Chapter 1

How could he let them take her? “Daddy!” Amaris screamed. “Ahh . . . !” Smoke choked out the girl’s next words. Her breaths deteriorated into choking as flames raced up the walls and lapped across the ceiling. Amaris’s widened her burning eyes, but she could not see through the blurs. She pinched her eyes shut and rubbed them with her little fists. A loud snap made her open them again, and a crash scared her under a table. Small bits of fire dribbled off the table, making a flaming curtain in front of her. Amaris scooted back until she sat against the wall. Her quiet mumbles turned to panting squeals and then piercing screams. Why did her father not come? Did they kill him too? She wiped her tears, and raised her voice as loud as she could force it in the depleting air, “Daddy!” Then blackness. . .
Amaris jolted. Her eyes traced a shadow on the wall, dancing in warm colors from the hearth. Then she remembered her friend, and looked at the woman beside her. Amaris heard her name repeated. How many times had she been called before the memory broke? Amaris focused again on the fire, a different flame than the terror. Amaris sighed, and mumbled an apology to her hostess for the daze into which she had slipped.
“I have outstayed my welcome,” she added. “Forgive me.” Amaris rose.
“Forget the formalities,” Illuma patted the seat Amaris had vacated. “You can stay later if you wish.”
Amaris shook her head, and ran her fingers along her collar, and the hem of her sleeves.
“You left it at home,” Illuma said.
Amaris scrunched her brow and stared at the woman. “Yes,” she nodded. “I always do.”
“Indeed.” Illuma rose. “Since you will not stay, at least wait in here for your horse.”
When Amaris turned down the offer, she embraced her mentor and departed. She held the latch tight so it would stay silent as the door closed behind her. Amaris leaned back against the cottage and eyed the black sky. She breathed slow, but her heart beat prattled away. Amaris meditated on the gentle breezes catching leaves and leaving behind a gentle crinkling. The waiting eased her little, but the evening chill had crept passed her dress and thick bodice. She made a shrill whistle, and looked for her escort.
When the horse arrived, her mistress felt like going to sleep instead of a long ride home. Amaris sighed, and pulled herself onto the mare’s back. She buried her fingers in the white main, and looked around at the dappled silver moonlight splotching the forest floor, and illuminating her horse’s horn. She stroked Nelica, and spurred the horse homeward. After the lengthy ride, Amaris tumbled into bed.

Amaris stumbled from bed the following day, having wasted half her daylight. She pushed her breakfast around with a fork, forcing down a meager portion. She yanked on a dress, and tried to leave before noon slipped passed. Her three day delay from hunting lef no more time for procrastinations. Besides, a number of other things now needed avoiding, and hunting worked as a viable excuse.
Amaris shouted for Nelica as she stepped outside, and then winced at her tone. Amaris needed reprimanding, not Nelica. She scolded herself while clambering from her small dell, then made her way to the nearest clearing, whistling or calling Nelica along the way. Amaris rolled her eyes when she reached the small meadow, horse still absent. She beneath a tree, and pulled up long shoots of grass while waiting. Amaris had to respect the wild horse who catered to her every whim. When the white mare materialized, Amaris thanked her before mounting. Nelica trotted through the meadow and walked quietly into the trees.
The quiet woods seemed to be rid of animals. West, north, south, and east. After an hour of this, Amaris began her customary wandering. If she had no kill that day, at least her attitude had improved. Riding, walking, waiting for a sound and repeating resulted in nothing to hunt. She stood still, and Nelica played along, standing like a statue beside her mistress; she knew this game. Amaris started tracking, letting the mare lag behind. A small bear seemed to have wandered from its mother, and Amaris almost knew she would find it soon. She heard movement among the leaves, and caught her breath when she saw a wolf mauling her bear. Amaris pulled her bow, and shot the wolf. “Wolf works, too” Amaris shrugged.
“My thoughts exactly.”
Amaris spooked at the voice in her quiet forest. Meeting new neighbors fell far from her agenda.
“You take the wolf, I will have what is left of the cub.” Amaris swallowed entitlement, and pulled her arrow out of the wolf.
“No, that is yours. I have the mother already.”
“Fine.” Amaris squatted, and hoisted the wolf over her shoulder. The man stared. A breeze blew Amaris’s burgundy hair across her face and it caught with the wolf’s thick gray coat.
“I am Sion,” the man tipped his head, “and I would be pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Amaris nodded to the man and walked toward Nelica. She heard the young man’s footsteps following and rolled her eyes.
“I am new in the area, and wish to know the residents in this part of the forest.” He said, tone innocent as a child’s.
“Pity.” Amaris continued to her mare.
“Why?” The man asked.
Amaris smirked at the astonishment in the man’s voice. She tossed the horse over Nelica’s back, a little short on breath her burden. No wonder the hunt had been scarce, this beast must have eaten half the game.
“I am about all you will see around here.” Amaris cocked her head. “Sion, right? Move on if you want civilization.”
“You know the residents, then?”
“For ten years, now, yes.”
Sion heaved a relieved sigh. “Then I have been looking for someone like yourself.” He held out his hand.
Amaris looked at the outstretched hand. “Arian,” she copped, and crossed her arms.
“I see.” Sion eyed Amaris.
Amaris set her jaw, and tried to out-patience this young — and from all appearances of his unworn, light face, surrounding ignorant blue eyes — young man.
Sion spoke in under thirty seconds of quiet. “I will leave you at once, but I am compelled to ask one question, first.”
“Go ahead then.” This should entertain.
“You say the residents in this area are few, so you will probably know this. Is there an Amaris Tempth who lives around here?”
Amaris clenched a fist, and steeled herself. “I am sorry, I missed the name,” Amaris tried to steel her tremor, and focused on Sion.
Sion’s eyes had thinned to slits. “I think you heard.” He stepped closer. “You must know her, if I have solicited such a reaction.”
“Damn Scouts,” Amaris turned to Nelica.
Sion’s grip closed on her arm. “You are nervous around scouts?”
“No, I do not like people who send them.”
“No one sent me.”
“But you are still tracking this person.”
“Yes.”
Amaris tried to think how to evade Sion. “Then I will help that person” —Amaris came up short on explanations— “whomever they are, to stay away from you. Also…” Amaris gave herself a moment. “If you do not know her, you should steer clear. The woman is poison.”
“What is your name, again?”
“Arian.”
Sion closed his eyes and shook his head. “You are not her?”
“Excuse me!?” Amaris stepped forward.
“You match the description,” Sion wobbled his head, “mostly.”
“Well thank heavens I am not a complete match.” Amaris tried to disguise as irritation the panic which by now had welled up to her neck. She mounted Nelica.
“Please finish my miserable search, and tell me where Amaris is.”The man pleaded.
Amaris huffed and kicked Nelica’s sides. She rode in patterns and circles to muddle her trail, should Sion prove intelligent. When she got home, her hunger from a long day, and the worry of the last two hours, left Amaris trembling. She snacked on the last of her prepared food before skinning the wolf. The task ate up the remaining daylight. The pelt could have waiting until morning, but Amaris needed distracting, so she started the tanning process by lamp light. The night had quite settled before Amaris had the skin stretched, and the gamy meat soaking in herbs and water, the rest hanging salted in her shed.

Amaris bit her fingernail to shreds while staring at Illuma’s closed door, refusing to know again. Then her mentor answered, glanced at the visitor. “Hello Amaris,” she walked back into her home. Amaris followed, closing the door, and then hushing her friend. Illuma turned to Amaris and scrunched her brow. “What?” She put hands on her hips, but Amaris did not answer. “Lady,” Illuma continued, “you are white as a ghost. What has happened?” Amaris bit her lip, and shook her head, hands pressing against the pressure building in her skull. Illuma rolled her eyes. “Sixty-eight years has not put an ounce of calm into you. Sit down.”
“Give me a minute.” Amaris shook her hands, feeling so much younger than sixty-eight. Amaris wished she had kept that from Illuma; no one understood Amaris’s age; so why did she explain it to this woman?
“You may have five, but no more.” Illuma answered.
“Thanks,” Amaris forced a smirk while plopping into a chair. It had been at least three months since her last scare; she pondered the mistake. “What is wrong with me?” Amaris’s head swung back and forth.
“Explain that, please.” When Amaris said no more, Illuma reminded the younger woman of her two remaining minutes for silence. Amaris nodded, but did not make eye contact until her full five minutes had elapsed, and Illuma pressed her.
At length, Amaris said “someone found me.”
Illuma gasped.“Again?” She asked. “How does this keep happening? You live in a damn dell, in a forest miles away from any contact but myself. What does your family do, advertise your location?”
Amaris blocked her mouth with a fist, and leaned over herself. “They do not know who I am, yet.”
“What do you mean, yet?”
Amaris relayed the story of the previous day’s hunt, while Illumamade Amaris’s favorite tea, Safrima (Seah-free-mah), to settle the anxiety. Amaris took a sip, but set it aside, her body revolting against any digestion. “He does not know who I am, but he knows I have connections with, well, myself.”
Illuma whistled, and then clapped her hands before patting Amaris on the back. “Only you could let your secrets slip so fast.”
“Says the woman who has none.”
Illuma paused, and Amaris’s nerves pricked like needles. Amaris liked Illuma plain; she did not need a friend with secrets. Illuma continued, suggesting her typical solution. “Lie, and send him on his way. Let us be done with this one, Amaris.”
“I did, but I think he tried to follow me home.”
Illuma narrowed her eyes. “Are you certain you said nothing else, anything that would attract further attention?”
“No. It is not my fault he has a description of me, and is spewing my name across the whole country side, from what I can tell. How did he get so close?”
“You sound terrified, maybe you should stay here, I will hide you.” Illuma’s scratch of sarcasm tilted Amaris’s last nerve.
“And you think he will leave then?” Amaris huffed.
“No. I am sure of just the opposite. I do not like the way you handled this situation.”
“Good! Neither do I. Go back and rewrite it for me, and we can forget the whole affair.” Amaris dipped her head, threading her fingers into her hair, knotted by her fidgeting.
Illuma sighed; “I suppose my take on this mistake is not helping. My scorn will not help.”
“Nor do I deserve it,” Amaris retorted. “Carry the damn thing for two months, and see how you fare.” Amaris stood and faced her friend. “I might not look so ill suited then.”
“Amaris, I never said —”
“You never do, but you voice it in your unending criticisms!” Amaris walked to the door.
“What are you going to do?” Illuma’s panic came on cue; when Amaris stopped listening.
Amaris shrugged. “Not sure I care.”
“What are you calling yourself, again?”
Amaris looked over her shoulder, hand on the door handle. “What?”
“The name you gave that boy, in case he finds me first.”
“Arian.”
“Let me know if you need help, Arian.”
Amaris nodded, and left. How well did she remember this game?

Sion waited for Amaris when she returned home. He did know how to track.
“Just a word, please.” He begged.
Amaris smiled in amusement, and walked across the dell. ‘His nagging could only burden Amaris; she feared no harm for the night. She turned to face the man. “Good evening, Sion,” and then closed the door behind her. The next morning the scene repeated. For three days the events continued in a circle determined to unravel one of the participants. Amaris felt resolve building, not waining, though, each time Sion made his argument. She learned more, he knew less. He claimed Amaris needed his help —untrue, and that he would only ever protect the woman. He swore against his being a scout for some menacing force, to which Amaris laughed. He explained how his finding Amaris had personal implications only. She had been a friend of his father’s. Amaris tried to resist exploding at the insults to her intelligence. Who would buy these vague lies? Perhaps if some information could be got about this man, she could rid herself of the disease.
“Look, my father, he . . .” Sion started, but Amaris cut off the ramble.
“Look, from all you have said, your father is a belligerent coward, and should have found this wench himself.” Amaris paused and the man glared. “Leave,” she offered, “and you will hear no more insults from me. Sounds favorable to all parties, yes?”
“No,” the man crossed his arms.
Amaris groaned. “Your surname?” She asked. If she could dispel any doubt about this man’s having a personal connection to her, she could continue ignoring him.
“I have none.”
Amaris chuckled.
Then he started whining, again. “Do not press me, Arian, there is no need for a surname.”
“Clearly your failure to find Miss Tempth has exhausted you. Leave.”
Sion chuckled. “You are cunning. I could almost enjoy your company if you did not stand between Amaris and myself. Maybe I should just keep looking for her.”
Amaris shrugged, and Sion watched her.
“Will I ever find her?”
“Search harder.” Amais widened her eyes as a child after treasure.
“Arian, are you the only one who knows her whereabouts?”
Amaris tipped her head, and mocked the man by faking sincere thought. “No. About three other people know her.”
“Then I will see you tomorrow.” Sion began retreating.
“Sion, your father’s name?”
“Valmier.”
Amaris glared at Sion’s back, and then mumbled. “Oh she really will not want to hear from you.”
The door slammed so hard behind Amaris that her tiny house rattled, a glass jar toppling off a shelf with a crash. She kicked the broken glass, and cursed the tears blurring her eyes. That bastard got married. “Maybe I should have done the same.” Amaris covered her face. His son? How could Valmier have a son? Amaris clenched her teeth, steadied her breath. Of course, who but Valmier’s son would have so accurate a description of Amaris? The dirty fact of who Sion descended from cemented the difficulty Amaris would have in ridding herself of this man. Maybe some half truths would send this pestilence on his way. Amaris hid in her house the whole next day, stewing over the predicament.

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