which means . . .
She fished a few stones out of her pouch and, with as much noise as a mouse whisper, tossed them close to the sliver of water off a ferny incline near the hunters.
The warriors stopped and twisted around, looking like fantastical gaila birds from the blinding sun-sparks dancing off their armor. Bracers blazed as hand signals joined the warriors’ indecision and, after several tense heartbeats, they disappeared into the ferns.
Which means the old trick still works.
Heko dropped out of the tree and crouched in the undergrowth. She opened her senses to her trackers. They were far down the creek. She ghosted through a new growth of aspen and past a lichen-encrusted statue of Laur holding a waterfall in her cupped hands.
She got to the high mountain creek, chuckling with runoff from the spring snowmelt, and knew she had lost time eluding her hunters. Balance, Wencer’s voice shouted in her mind. Decisions were always made with balanced thoughts, or a warrior could find herself between a sword and a boulder.
On the other side of the blade, a part of balanced thinking was to know when to take chances. If her hunters thought she was across the ferny tributary, then she could win back her lost time and then some by taking the elk trail just around the jumble of boulders downstream.
Her body kicked into a jog before her mind told her to run. The body has its own instinct. Learn to pay attention to it.
For the first time in three days, Heko felt as if she wasn’t walking on glass shards and reveled in the crunch of fine rock as she ran along the creek bank. She sucked in the mountain air—barely touched by the warmth that blanketed the lower valleys that time of year. Snow was possible in Emoria, even that late in spring, but enough warmth remained after the frigid winter to feel wonderful as the air pricked the exposed skin between the patchwork of leather and armor.
She rounded one of the many boulders that sprouted from the forest like dragons’ teeth—at least they looked like dragons’ teeth according to ancient tales. The trail became little more than a series of flattened-grass footfalls through a splotch of meadow, green with young grass and pastel with the first wildflowers of spring. A half-grown elk foraged the young shoots.
“So elks really do use the elk trail.” Heko doubled her pace. She dismissed the fleeting thought of going around the beast and laughed as she dived over it. She rolled to her feet and sprinted into a stand of trees.
She laughed and startled nesting birds and unseen critters among the leaves. She couldn’t help it. After three days with only brief naps and the food she had foraged from plants, she was beyond caring if her trackers heard her or not. Her exhaustion and hunger nourished rather than depleted her strength as she entered the old growth forest.
The sun broke through the still frozen mists. The day was only halfway to midday. A real meal and afterward her own bed to sleep in. Soon. She focused on old Keilie’s lamb stew and thick-crust bread as the trail rose and dipped and twisted through a steep hill of boulders.
Sure-footed as a mountain goat, she didn’t disturb as much as a loose stone as she leapt and jogged up and over the hill into a shallow valley of new-growth trees. She loved the stories about how her people spent a summer, after fire swept across the valley, clearing the burnt trees to allow the sun to touch the seedlings already taking hold.
Heko jumped from the elk trail onto the dirt road. She ran down the hard-packed middle to avoid the deep ruts that had to wait for the ground to thaw before groups of young Emorans poured out of the city on repair patrol.
She tapped into a reservoir of energy and sprinted the last stretch of road.
The three trackers stepped onto the road a short fifty paces in front of her. Too close for her to slow her pace and think of a way to avoid them—not with them running toward her.
“Laur’s waterfalls. How did they get here so fast?” she muttered.