As Elowen hurtled through the forest, the low branches cut at her ankles and ripped her flimsy clothes till the seams popped. Served her right. It was foolishness to train in the same clothes she'd dined with Olio in. She would have to dispose of it before the king figured out she'd wasted this week's pay on a dress only to destroy it. But it had looked so inviting in the window of the dress shop in Palirroia. The pale blue and silver pearls, the sweeping bodice adorned in shining flecks of gold.
Elowen had never been able to resist the allure of a beautiful dress. And this one had been so comfortable, almost warm against her thighs and hips, that she had forgotten she'd been wearing it as she'd set out for the cabin.
The forest gave way into a clearing about a quarter of a mile in, bordered on all sides by massive pine trees. She stopped before the treeline disappeared, her eyes drinking in the soldiers standing ahead of her.
There was still a considerable distance between herself and the ring of people, all of them huddled around two figures kneeling in the snow. She slowed to a walk and traced the outside edges of the ring.
There, standing between General Zane and another no-name soldier, was Edda Lubon. Someone she had avoided at all costs since arriving in the palace all those months ago. Someone she would have rather forgotten about entirely. She looked just as she had when they were younger, maybe a little hardened, but those same stormy gray eyes roved the forest.
Elowen's skin grew hot as she broke through the ring of soldiers, muttering apologies where they were needed, and halted before the two kneeling figures.
"Well," Zane said. He stepped inside the ring, Edda like a watchdog at his side. Always together, moving like twin shadows.
In the trees above their heads, the glowing eyes of ravens and crows gleamed down. Messengers and companions, ready to take to the sky at the first low whistle from their masters.
"Look who's here." His eyes, darker than coal, raked over Elowen's soiled dress, staying too long on her breasts for the gaze to be anything but accidental. "Finally decided you'll take me up on my offer to play, little swordsman."
"I'd rather choke on my own vomit, Zane. Always a pleasure to see you, though." The general cackled and the birds cawed in time to it.
"You're dressed well for the cold, Winnie." Edda said.
Elowen bristled at the name Edda had given her when they were young. Winnie was a child, a beggar, third-ring scum, and Elowen had made sure she'd died the day she'd left Apoleia. There was no power in the name now, just an unpleasant reminder of how weak she had once been.
"Indoctrinating the new initiates?" Elowen breezed, shaking her skirts back down so they kissed the snow. Ignoring the chill digging icy claws into her skin, she scanned the crowd of hungry faces each one more gaunt than the last.
No good, she thought. Something else was pulling at her though, and it was not just the poor state the soldiers were in, though there was no world in which she could deny that. They were young, too young for the draft.
Edda and the others must have noticed her hesitation, a tense silence permeated the space they occupied and no breath passed through the stillness. Like they knew what she was thinking. A shared consciousness she did not want but couldn't ignore.
"I heard a noise," she straightened. "I just came to see if anything was wrong."
Edda stepped forward, her arms crossing against her chest. "And if anything had been?"
"Nothing was, so… carry on." Elowen turned to go, but a hand on the skirts of her dress stopped her in her tracks.
Shaida, kneeling in the snow with a handful of crushed pine needles, looked up at her. "Do you have a moment?"
Elowen moved her dress out of his reach, careful not to yank it from the soldier's hand. His eyes, as golden as those of a sphinx, widened slightly as she took a step back. "The king is probably looking for me."
"It will only take a moment," he said.
There had been talk between court nobles of the king's tracker, Shaida Eid. That he was cursed, or blessed depending on who you asked. That if you gave him an object, a mata or someone's handkerchief, he could find it's owner just by touching it. They called him icthay, witch, the closest word anyone had to describing what he could do. Elowen had never seen his tracking in person, she could not deny the curious parts of herself that wished to witness his supposed magic.
And there was something about his kindness, so unlike the soldiers she knew—the brutes and bastards that never took training seriously,
who ate, slept, and pissed like oafs—that made her hesitate.
"Elowen has duties to go back to." Edda stepped up between them and Elowen noticed the flex of her hands on the daggers at her hip. She did not doubt she would use them, that if she was forced to she would enjoy every second of it. "And a bed to warm."
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, heat flushing her cheeks. "If I were you," she breathed. "I'd watch my mouth."
The smirk on Edda's lips morphed into a full-toothed smile, the flash from her incisors like the snarl of a dog.
"With a mouth as pretty as yours…" She cackled and the older soldiers joined her, the initiates following the exchange quietly. "I'm sure the king has been screaming your name from the top of his pretty tower. Elowen! Elowen!" Edda clutched her chest in feign despair while Elowen's hands itched on the hilt of Windfall. One word, one more word and she'd silence the whole forest and then some.
Elowen started the breathing exercise Olio had taught her, four seconds in through the nose, four out through the mouth. It worked in combat, and this felt no different than wielding her blade.
The forest was a cacophonous chorus of laughter, the only people who remained close-lipped were Elowen and Shaida. But she knew that just basic manners were the only thing stopping him from joining in.
In that moment, wrapped in their taunting, she hated them all. It wasn't enough that she was the only female swordsman the king had ever had, each member of his court—and now his army—took every chance to debase her. There was no possible way she had gotten her position without using her body, but a man could climb the ranks till he was in her place and no one would bat an eye. Elowen had never taken Edda for the type to degrade other women, but, then again, it had been several years since she'd really known her at all. And the people she was now forced to consort with…
"I worked for where I am," Elowen said. Windfall felt heavy on her back, a pressure that grew as her anger mounted. "Can you say the same?"
And it was enough to get a reaction, though Elowen would deny she had been seeking one. Edda lunged, a viper disturbed, and the woods held its breath. The earrings studded through the soldier's ear clanked and glinted in the dying sun, slicing at Elowen's eyes with their bright golden light. She felt the bite of metal underneath her chin, cold, and her body betrayed her—gooseflesh rising along the base of her neck.
"Careful." Elowen sucked in a sharp breath. "Your Sciran is showing."
A flash of emotion in Edda's gray eyes, a flash of the young girls they had been together. And then the metal slipped, nicking her tender flesh. Elowen had resolved not to wince, though the warmth from her blood set her pulse to quicken, and she did not rip her gaze from the other girl, but held it and bit down on her tears.
"We'll be sure to be quiet next time."
Elowen took one step back, then another till the snow crunched against her boots and the connection with Edda was severed.
She would not be humiliated, not here, not in front of all these people. But she wished she had left the noise alone. Her focus fell to Shaida as she wiped away the blood from the shallow cut on her neck.
Why had he been kind? What had he meant to show her?
She groaned as she turned to go.
Elowen watched as Shaida's fingers brushed against the sharp point of Windfall, saw the moment the glass cut into his flesh.
The soldier's eyes widened, his pupils filling the space usually occupied by his iris. With a sharp intake of air, he met Elowen's stare and a single tear slid helplessly down his cheek.
"You…" he sounded gutted, like he'd been carved from the inside out by her blade. "They hurt you. Soldiers, they—I'm sorry."
Some basal part of Elowen cried out, aware of what had passed through the soldier's mind but too stubborn to let the rest of her body know. Despite the mental blockades, her muscles went taut and all the color leeched from her face. She could not look away from him, at the pain—for her?—swimming just beneath the surface of his eyes.
"How?" She breathed, the strands of her snowy hair moving in the slow wind.
"They hurt you," he repeated. "And you hurt them back."
Cold, dead fingers—ghosts, apparitions, memories—clawed their way up her small neck. They slipped beneath her dress, lifted her skirts and slithered down into her mouth. A nightmare she had broken free from, one she thought she'd buried away. It was images and moments captured from a life she had once lived, but woken up from. Demons she'd slewn and hacked to pieces. Why could he see them?
Was this his gift? The abilities that had gained him traction and the title of tracker? Suddenly icthay seemed suited for him.
Before she knew what she was doing, she'd unsheathed Windfall and pointed the crystallized blade beneath the soldier's chin. She lifted his head with the flat end of the sword, her breathing ragged. The second time someone had drawn arms since she'd arrived.
She would not use it. She would not use it. She would not—
In the corner of her vision she could see the expression on Edda's face. Shock and not a little fear—some sick part of Elowen was glad to see it. Glad to know that the soldier looked at her and saw her for the threat she was.
Still, Edda kept a firm hand on the young soldiers beside her and did nothing but hold her breath as Elowen glowered down at Shaida.
"How can you see that?" She choked. Her focus centered on Shaida, everything else blurred around her.
The soldier swallowed, his adam's apple bobbing up and down.
Put the blade down, Elowen, she could hear Olio's voice in her ears. The man who had taught her how to wield Windfall, who had saved her countless times from her own anger. Her grip slackened on the hilt, sweat making her palms slick. This isn't who you are.
"I didn't mean to see," Shaida gulped. "It was… intense. The object— the object it latches on to the most potent memory, it screams at my flesh and I'm sent there. I live it with you."
A beat passed. Then, slowly, Elowen brought Windfall down, her tip slicing the snow. She was acutely aware of her labored breathing, so heavy her chest rose and fell in shuddering bursts. Looking down at her hands, she sheathed Windfall and took a few steps back.
"Don't touch my blade, or next time I won't be as forgiving."
Shaida did not move, the only indication that he had heard her at all was the narrowing of his eyes. A question without words. Elowen turned her face away from it.
"So the bitch can bite." Edda crooned, weaving out of the initiates way to situate herself in front of Elowen. "I think it's time for you to leave, Winnie. I speak for all of us," she cast a glare to Shaida, Elowen took note of the look. "When I say we've had enough of the king's whore for today."
Despite the ire in Elowen's veins, she did not bite back. Instead, she looked once at Shaida, his eyes still turned away from her, and jerked herself up straight.
If they wanted to see her as merely a toy for the king, then so be it. She would have her day to prove them wrong, to show them she was made from tougher stuff than flesh.
"I'll leave you to your ceremony then."
Shaida still did not move and she found herself aching for his eyes. Let me explain. You don't understand.
"Let's not make this a habit," Edda called to her. Elowen ignored her, walking faster and relishing the bite of Windfall on the small of her back. "Running into each other."
Elowen gestured rudely behind her and went on her way.