Neck outstretched and teeth clenched on the bit, the mare galloped across the barren field, each hoof striking a new crack in the crusted land. Darin clutched the reins, knuckles bone white. She didn’t need to kick the horse to keep her going. The mare was terrified of Alekander and knew he was close. The scent of his stallion’s sweat came with the wind whistling through the clumps of dry grass.
Stealing a horse was never Darin’s plan, but while the others were drinking and celebrating, Thea had brushed against her elbow and whispered into her ear. No one was standing guard outside the barn. Darin had gathered her belongings, saddled the mare and slipped away in the early morning light. Thea had waved goodbye as if she knew that it was the last time they’d see each other. They both knew Alekander would follow, but if she made it to the Barrier first, she had a chance at losing him.
Pines lined the hazy southern border of the fields and beyond this a thread of gray rock marked the Barrier. Crossing was forbidden. Darin yanked the mare toward the trees and sank in her heels, the dry wind whipping at her face. She tasted blood when she licked her cracked lips. Her empty flask clanked against her thigh—there’d been no time to stop for water at the stream they’d passed, and she couldn’t think of turning back now.
At the forest’s edge, the mare slowed to a bumpy trot. Branches grabbed at Darin’s cloak and scratched her legs as the horse weaved between the trees. When they reached a deer path, she urged the mare back to a gallop. The forest canopy thickened and the late afternoon light played tricks on her, turning shadows into Alekander. She buried her fists in the horse’s mane and closed her eyes.
The trail dropped into a valley and the pines thinned. At a grassy clearing, the path abruptly ended and a high stone wall stretched to the horizon in either direction. Snorting, the horse pranced on her front feet as if she thought of jumping. Her head swung round and she eyed Darin, the whites of her eyes shining around the dark amber, nostrils flared.
Shifting in the saddle, Darin glanced around the clearing. She’d expected guards, but there was no one in sight. They might be celebrating still. The king had claimed the whole of the Ald Mountains and no one had stepped forward to fight him for it. His reach seemed immeasurable now. With Alekander high in his command, nowhere north of the Barrier was safe.
A sparrow shot out of the trees, startling the mare. Its wings caught the sunlight when it skimmed over the wall. If only it was that simple, Darin thought, as the bird disappeared from sight. Urging the mare forward with her crop, she sidled up to the sheet of gray rock. It was impossibly high—too tall to jump and with few footholds to climb.
Darin untied her saddlebag and slung it over her shoulder along with the empty flask. A knife was strapped to her calf and another was tucked under her tunic along with a satchel of coins. She had nothing else—nothing to tie her to Alekander. Steadying her breath, she set her hands on either side of the horse’s neck, then slipped her feet out of the stirrups and hopped up to a standing position on the saddle. The mare shuddered, splayed her legs and looked wildly up at Darin.
“Easy,” Darin whispered. She ran her hands quickly over the wall, searching for any small crevice in the smooth slab and praying the horse wouldn’t move a step. With her arms stretched she was still inches from the top ledge. The mare sniffed the wind and whinnied. Before Darin could grab the reins, the horse reared and threw her into the air. Darin scrambled for the ledge as the saddle slipped away from her feet. She scraped at the rocks until her boot slid into a divot and then swung her weight to balance at the top. A long drop down the other side ended at a sloping bank with a wide river below. Rocks made an unwelcome landing.
A branch snapped and a chill raced through her as she looked back at the forest’s edge. Alekander’s dark bay stallion burst into the clearing just as the mare made a break for the deer path. Ripping at the reins, Alekander struggled to keep his stallion from following. Battered by Alekander’s spurs, the horse took two steps toward the wall and then spun round. Alekander hopped off the stallion and drew his sword.
Darin felt frozen in place as he raced toward the wall. Her legs shook when she stood up. She’d dreamt of crossing the Barrier. Countless dreams. But now she waited for Alekander. She wanted to remember the expression on his face. As soon as he touched the wall she jumped. His scream followed her as she tumbled down the bank and into the river.
“There’s someone in the barn.”
“It’s the middle of the night,” Ranik murmured. “Let it be.”
“It’s after dawn.” Aysha pushed at her brother’s shoulder, but he only rolled over, burying his chin deep into his pillows. “Looks like a Northerner.”
“A Northerner?” Ranik rubbed his head, further tangling his dark hair. Grumbling, he turned to face her. “Aysha, why do you always find us trouble?”
“It isn’t as if I look for it.” Aysha pulled at the heavy wool drapes, letting a rectangle of light lengthen across Ranik’s chest. His clothes smelt of stale cider and wood smoke. He’d fallen asleep with his boots still on, and the blankets were strewn about as if he’d fought them all night.
Squinting in the sunlight, he tried to push the drape closed with an unsuccessful nudge from his boot. “My head is pounding…”
“You can’t handle your ale.”
“The drums were too loud last night.” He grunted and reached again for the drapes.
“I’ll tell her she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes.” Aysha started out of the room.
“She?” Ranik pushed himself up to a sitting position, cursing. “It’s bad enough there’s a fugitive hiding here, but a woman?”
“Why does it matter that she’s a woman?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s too dangerous to hide a fugitive—you know that. The only thing fugitives bring is company. We’ll have a hunting party pounding down the door by midday.”
“But what difference does it make that the fugitive is a woman?”
“A woman will be caught. And killed. In our barn. We don’t need that bad luck.” He pulled the curtain open further and stared at the barn, as if his gaze might penetrate the latched wood doors. His window faced the pad of grass in front of the barn. The chickens were still searching for remnants of the grain Aysha had tossed, but no one else stirred. “You’re certain she was alone?”
Aysha nodded. She’d seen the blue cloak in the corner behind the saddles and then noticed the woman under the cloak. Although she’d had a start seeing the stranger there, she hadn’t rushed to leave.
“Maybe she isn’t a Northerner. Maybe she’s only someone coming in from one of the other villages in the Glenlands for the festival.”
“I can recognize a Glenlander, Ranik. Her skin was pale and I went close enough to see her face.” Aysha didn’t add that the woman was beautiful in a way that made her breath catch in her throat. Nor did she want Ranik to know the booted leg that had stretched past the edge of the cloak had a knife strapped at the calf.
Ranik shifted back on the pillows. “If she’s smart, she’ll leave before anyone else wakes.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“She’ll be caught. You’ll lie and say you never saw her. I won’t have to lie because I’m going back to sleep.”
“If she’s bound to be caught, there’s no harm in bringing her breakfast.”
“Aysha, she’s done something terrible. Otherwise, she had no reason to cross the wall. And you want to bring her food? We don’t want any part of this.”
“She’s in our barn. We’re part of it already.”
Ranik grumbled and kicked at his sheets as he rolled over. “Do as you like then. I don’t know why you bothered waking me.”
Aysha went to the kitchen to heat a pot of water. She sat down on the stool to wait for the water to boil, her mind returning to the vision of the woman asleep in her barn.
Before the Barrier had gone up, Glenlanders and Northerners had peacefully traded. But since the war, neither could cross the river. The Northern king had claimed all the land north of the river and his wall stretched beyond the Glenlands from the Ald Mountains to the Rinder Sea. Northern guards patrolled the wall and killed anyone who tried crossing. But there were some who’d slipped past. Fugitives. Bounty hunters were paid to track them down and anyone who helped a fugitive was seldom the better for it.
For all the stories she’d heard, Aysha never thought of meeting a Northerner, let alone feeding one in her barn. She tried to push away the image of the knife strapped to the woman’s leg. Fugitives were only bad luck because of the bounty hunters.
“Be quick with her breakfast,” Ranik said, sticking his head out into the hallway. “If she isn’t gone before the neighbors wake, she’ll have to spend the light hours in the barn. We better hope she was good at covering her trail. Or that she’s not a bounty hunter herself. I’ve heard Northern women fight as well as men. Watch out if she’s got a weapon.”
“Go back to bed, Ranik. You worry too much.” But she agreed with him. They could only hope the Northerner knew what she was doing. And that she wasn’t dangerous. She buttoned her coat and slipped outside.
The early sunlight cast the yard in a honey glow and red leaves swirled as the wind picked up. Autumn had come late, but a certain chill was in the air now. Aysha headed to the barn, scattering chickens with the toe of her boot as they pecked around her feet for more grain. She reached the barn and took a deep breath, suddenly nervous. Ranik’s warning echoed in her ears.
The latch rattled when she unhooked the lock. She nudged the door open, every creak louder than the last, and then shuffled across the wood planks avoiding the spots that groaned. She tiptoed up to the first stall and climbed on the rails, hoping for a good view of the corner where she’d seen the cloak without getting too close. Prince sniffed at her and then distractedly went back to his hay when she offered nothing. The blue cloak was gone from the corner and the saddle pads were neatly folded. Had she imagined the woman? Aysha drew a sharp breath as she heard one of the planks creak behind her. She turned and was eye to eye with the Northerner.
“You’re still here,” Aysha said. She was the same height as the Northerner when she was standing on the stall rails, but as soon as she hopped off, she was a head shorter. She regretted the difference as the woman loomed over her. Thick black curls fell about her neck in a wild mane that only seemed to accentuate her height, and she stood with her hands open at her side as if ready to lunge forward. Her nose and jaw were sharp lines as if cut from rock no one had bothered to smooth. Aysha shuddered as the woman’s cold gray eyes locked on hers.
“Did you tell anyone I was here?” Her words were thick with a strange accent.
“Only my brother.”
“What did you tell him?” She narrowed her gaze on Aysha and took a step toward her.
Aysha glanced down at the knife, wondering how long it would take the woman to reach down to her leg to grab the handle. “He won’t tell anyone. He’s gone back to sleep.” She tried to hide her shaking hand as she held out the bowl of barley mash. “I brought you this.”
The woman stared at the bowl and then glanced at the door. “I should have already left.”
“You should have,” Aysha agreed. “But it’s after dawn now and you might as well eat first.”
The Northerner pulled the bowl roughly out of Aysha’s hands and in no time at all was scraping up the last of the barley and handing back the empty bowl.
“You haven’t eaten in days, have you? I can bring you more.”
“I can’t stay. Don’t tell anyone you saw me here.”
As the Northerner turned to push the barn door open Aysha said, “We have neighbors on each side of our field and the main road is well traveled. Especially in the morning. A hundred questioning eyes will see you if you take the road. At least leave through the paddock. If you cut straight through the field to the forest, you’ll find a path that takes you away from the main road…Or stay here and wait for dusk.”
“No one will see me. I keep to the shadows. You didn’t see me yesterday in your field, did you? I watched you for hours.”
Aysha felt a chill race up her spine. She swallowed. “I was busy working. The Autumn Festival begins today. No one will be in the fields. The roads will be full of Glenlanders from as far as Glen Briar and Glen Roushe. Some even travel from Glen Hawk. Any one of them could recognize you’re a Northerner by that cloak alone.” Aysha slipped off her jacket. “I know this isn’t worth the trade but…”
“I don’t need a disguise.”
Aysha straightened up and met the hard gaze. The woman’s eyes seemed to change from gray to icy blue. “Do as you like then. I’ve warned you. It won’t be on my conscience if you’re killed today.”
“You don’t understand the danger you’re in with me standing here now.” The woman’s hand rested on the wide cloth belt of her tunic, and Aysha realized another knife was hidden in the fabric. The line of the handle was clearly visible.
“One scream and the neighbors will be here,” Aysha said, feeling her throat tighten.
“It’s not me you need to worry about. The man who’s tracking me would kill you without a second thought. He has a right to kill me and you’d be nothing to him. Southerners…”
“I’m not scared of a bounty hunter.” In fact, she doubted that she could manage a scream if her life depended on it. Under the other woman’s piercing gaze, she could hardly breathe. Aysha started at the sound of a loud crack. The Northerner recoiled from the door and her knife was in her hand in a second.
“It’s only Helm chopping wood. Stay here.” Aysha brushed past the woman and pushed open the door. The Northerner caught hold of her wrist.
“If you tell him I’m here…”
Aysha pulled her hand free and slipped outside. Her pulse thumped in her throat and her legs trembled as if they wouldn’t hold her up. Maybe Ranik had been right. What was she thinking bringing food to a fugitive? She’d lied about not being afraid. Everything about the woman shook her.
Helm was on his side of the barn fence splitting an oak trunk. Aysha steadied her breath and walked over to his yard. “Morning, Helm. You’re starting early.”
“Tillie wants the nuts roasted. We have enough chestnuts to sell at the market but still she wants more.”
Although he was distracted, from his spot at the woodpile Helm had a perfect view of the barn. Of all the neighbors, he was the most likely to spend the next several weeks telling tales of the woman he’d seen slip out of their barn. He’d put them all in danger.
Helm picked up the split logs. “I’ll bring over some chestnuts for you and Ranik after they’re roasted. In trade for the ale Ranik bought me last night. How’s his head?”
“He’s still asleep.”
Helm nodded. “I’d be too, if I could.”
Aysha waited until he had gone back into his house before slipping back to the barn. She had an uneasy feeling as soon as she pushed open the door, and she paused for a moment, straining to see in the dim light. The barn was quiet. She took one step inside, and in an instant the fugitive had her pushed up against the door, a knife pressed at her throat. Aysha’s scream caught in her chest as the woman’s hand clamped over her mouth.
“What did you tell him?”
Aysha struggled under the woman’s hold, but it was no use. She was too strong. “I didn’t tell him anything,” she said when the woman allowed her to speak. Her voice was shrill and louder than she’d planned.
“Quiet or you’ll get us both killed.” Her gray eyes held Aysha in a cold stare. After a moment, she dropped her grip on Aysha and stepped back from the door. She muttered something under her breath as she sheathed the knife.
Shaking, Aysha felt the place on her neck where the knife had been. She wasn’t bleeding, but she could hardly swallow. She didn’t bother to keep quiet as she lashed out: “What’s wrong with you?”
“Lower your voice,” the woman hissed.
Unfazed, Aysha continued, “I don’t want anyone knowing there’s a fugitive in my barn anymore than you want someone finding you. Were you planning on killing me if I’d said something to him? And what good would that do? I’m trying to help you.”
“I can’t trust anyone. Even someone who pretends they have nothing to gain. Before long, they’ll be offering gold for any sightings of me.”
Aysha felt a flush rise up her neck. “Maybe you should try trusting someone. I’m not interested in any bounty.”
“The man who’s hunting me will soon track me to this barn. You’d be better off telling him that I was here—that you kicked me out—and taking his gold.”
“I’d never take gold for that.”
The woman shook her head. “The longer I stay, the more danger we’re both in.”
“You should have been gone before daybreak then.”
“I fell asleep,” she admitted, her voice breaking. “I hadn’t stopped to rest in days.”
Despite her attempt to scare Aysha and all of her knives, she was the one who was running terrified. And clearly exhausted. Aysha couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. “No one knows you’re here and if you stay hidden, it’ll be the better for the both of us. I’ll bring more food and you can rest. If you leave at dusk, everyone will be at the festival.”
“You don’t know what risk you’re taking.”
“There’s more risk if someone sees you leave.”
The woman sighed heavily. “I’m exhausted. Maybe one more day’s rest…” She met Aysha’s eyes. “I’m Darin.”
They didn’t shake hands—they only held each other’s gaze. Aysha felt a rush of nerves that had nothing to do with fear. She quickly reached for the door. “Keep to the back of the barn in case one of the neighbors happens through.”
Aysha knew Darin was watching her as she slipped outside, but she didn’t try to stop her this time. Still, nothing about the woman put her at ease. Darin. She repeated the name softly, testing it. Her stark beauty made Aysha’s breath catch, but it wasn’t only the sharp jawline or the paleness of her skin offset by the dark curls. No Glenlander carried herself the way she did. She stood as tall as a man and her hands were just as strong, but her movements were quiet and quick. Aysha shuddered as she recalled how fast the knife tip had gone to her throat. But she hadn’t thought, even in the moment, that Darin wanted to hurt her.
As the door closed, Darin let out the breath she’d been holding. She hoped she could trust the woman. Aysha. She couldn’t stomach the thought of hurting her now simply to keep her hiding place a secret.
Yesterday she’d watched her for hours. She’d worked late in the fields, singing to herself. At first Darin had guessed she was a teenager, but then when she’d gone closer to the barn, she’d noticed Aysha’s curves. It was only a softness about her face, round cheeks and plump lips that made her seem young. And of course she was short, like most Southerners. The afternoon sun had darkened her tan skin to a warm brown and her dark eyes were framed by long lashes. Darin had found it hard to look away from her. She’d never seen anyone quite as beautiful.
But a lump of worry settled in her stomach now as she thought of how she’d trusted her—a Southerner who had every reason to sell her out. From one look at the woman’s threadbare coat, it was clear she scarcely had two silver bits to rub together. Stories of Southerners trading a fugitive for a single gold piece abounded. The fools didn’t know they could bargain a life for a hundred gold coins.
She leaned against the stall rails and felt the horse’s muzzle searching her hair. His touch steadied her. The horse went for her fingers as she stretched out her hand. He licked her palm, tasting the salt. She hadn’t washed in days.
The gelding would be a perfect horse to steal—calm and trusting but tall enough to carry her. On horseback, she’d outrun Alekander and might make it to the Rinder Sea in a day or two. From there she’d need passage on a boat. Alekander might have spies already waiting for her at the ports, but if she made it to the Halo Isles… She glanced at the horse again. Stealing was becoming easier. It was also a necessity. She no longer felt a pang of guilt at taking what she needed—or hadn’t until now.
The horse snorted and turned to stomp out to his outer paddock as if he sensed her thoughts. But had Alekander followed her even as far as the first Southern village? Had he crossed the river or turned back at the wall?
He’d have an advantage if she followed the river—sound traveled well over the water. Rivers presented a real disadvantage to her, however. Water didn’t disguise scents; it amplified each one in a dizzying rush. She’d lost Alekander’s scent after crossing the river but his face haunted her dreams every night. The last image of him, as she’d balanced at the top edge of the Barrier, her hands scraped and bleeding from the rough stone, terrorized her.
The past night’s sleep had been the first without dreams of him. When Aysha had first appeared, Darin thought she was an illusion. So deep her sleep had been, she hadn’t caught her scent until it was too late. At the sound of footsteps on the floor planks, she’d huddled under her cloak, planning an attack. She’d only thought of taking the horse, but she’d do whatever was needed to escape if the woman tried to stop her. And then she’d decoded the stranger’s scent in a dizzying rush—no malice, no fear, only wood smoke and warm honey. It’d been a long time since she’d been immobilized by anyone. And this time it was a woman.
The barn door swung open suddenly and Aysha reappeared. She pulled a hunk of bread out from a pocket of her coat, tossed it to Darin and then pointed to the far corner. Darin quickly hid behind the horse tack. Her stomach churned as she clutched the bread, thick with the scent of yeast. A man followed Aysha into the barn. He was old and walked with a limp. If she had to, he’d be easy to take down.
“You won’t mind if we borrow Cobalt for the day then?”
“Ranik won’t be working the fields anyway,” Aysha said. “He mentioned selling some of the wood bowls he carved and a few hens, but he can take a cart for that. If he ever wakes up.”
“Want me to sell the hens for you?”
“I’d rather keep them, Helm. It was Ranik who wanted the money.”
“Like your mother.” He placed a hand on Aysha’s shoulder. “But it’s Autumn Festival and the time for looking forward, not back. Your mother would tell me to get back to my work…”
“I’ll get his harness for you,” Aysha said. She approached the saddles and met Darin’s eyes. Darin felt her skin burn as if the barn had filled with a light cast directly on her. She shrank back in the shadows and held her breath. Once she had the tack she wanted, Aysha turned back to the neighbor. “Will you and Tillie be at the dance tonight?”
“We’ll stick to the pub. The ale’s better.” He smiled. “And Tillie would never let me stop dancing if she got me out there.”
Darin didn’t relax until they’d both gone. The bread was still warm and the gnawing in her belly finally subsided as she ate. When it was clear that no one was returning to the barn, she stacked the horse blankets in the corner and curled up behind them.
It was late afternoon when she awoke, stiff from the small space she’d hid herself in. She stretched her legs and realized with a start that Aysha was in the barn. She hadn’t heard her enter and was unnerved with the thought that Alekander might have entered just as silently. She called for Aysha softly, not bothering to stand and look for her.
“You’ve been fighting someone, in your sleep.” Aysha hopped off a bale of hay opposite Darin’s hiding spot. “You had your fists balled up and twice you reached for your knife. Did you win?”
Darin wouldn’t let on how the question sent a shiver down her spine. In her dreams, she never won the fight against Alekander. “I woke before it was over.”
“I hope I didn’t disturb you. I was trying to keep the horses quiet, but they wanted their grain.”
Darin shook her head. “I’ve slept better in this barn than I have in weeks. Must be a sleeping spell you placed on me.”
Aysha laughed. “If I knew any spells, I wouldn’t waste one on sleep. Is it true that Northerners cast spells? I’ve heard that some can cast a spell to bring rain or force the wind to turn. But we hear a lot of stories about Northerners. No one knows what’s true and what’s only meant to scare children. Southerners don’t cross the border and return to tell of it.”
“Why would a Southerner cross? You have no reason to leave.”
“The North is the land of plenty,” Aysha countered.
“Plenty…” She shook her head.
“And magic spells.”
“There are some who claim to be spell casters. But not many.” She wondered what Aysha knew of sensers. It was rumored that no one in the South possessed a strong sense. But many feared any hint of magic. She continued, “Magic is often little more than a trick of a stronger sense.”
“What do you mean?”
Darin thought for a moment. She didn’t need to use her own sense as the example. “I have a friend who senses the weather. He feels a storm coming weeks in advance. And if he needs money, he might pretend he was bringing the rain with a spell. People pay him for his magic. Really, it isn’t magic at all. He only has a sense of things to come. Mostly of the weather, but there’s other things…The trick comes when he convinces you that a rainstorm is what you want.”
“Can you sense the weather as well?”
“No.” Darin knew she should leave her explanation at that, and yet something about Aysha’s simple curiosity or the fact that it had been weeks since she’d talked to anyone at all made her continue. “There are some with a strong sense of taste—they often make ale and potions. Others have a strong sense of sight, sound, or smell. Some can track a rabbit in the dark, hear water flowing in the desert…But it isn’t magic.”
“I’m as blind as a gopher in the dark. I’d never find a rabbit.”
“It isn’t as hard as you’d think if you have a stronger sense…” By habit, she avoided talking about her sense. But Aysha seemed innocent in her interest. “The world is full of scents. I could follow you blindfolded simply by remembering your scent and searching for it.”
“I’d like to see that trick.”
“It isn’t a trick—only a stronger sense. I’ve always caught the scent of things others can’t smell. A rabbit hiding underground or a wasp’s nest high in the trees…My grandmother taught me the trick of separating the scents. Without her, I would have been lost.” Darin paused. “If you don’t learn to focus your sense as a child, the sense weakens until it’s nearly lost. Sometimes I think my mother was right to never learn to focus hers. But my sense was too strong. I was overwhelmed by it. There was no way to ignore it.
“I can smell when someone’s afraid. Or if they’re caught in a lie. Some people have too many scents and it’s work to sort them out. Ignoring it would be like ignoring someone’s smile or someone’s tears. A person’s scent is as strong to me as the emotion you see on their face. Sometimes stronger.”
Aysha came closer and stopped in front of Darin. “I could see recognizing someone’s scent and telling them apart from others, but could you really tell what someone’s thinking with your eyes closed—by their smell alone?”
“Then what do you smell now?”
Aysha’s eyes were locked on hers. Darin knew she might have told her too much. There was power in hiding her sense and danger in exposing the truth. But still there was no threat in her. She closed her eyes and inhaled. “Desire.” It wasn’t a surprise, she’d caught the scent the first time Aysha had looked at her. But she did wonder at it. When she opened her eyes, Aysha’s face was flushed.
“Who doesn’t desire something?” Aysha said.
“Mostly I don’t think about why someone has a certain scent. I just sense it.”
“Well, what else? You said people often had more than one scent.” She walked over to a bin between the horse stalls and scooped up a handful of grain, seeming suddenly nervous. Both horses perked their ears. Darin knew she’d made her uncomfortable.
“There’s fear too.” Darin studied her. Aysha kept her gaze on the horse, cleaning the grain from her palms. “Are you afraid of me?”
“See, now I can smell that you’re lying.”
“From all the way over there?” Aysha raised her eyebrows.
Southerners were simple. They didn’t know to hide their emotions. “I’ve tracked someone for miles by their sweat alone. You might as well be standing next to me if we’re in the same room.”
Aysha rinsed her hands off in the water trough and then wiped them dry on one of the saddle blankets. She’d come to stand next to Darin again. “I’m not certain I like that you can smell what I’m thinking.”
“I smell other things too.” Darin reached for Aysha’s hand. She held it up to her nose. “Oat hay, horse sweat, grain, chicken feathers, apples, cheese…” Aysha tugged her hand back before she’d finished. “But desire is the strongest.”
“I just washed my hand.”
“The scent lingers. Use soap.” She smiled when Aysha made a sour face.
“What does desire smell like?”
“It isn’t one scent alone—it’s a mix of different smells. That’s how it always is with emotions.” She thought for a moment. “Have you smelled the ocean?”
“I’ve never gone farther east than Glen Falls. Is your home near the ocean?”
The question caught Darin off guard. She shook her head. It wasn’t a lie. She had no place to call home.
“Most fugitives follow the river to the Rinder Sea, or so I hear. And then on to the Halo Isles. No one comes to Glen Ore…Why’d you come here?”
“I thought the man who was tracking me would guess I’d do what everyone always does. So I crossed the river instead of following it.” And she’d kept south at every turn. Her stomach tightened as she realized she’d gone in a straight line. Any tracker could easily trace her path. She glanced at the barn door and then at the stalls, drawing in a deep breath. No new scents tainted the air. She’d taken a risk staying in the barn, but she’d thought she’d been careful.
In the distance, drums began to beat. The sound brought Aysha to her feet. “I have to meet someone. I brought you more food.” She motioned to the hay bale where a loaf of bread, roasted nuts and a square of hard white cheese had been left on a red cloth. She stared at Darin for a long moment, as if unsure of her next move. “Will you leave tonight?”
Darin didn’t answer. Maybe she’d made a mistake spending the day in the barn but she’d finally slept. If only she knew which direction Alekander had gone… At the thought of him, her own fear wafted in a thick blanket over the haze of other scents. She met Aysha’s gaze, the warm brown eyes naively waiting for her answer.
“I’ll come back tonight and find out for myself, I suppose,” Aysha said.
As soon as she was gone, Darin felt the walls close in on her. The barn was too small. Alekander could easily corner her. She needed to leave, the sooner the better, but instead she wanted to call Aysha back and ask her to stay. She had no reason to want her company. The Southerner hardly could protect herself. She had no weapons and had probably never had a reason to defend herself, let alone someone else. But an emptiness seeped inside her now that she was gone.
Gathering her cloak, Darin went to rinse her hands and face in the horses’ water trough. The cool water rinsed away any lingering scent of Aysha on her skin. She ate half of the bread and cheese, then pocketed the rest in the satchel strapped at her hip. The sun had dropped out of sight and the sky had added a purple tint to the blue.
She left the barn the same way she’d entered the night before, slipping between the stalls and out the paddock gate. Stealing a horse was out of the question now. She caught the scent of deer and followed this until she came upon their trail. For the most part, the path ran parallel to the road through the village, and she could hear the crunch of foot traffic and wagons as well as the sounds of music and voices. Laughter. She hadn’t heard music or laughter in weeks and the sound of it was so foreign that she hurried past, grateful for the cover of trees.
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