Two sisters. Two seeds of power. One Mage's Guild, and an unprecedented new power—but which sister does it belong to? Cadence and her sister possess the seeds of glory and ruin—or so their father always insisted. Cadence never understood what he meant until Airlie’s seed of power is activated, turning her into the most powerful mage in generations. Despite knowing it must mean her own dormant seed is much more malevolent, Cadence is swept away to the distant Mage’s Guild in her sister’s wake. She’s used to living in Airlie’s shadow, but she can’t see a place for herself in this new world. Nor can she believe in the apparent interest of the charming Zeke. No one has ever chosen her over her beautiful sister. But leaving her new home isn’t an option. Plagued by questions from her isolated childhood, Cadence needs answers, and the Guild might hold them. But as the revelations grow, Cadence must find a way to conceal the truth from her new companions before the sisters’ secrets turn everyone against them. And as word of Airlie’s power spreads, new danger emerges. Across the kingdom’s border, a threat is growing among the ruins of their former neighbor—enemies who will do anything to get their hands on the sisters and the seeds they contain. No longer able to shelter behind Airlie, Cadence must make a choice. Will she embrace her power—whatever it might be—or pursue a different path?
Release date: December 30, 2021
Publisher: Luminant Publications
Print pages: 304
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
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Seeds of Glory and Ruin
I heard the distant sound of hoofbeats long before I saw anything unusual. Springing up, I spun toward the noise, but the surrounding trees blocked my view.
I spared a second’s glance at the basket by my feet. The berries inside were the last of the season and represented several hours of work. I had been dreaming about the pies they would make all day.
With a shake of my head, I left them where they sat. The basket was an awkward shape, and its load had grown heavy. It would only slow me down.
Weaving between the trees, I ran. My breath soon rasped in and out, but I didn’t slow. Five riders were on a course that would lead to my sister. I didn’t stop to question my certainty— I just knew they promised disruption to the monotony of my isolated life.
The possibility of danger didn’t give me a moment’s hesitation.
At first, as I raced across the uneven ground, I told myself it was concern for Airlie that lent my feet wings. But the image of my formidable older sister danced across my mind’s eye, calling a lie on the noble sentiment. I revised my internal justifications.
Airlie might not need any protection I could provide, but she would certainly be worried on my behalf—she always was. If there were other people in this remote area, she would want us to stick together.
But I could feel the less shattering truth behind even that excuse. Curiosity drove me on above everything else, its fires stoked by the thrilling possibility of disruption to my boring life. What was danger compared to that?
The wind shifted, bringing with it the biting smell of smoke. My pace faltered, concern leaching through my excitement. We rarely ventured away from our isolated house in its protected valley, but we did make supply runs to the nearest villages. And hadn’t I heard talk of some new band of brigands on our last such brush with humanity?
Airlie had been quick to turn us away from the conversation, but I had caught the worried looks and hushed voices. At the time, it had seemed like the usual anxieties of those who needed something to complain about. Airlie and I had been living for two years without our father—a soft target for thieves —and we had never seen anyone near our house.
But why else would there be smoke on the wind? It was far too much for a simple campfire.
My feet slowed of their own volition, proving I did have some care for danger, after all. Apparently, some natural caution remained. The hoofbeats had stopped, replaced by voices, the lower tones of a man punctuated by the familiar sound of my sister. I slipped through the remaining trees, creeping up the gentle slope toward the place where they stood.
I had directed my approach to avoid the majority of the smoke, but it still stung my eyes, the occasional breeze forcing me to suppress a cough. If the newcomers had torched the long abandoned and derelict shack we had been using as a base for the last two nights, they must surely be brigands. Who else would possess such a destructive nature?
My heart had barely slowed despite the halt in my exertion, but my sister’s even tones gave no hint of fear. I eased myself behind the last tree, the ground ahead of me bare of anything more than waist-high bushes.
For the first time, I had a clear view of the source of the smoke.
As I had suspected, it was the shack that was burning. The structure had already collapsed, the flames smoldering rather than leaping high as they might have done with a juicier target. Smoke still billowed out, however, providing an impressive backdrop to Airlie.
She stood tall and confident, having claimed the high ground directly in front of the fire. A few steps below her, a man in a purple cloak faced her, four mounted men behind him.
I frowned at his companions. Three of them were dressed in the blue and gold livery of royal guards. I had seen royal guards only once before, during a visit to a distant village, but their garb was too distinctive to mistake. Not brigands, then. And hardly likely to have set a crumbling shack on fire.
Had they been drawn here by the smoke? Perhaps they had driven the brigands away?
If so, Airlie didn’t appear grateful. Rather she looked like a monarch, barring entry to her domain—no matter how devastated that domain might be.
I sighed. It wasn’t only my lack of height that denied me such an authoritative presence. Despite our shared features— long brown hair, startling blue eyes, a heart-shaped face, and a willowy frame—Airlie and I had never been alike. More like opposites, in fact.
The two of you possess the seeds of glory and ruin. The voice of our father sounded as clearly in my head as if I had heard him issue his favorite pronouncement yesterday instead of two years earlier. My stomach soured at the memory. It had always seemed the path of wisdom not to inquire which of us was which. Given the warmth of pride in his eyes whenever they rested on Airlie, I didn’t think I would like his answer.
More words I couldn’t catch were exchanged between the men and my sister, and then the one in the cloak pointed at the burning shack. A waterfall of rain appeared from the clear blue sky, directly above the fire. It fell in a solid sheet, causing the flames to sizzle and sputter, even more smoke pouring forth. A moment later, the water cut off as abruptly as it had begun.
I bit my lip. An elements mage. And a strong one to produce so much water without a cloud in the sky. That explained the attendant and three guards.
“Cadence! Please join us.” Airlie’s raised voice reached me, her eyes somehow finding me despite the distance and covering foliage. How did she always do that?
I didn’t dwell on the irritation, however, spurred on by the return of my earlier excitement. If Airlie was beckoning me into the open, that was confirmation the men weren’t a threat, despite the burning building.
I jogged across the short distance, avoiding the column of smoke as best I could, as well as the small huddle of men and horses. Within moments, I reached my sister’s side.
From this position, I could see the newcomers more clearly. The four mounted men kept half their attention on their horses as they stomped and snorted, nostrils wide at the smell of smoke. Only the fifth man looked entirely unconcerned about the situation. Despite the height disadvantage from his position on the ground, he maintained an air of confidence and command that put even Airlie to shame. Even without his earlier display, I would have had no doubt who the leader of the small band must be.
The cloaked man looked back at me, the slight lift of his brow suggesting surprise.
“It is really just you and your sister? These are remote and lawless parts for two youngsters on their own.” His eyes shifted to the burning building behind us.
I snorted softly, drawing his gaze back to me. I braced myself for anger—or at least irritation—but his gaze held only a trace of amusement.
Given our usual isolation, I spent our supply runs watching the people who inhabited the villages as closely as possible. And while I might not be an expert, it hadn’t taken much experience to learn that men who carried themselves with such assurance rarely appreciated being laughed at by sixteen-year-old girls.
I hadn’t been able to help my response to his words, though. He had spoken as if he were a gray beard instead of a young man only a handful of years older than Airlie.
I examined him more closely, but the answer didn’t lie in the messy waves of his dark brown hair or the angled lines of his honey-colored face. His authority was no more a physical attribute for him than it was for Airlie—it came from within him, and it clearly carried weight with the four older men who followed him. The one closest us was eyeing me with all the distaste his leader lacked, apparently more defensive of his dignity than the man himself.
“Don’t mind Sutton,” the leader said without turning to look at the man behind him. “His face falls that way naturally.”
The disapproving lines on Sutton’s face deepened, but he still didn’t speak.
“I’m Evermund,” the leader continued with a friendly nod.
“This is Cadence,” Airlie replied before I could introduce myself. “My younger sister.”
I suppressed a surge of irritation. I wasn’t a child, unable to give my own name, but this was hardly the time for a squabble between siblings.
A resounding crash behind us made me "inch. Fresh billows of ash and smoke erupted as the sagging remnants of the shack collapsed. Airlie, on the other hand, held herself steady, the barest tremor rocking her slim figure.
As I fought against a rush of embarrassment, I thought I detected a hint of admiration in Evermund’s eyes as they dwelt on Airlie. No surprise there. Young men in the villages we visited usually did look at Airlie that way.
No one directed such approval in my direction, but at least Sutton was no longer glaring at me, instead busy keeping his horse from bolting for the trees. I gave the animal a sympathetic look. I would have preferred some distance from the smoldering ruins myself, but Airlie and Evermund were apparently trapped in a competition to see who could show themselves less affected by our proximity to a burning building.
Or perhaps Evermund truly was unbothered by it. A powerful elements mage had no reason to fear !re.
“You are both remarkably self-possessed young women to take the loss of your home and all your possessions with such calm.” Evermund’s words sent my gaze whipping from him back to my sister.
Although she refrained from meeting my eyes—keeping her attention on Evermund instead—I could feel a strong emotion radiating off her in waves. If it wasn’t for our audience, she would no doubt have been glaring at me, warning me not to react to the incorrect assumption. I immediately moderated my response, wiping the surprise from my face.
A curious gleam had already leaped into Evermund’s eyes, however, and I read the annoyance on Airlie’s face. Not that a stranger would be able to detect her hidden emotion. Just as the arm she placed around my shoulders no doubt looked maternal to an outside eye.
“We would indeed be distraught to have lost all our posses‐ sions,” she said. “But we were just returning from an extended gathering trip and thankfully have our packs with us. Naturally our most important belongings are carried with us always.”
She gestured at two large packs half concealed behind her on the ground. I hid my frown, making sure to give them only the briefest glance despite the fact my pack had been inside the shack when I left to go berry picking. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I trusted my sister.
“It wasn’t much of a home anyway.” I gave the smoldering timbers a glare. “I’m not sorry to see it gone.” Even the !re could only do so much to conceal the decrepit nature of the building.
Some of the invisible tension leaked from Airlie’s body, her arm around me relaxing slightly at this evidence that I intended to play along with whatever game she was playing.
“I’m glad you weren’t around to encounter whoever lit that,” Evermund said. “But the fate of your home—an unsatisfactory one by your own claim—must stand as evidence to the unsuitability of this location. Surely you have family elsewhere who would take you in?”
I shook my head. “Our parents have been dead for years. We only have each other.”
“So your sister informed me.” His focus was still on Airlie, a faint crease between his brows as if he couldn’t quite work her out.
She drew herself up to her full height. “I will be nineteen this coming winter. I am the proper person to have guardianship of my sister.”
“Nearly nineteen?” The crease smoothed out of Evermund’s eyes. “That explains it, then, I suppose. But why don’t I recognize you from the Mages’ Guild? You must have a strong ability. Few in your position would risk living in such an isolated location so soon after completing their apprenticeship.”
I opened my mouth to inform him we hadn’t just arrived in this remote area—we had been alone here since our father’s death. But I thought better of it, snapping my mouth shut again. Our father had been obsessed with secrecy, always insisting we rotate our trading visits between as many villages as possible to ensure we never made real connections with anyone. He would have been horrified to hear me reveal any information at all to a stranger, let alone that we actually lived in this border region—an area shunned by most sensible Tartorans.
“What is your affinity?” Evermund asked Airlie, his concern replaced with curiosity. When she didn’t reply, he asked again, with a touch of impatience. “What type of power do you wield?”
She still gave him no answer, meeting his look with a hint of defiance.
“I don’t owe you anything,” she said, and I caught her eyes flicking sideways to Sutton for the briefest second.
I hid another frown. What was Airlie playing at now? She and my father had always insisted we do everything possible to avoid notice. Why provoke these strangers? There was more to her response than a reluctance to admit she wasn’t a mage.
Evermund said nothing, but Sutton’s horse responded to a heel in his side, taking several reluctant steps in our direction.
“Don’t you know who you’re addressing? This is the Royal Mage, an elements master and direct emissary of the king.” He transferred his attention to his companion. “Really Evermund, we have tarried here long enough. The !re shows no danger of spreading, and no one has been injured. There is no reason to prolong the delay. Test the girl, if you must, and have done with the questioning. It is well within your rights.”
Evermund regarded him for a moment before giving the briefest of shrugs and turning back to us. But in that short moment, he missed the tightening of Airlie’s muscles and the sudden squeeze she gave my arm. Whatever she had been attempting to orchestrate in this encounter, it had been leading to this. For some reason my sister wanted this master mage to test her.
“Very well, Sutton.” Evermund gave us a measured look. “As a master mage I am permitted to test anyone I encounter. And since we have detoured from royal business, I must ascertain whether or not you are two defenseless and homeless minors in need of royal sanctuary.”
I kept my mouth buttoned closed. There was no chance we were going to meekly accompany them to the closest town to be dumped on some unsuspecting matron, but I knew better than to overset whatever plan Airlie had underway.
Evermund looked almost apologetic as he continued. “There are some masters who don’t live at the Guild, so it’s possible you’ve completed your two years’ apprenticeship without us crossing paths. And if you are indeed a qualified mage, then I can allow you to go your own way with a clean conscience. But I must be sure.”
Airlie said nothing, and Evermund sighed. Prompted by instinct, I slipped out from under her arm. I had no idea what a Royal Mage was, but if Evermund was a master mage, able to control the elements, I didn’t want to be caught by whatever storm Airlie had just provoked.
Far from trying to keep me at her side, Airlie gave me a subtle push to encourage me away. If Evermund noticed, he didn’t comment, and neither did he make any gesture or utter any grandiose words.
But something emerged from him anyway, racing through the air between him and Airlie to encase her in an invisible bubble. I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel it, the tiny hairs on my arms standing on end.
A radiant smile—almost a triumphant grin—transformed my sister’s face in the second before the air around us shook and an unnatural thunder rent the air, setting my head ringing.
I stumbled and fell, landing painfully on my rear and only just catching myself with both hands before I fell all the way back and struck my head. But at least I didn’t have a mount to deal with.
The horses, driven past forbearance, whinnied loudly, three of them rearing up to strike at the air with their front hooves. Two of the guards and Sutton fought to control the animals, while the remaining guard disappeared into the trees on a mount that had decided to bolt instead.
Evermund, with his feet on solid ground, fared better. Although he staggered brie"y, he didn’t lose grip on his horse’s reins and soon had the animal back under control.
Only Airlie was completely unmoved, as if the bubble surrounding her had protected her from the unnatural movement of the air. But even as I thought it, I realized the bubble had gone. I could feel no trace of it now.
Evermund ignored his four companions, his eyes wide and lips tight as he stared at Airlie. She had lost some of her self-assurance, meeting his gaze with a look of penitence. It was as if —having achieved her aim—she now had the grace to acknowledge her role in whatever piece of subterfuge she had just engineered.
I scrambled back to my feet, about to demand some answers, but Sutton beat me to it. Sliding down from his still quivering horse, he abandoned the reins, his whole body shaking with anger.
Striding forward, he loomed over Airlie.
“You foolish child! What have you done? Do you think to entrap the Royal Mage? You will soon discover—”
“Sutton!” Evermund’s commanding tone whipped across the space between them, pulling the older man up short. “That is enough.”
Sutton turned back to him, an appalled expression on his face. “You cannot allow this nobody to get away with such an appalling trick. You are—”
“Bound by the same laws as everyone else, regardless of my position.” Evermund had regained his previous calm. “As for a trick, you are forgetting Hayes.” He turned a questioning eye on one of the mounted guards.
“Is our new elements mage truly eighteen?”
“Aye, Master Evermund. I would have told you if there was any untruth.”
I gaped at both of them. The guard was a mage who could tell truth from lies? What sort of power allowed that?
I scrambled to remember my own words from earlier. My comments about the shack hadn’t been a lie, even if they had been misleading. When our father died and Airlie was forced to take over the hunting, she had insisted I couldn’t be left behind on my own. We had discovered the derelict shack on our first trip, and she had laughingly dubbed it our hunting lodge—a home away from home for the time we spent foraging and hunting. But it smelled foul and creaked ominously in the slightest wind, and I had always hated it. I had spoken the truth when I said I wasn’t sorry to see it gone.
But the revelation about the guard’s ability wasn’t the only shocking part of Evermund’s words. He had called Airlie a new elements mage, and all !ve of the men were now regarding her with varying levels of shock. But my sister wasn’t a mage of any kind—not even our father had been.
“Airlie, what’s going on?” I asked, noting with concern that she looked nervous, although she was hiding it well.
Evermund frowned thoughtfully at my question, looking between me and Airlie. “You must know how unusual it is for someone of your age not to have been activated.” He hesitated, the furrow in his brow deepening. “Or perhaps...” He looked between us. “Have you had any training—formal or informal— on the ways of power? Of seeds and activation and influence?”
Airlie stiffened but didn’t speak. Was she ashamed to admit to ignorance? I felt no such compunction. I didn’t bear the blame for the hole in our education.
“None,” I said. “Our father undertook our education before his death, and he always refused to speak of such matters, no matter how many times I asked.”
Airlie’s hand slipped into mine and squeezed approvingly. I shook my head slightly. I must have misunderstood her reluctance to respond.
“That explains it then,” Evermund said. “And whatever our personal feelings on the matter, the law is clear. As the mage who activated your power, I am now personally responsible for your training. We will return to the Guild immediately.”
He glanced at the collapsed walls and blackened ashes of our lodge and then at the sun which had already begun its descent toward the horizon. “I believe we can manage another hour or two of travel before we need to make camp.”
“Back to the Guild?” Sutton stared at him. “But what of our mission? I concede our hands are tied on the matter of the apprenticeship, but the girl can tag along easily enough. Given how you were trapped into the activation, she cannot expect you to drop everything and see to her—”
Once again Evermund cut him off. “How many seeds have you seen activated in your years, Sutton? Have you ever witnessed anything like what just happened?”
Sutton shifted uncomfortably. “I was there when Master Drake activated you, Evermund, and still remember how the air shook. Everyone agreed that nothing like it had been felt since his own activation.”
“I, too, remember the occasion.” Somehow Evermund managed to keep the impatience out of his voice, which suggested he had the forbearance of a saint. “And I spent the next four years striving to live up to such a promising beginning. I do not, however, remember thunder nearly splitting all our eardrums.”
Sutton gaped foolishly at Evermund, whatever disbelief he was feeling apparently outweighing his natural inclination toward self-importance.
“What exactly are you saying, Evermund? Are you suggesting...”
“I’m saying that we will return to the Guild immediately. Our mission can wait or be assigned to another. This is too important.”
“The villagers whose homes and lands have been burned and pillaged might not agree,” Hayes said quietly behind them both. “Nor the ones carried off by the raiders—if the rumors of such are true.”
Sutton glared at the guard—apparently, he was the only one allowed to question the Royal Mage—but Evermund showed no sign of offense.
“If they understood the broader picture, they might. Airlie must undergo formal testing immediately. If we have discovered something new, it might prove crucial in protecting the outlying Tartoran villages and ending this raider threat once and for all.”
Airlie stepped forward, half shielding me with her body. “I take it you wish me to accompany you to the capital? I’m not going anywhere without my sister.”
Sutton turned a dull shade of red, bristling with anger. “An apprentice doesn’t question the orders of a master, let alone her influencing master.”
“Excuse him,” Evermund said with a friendly smile, “he’s rather old-fashioned. I assure you I am as fallible as anyone and will not crumble at the least sign of opposition.”
Sutton sputtered, but Evermund ignored him, his tone turning apologetic. “But in one respect he is right. When I activated your seed of power, I bound us together, little though I intended to do so. You are now officially my apprentice and must remain so for the next two years. As such, the law does require you to accompany me back to the capital. It is my home, you see, and I can hardly train you if you remain out here in the borderlands.”
“I am more than willing to take up residence in the capital,” Airlie said with a stubborn tilt of her chin that I knew all too well. “But I will not go without my sister.” An edge of entreaty entered her voice. “She is only sixteen and has no one but me. Surely you see that I cannot abandon her out here alone.”
Evermund ran a hand over his chin, surveying me with a calculating air. I tried to look as small and helpless as possible. I was going to the capital if I had to trail behind them the whole way there. I knew enough of tracking to manage it, but I would much prefer to travel as one of their party—especially since it appeared the talk of brigands in the area had been true. I shivered, and apparently my fear tipped the matter in my favor.
“Very well,” he said. “You said your birthday is in the winter, and you will be nineteen. Since you will be of age in a matter of months, we can stretch the matter and claim your sister as your dependent. As such, she is entitled to your care and protection even above any responsibility you owe to me.”
Airlie’s tension melted away, and she gave him a true smile. He blinked once, a strange expression traveling across his face before it was quickly suppressed. I gave a small sigh. No one had ever been forced to hide their reaction to my blinding beauty.
I shook my head. I had no reason to complain about my sister’s many talents. Apparently, they were great enough that she had won us both a position in the capital—the very place to which we had spent the last two months planning to move.
“Is it really true?” I murmured. “After all our plans—and your insistence that we not go until we were fully ready and provisioned—are we just leaving everything and walking away?”
“Not everything,” Airlie said. “We have our packs.”
I shot her an unimpressed look, but something in her words gave me pause. No one had ever disturbed us in our snug, well-built cabin a full day’s travel away. We had never seen any evidence that anyone had even come upon it, tucked out of sight in a remote valley. And yet every time we left, Airlie insisted we take our most treasured possessions with us, despite the slower pace our heavy packs required. How many times had I grumbled that we were not snails to need to carry our home upon our backs?
Had Airlie always been prepared for such an eventuality as this? It seemed impossible when she had spent two years insisting that we not leave our home to join one of the neighboring villages as I had wished.
Two months ago, when she suddenly announced we needed to start careful preparations for a move to the capital, it had seemed like a complete about face. Now I wasn’t so sure. Had Airlie always been open to the possibility that every time we left our home we might never return? Had she been planning our eventual departure—one way or another?
I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she slung her pack on her back and brought mine over toward me. Whatever excess of emotion had overtaken her in the immediate aftermath of her activation—whatever activation even was—she was now back to her usual air of calm confidence.
Although a certain buzz of excitement underlaid her manner. Was it possible my staid, responsible sister—always preaching caution and the need for concealment—wanted to go to the capital as much as I did? If that was true, why had she drawn out our plans for the move to such an extent? I had been sure she was lingering at home, unwilling to actually leave. Some days I had doubted it would ever really happen.
I accepted my pack, noticing for the !rst time that some‐ thing was missing from its usual place strapped to the top of hers.
“Shush!” she hissed at me, and I instantly fell silent.
But despite her efforts at subtlety, Evermund hadn’t failed
to note the exchange, watching us with an unreadable expression. He didn’t comment, however, merely directing the guards to take our packs and secure them on the back of Hayes’ and Sutton’s horses. As soon as that was accomplished, he directed the remaining two guards to take us up in front of them. Apparently, he was the only one to remain unencumbered by our unexpected presence.
Not that he held himself aloof from either of us. He was the one to lift first Airlie and then me up to the guards waiting to receive us. I tried to remain unflappable during the proceeding, desperate not to show my inexperience. We had learned to ride on Father’s old mare, but she had passed away two years before he did, so it was a long time since I had been in such close proximity to a horse.
And I had never been in such close proximity to a strange man.
I held my breath as his arms encircled me, knowing he needed to position himself that way in order to hold the reins. When his movements and attitude remained detached and impersonal, I soon relaxed. The furor in my mind left little room for me to obsess over my physical situation.
The day had started as so many before it had done, and now suddenly my whole world was upended. How many times had I pleaded with first Father and then Airlie that we should leave our isolated home and travel to a nearby town? After Father’s early responses, I hadn’t dared suggest the capital, but a small village hadn’t seemed so ridiculous a proposition. He had always remained adamant, however—claiming we were safer in our home. And Airlie had held the same line for two years— only she claimed we had to respect our father’s wishes.
I had been over the moon when she !first announced our intended relocation to Tarona. I had always dreamed of seeing Tartora’s capital. But when the weeks passed by and we spent our time gathering a ridiculous pile of supplies we would never be able to carry, the excitement had ebbed, swallowed by the belief we would never actually leave. But now, apparently, the unexpected arrival of Evermund and his group had propelled her to action. I just wished I knew why.
Not that I intended to repine. Whatever the cause, for the !irst time, we were leaving our home behind with no intention of returning.
Should I feel sad? Or melancholy, perhaps, to be leaving behind our parents’ graves? I couldn’t muster the emotion. Father had loved us—I didn’t doubt that—but he hadn’t been one to encourage sentimentality.
The memory of Airlie’s desperate declaration that she wouldn’t go without me sparked a bloom of warmth in my belly. For all my frustrations with my sister, I loved her with a
fierceness my father had never managed to evoke. From my earliest memories we had turned to each other for the affection that he seemed to find so hard to display. She was not just the only family I had, she was also the only home that mattered. There was nothing to tie me to what we left behind.
The mage’s words about destroyed villages made me scan our surroundings with heightened awareness. Given my late arrival on the scene, and the subsequent pace of events, I still had no idea how our temporary protection had ended up burning. Were we in imminent danger of crossing paths with brigands?
A scuffed section of ground caught my eye, a familiar object clearly visible, although it had been abandoned half under a bush. I nearly called out for us to stop but a moment later thought better of it. Craning my head around, I tried to keep the spot in sight as it disappeared behind us.
A muttered complaint from the guard behind me—a man whose name I had yet to catch—made me straighten again. As soon as I looked forward, I encountered Airlie’s glare.
I returned it without hesitation. I didn’t need her warning. I hadn’t said anything, had I? I might not have my sister’s trick of commanding a room, but I had always kept up in our studies, despite the age difference between us. I didn’t need further reminders not to go blabbing our business to these unknown mages.
And what right did she have to glare at me, anyway? I wasn’t the one behaving strangely and keeping secrets. I was the same old Cadence I had always been—the one with such terrible aim that our father had never bothered to craft me a bow of my own. The one who had to gather berries while Airlie hunted.
Maybe it was petty of me, but I had always suspected my ineptitude fueled my sister’s great pride in her archery skill— and in the adult-sized bow Father had gifted her at the age of fourteen. She loved that weapon, so why had it been abandoned beneath a bush? And why had she shushed me when I noticed it was missing?
Positioned downwind, she would have seen the smoke long before I did. But she would hardly have abandoned her weapon in such a situation—quite the opposite. Panicked on my behalf, she would have clung to it all the more tightly.
I mentally reviewed the scene I had just glimpsed from the back of the horse. Already we were well past the abandoned bow, joining a little-used road that led away from our distant home and toward the nearest town. But I could still picture the scuffed ground easily enough. And now that I was paying attention, I realized that the bow and quiver of arrows hadn’t been the only abandoned items. I pushed my mind, questioning my memory, but the image was clear. The small leather pouch my sister always kept attached to the quiver had been there—but lying several feet away, its contents scattered across the ground. Almost as if it had been used...
I jerked back hard enough to hit the man behind me, provoking another protest. I murmured an apology, having been so caught up in my memory I had forgotten his presence. But even now, my racing thoughts barely slowed enough to acknowledge him. That pouch had been our father’s final gift to Airlie, one she wore with determination and pride. It was one of the tools she always swore would keep us safe.
Thoughts of brigands melted away as I considered the evidence before me. Airlie had been at the shack when the men arrived, although she should have still been out hunting. I had assumed the smoke brought her, just as it brought them. But now I knew Airlie had opened the pouch where she kept the items needed to transform her arrows into flaming projectiles. And then she had abandoned the evidence among the trees.
There was only one conclusion. I stared at my sister’s back. Why had Airlie burned our makeshift home? Had she heard Evermund and his men before I did? Had she lured them to us on purpose? If so, it wasn’t the work of a single impulsive moment.
My earlier musings took on new weight. Despite her words to me about staying in our home, Airlie truly had been living in a constant state of readiness for us to leave—readiness to take some action I still didn’t understand.
Everything I thought I knew about our life shifted, tilting and sliding beyond recognition. Our father had always been a secretive man, but I had thought Airlie and I open with each other. Now, for the first time, I wondered what other secrets my sister might be hiding.
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