Chapter 1. Visitors
Emmeline knew the feeling well. She felt it upon sunrise and endured it until sundown. Not that her father didn’t spend time with her. She saw a good deal of him, in fact. But he was the only person she had ever known and he worked harder than he talked.
“What are you reading,” she asked a little louder than necessary. The moon had yet to rise and he was already nodding off. She knew very well what he was reading - it was the same old thing he fell asleep with every night by the fire. She just wanted someone to talk to.
“Hmm?” her father mumbled, his eyes still closed.
He reached up to scratch his beard and Emmeline’s gaze fell onto his weathered hands. The wrinkles were new, but the blisters had stopped years ago, his skin so tough she didn’t think anything could break it. She eyed the book in his hands. The brown leather cover curled around yellowing pages. Why wouldn’t he let her read it? Didn’t he think her capable of carrying a thoughtful discussion about it with him? Biting her lip, she tried to keep her frustration from boiling out of her, but it proved too strong.
“I’m nearly sixteen,” she said as if her father hadn’t already begun snoring. “I think it’s about time you tell me what you find so fascinating about that book. I’m tempted to just take it the next time you fall asleep with it in your lap.”
His eyes shot open and he stared at her for two full heartbeats before he winked and smiled with such warmth that she felt guilty for not having used a gentler tone.
“You don’t mean that, Em. Come now, off to bed so this old man can get some rest.” He held the book to his chest and let his head fall back against the chair, his eyes closed.
Emmeline knew he wasn’t asleep. He held the book too tightly to his chest to fool her. “When are you going to let me read it?” she asked. “I’ve read every other book in this house. A dozen times.”
Her father chuckled.
“I won’t let this rest,” she said as she folded her arms across her chest.
Her father lifted his head and looked at her once again, a sadness settling deep in his eyes. “Well, if you are staying up…” He pulled himself off the chair and tucked the book into his jacket. “I’ll be off to bed.” He headed up the stairs to his room and shut the door.
Once again, Emmeline was alone.
Every day, at least once or twice, Emmeline imagined how much richer her life would be if she had someone else to talk to. Preferably someone who managed to stay awake after dinner. She would let her imagination run wild as she thought about the different types of people she wanted to meet, people she had only read about in stories. She imagined herself laughing with girls her age, surrounded by little ones begging her to tickle them, or sitting at a table with a family of eight. She tossed an extra log onto the fire to give her imagination more time to wander. But even the warmth of the fire couldn’t keep the cold truth away. Their farm was too far from the nearest village and even further from the city. She doubted anyone knew they existed at all.
A distant rumble rolled through the trees and Emmeline sat straighter, her ear cocked toward the sound. The rumble grew and the floorboards began to shake. Emmeline leapt from her perch by the fire and rushed to the window, her thick skirts tangling around her ankles. She searched the sky. No storm clouds were wrestling, nor were any bolts of lightning flashing above the trees. She bit her bottom lip, afraid to hope. Was it possible someone had traveled so far into the Pamizak Forest? On purpose? She doubted it. The trees were so thick, and so sure of their ability to block and protect.
“Get away from the window!” her father shouted. He barreled down the narrow stairway and tore through the drawers as if he were twenty years younger and hadn’t been fast asleep moments before.
“What?” She let the curtain drop. The most exciting moment of her life was just through the trees, and he wouldn’t even let her peek through the window?
“Don’t open the door, either.” His voice cracked. He swallowed and continued rifling through the drawers.
Emmeline paused, taking in her father’s odd behavior.
“They might be lost,” she said as she followed him back upstairs. “I mean, no one with any sense of direction would come this way on purpose. We should help them.”
Her father rushed from room to room, pulling clothing from chests, and who-knows-what from cupboards. He stuffed everything into a cloth bundle and punched it down with his fist. She’d never seen him scramble about before.
“What’s wrong?” she said with her hands on her hips. She wanted nothing more than to meet the strangers, talk to them, and hear their stories. She wanted to find out if they looked anything like the people she imagined from her books.
Still no answer. With no regard for his bundled supplies, he tore back down the stairs and ripped open the cupboards, dumping a jar of dried fruit over the clothing. He grabbed a vase of flowers and tossed it onto the fire. Water splashed against the brick, the flames sizzling into steam. Had her father gone mad? Stifling the fire was no way to prepare for visitors!
The low rumble from outside turned into a steady rhythm of pounding hooves. Her father straightened and closed the bundle with a tight knot. “How did they find us?” he mumbled to himself.
“Who?” Emmeline said. She glanced back and forth between the window and her father. “You know who is coming?”
“Take this,” he said, thrusting the bulging bundle into her arms. “You have to run, Emmeline.”
A jolt of unease awakened her mind to the panic in his eyes. “Run! Run where? What about you?”
“Go to Pamizak’s capital and show them this.” He pushed a golden ring into her hand. “They’ll know who you are.”
“The Capital! I don’t know the way.” Her heart hammered in her chest. She couldn’t believe what her father was saying. How could he possibly know who was coming, let alone if they posed a threat?
“Nonsense, you’ve studied the maps. Now go, Emmeline!”
“It’s too far!”
Their small home shook, the windows rattling in protest. The visitors were closing in and she still wasn’t sure if she wanted to greet them with open arms or run out the door screaming.
Her father thrust her toward the back door. “Go, Emmeline.”
She slid the ring over her thumb and gripped the cloth bundle, her insides clenching. “Come with me,” she said. She didn’t want to go alone.
“It’s too late. They know someone is here.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and ducked his head until his eyes were level with hers. The craze had gone from his eyes and they were once again filled with the same deep sadness she had seen moments before. “My sweet Em.” He swallowed. “I need you to promise me something.”
“Anything,” Emmeline whispered, afraid she would never see him again.
“Promise me that no matter what you hear, no matter what you think is happening, you will keep running. Promise me?”
Emmeline nodded, too stunned to argue.
“Good girl.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her close before urging her outside.
Emmeline concentrated on moving one foot in front of the other, her limbs jerking like a wooden puppet. If she could just make it to the tree line, the evergreens would obscure the sight of her home and make it easier to turn her back on it. And easier to keep her promise. She couldn’t believe she was leaving her father.
Shouts filtered through the trees and Emmeline turned her ear toward the voices. A sharp, commanding bark pierced the air, followed by fists on the door. The air seemed to thicken with danger. A hard lump sunk to the bottom of Emmeline’s stomach.
Changing direction, Emmeline crouched behind an old, gnarled tree, its branches twisting into the night sky. She would keep her promise as soon as she was certain her father was alright.
Smoke curled its way into her nose, but she ignored the acrid smell. The voices were clearer and her father’s was frighteningly absent. Gritting her teeth, she peered around the tree.
A dozen soldiers cloaked in red surrounded their house, flickers of light dancing across their faces. Something captivated their attention, but Emmeline couldn’t take her eyes from their faces to discover what they saw. Their expressions were hard, their eyes hungry.
Her father shuffled into view. “I don’t know where she is,” he said.
A man stepped forward. He held himself strong and confident, exuding his position as leader. “Do you back down on your word, Orrin?”
“Harskell changed things,” her father said. “The danger is too great for her now.”
“Danger has always been a reality for her kind.”
“But she is the last! The risk is greater now than it ever was before. I won’t let you take her.”
“We had an agreement!”
Her father squared his shoulders and set his jaw. “Do you forget who I am? I forbid this.”
The leader stepped forward and brought his face inches from her father’s. “I have not forgotten who you were.”
“I am still that man.”
“Don’t be a fool.” He straightened. “We can protect her.”
“You will use her.”
“No more than she can handle.”
“We’ll leave. Find a deeper forest. I can keep her safe.”
The leader barked a laugh. “You can’t hide her forever, Orrin. She has reached maturity and you know as well as I do that without the backing of Dolmerti’s army she will end up enslaved like the rest of them.”
“I won’t let that happen,” her father said. “She won’t suffer the same fate as her mother.”
Emmeline stifled a gasp, her fingers pressing into her cheeks. She turned away and shrunk into the far side of the tree. Suffer the same fate as her mother? She had always believed her mother died from the fever.
“You are a fool,” the leader said. "And the girl’s mother was a fool for taking her own life. She had power beyond comprehension, and she threw it away.”
“She protected it.”
“Regardless, the girl will have the same gift within her. I’ll make certain it is used properly. Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
The crack of a heavy hand on soft flesh echoed through the air. “Tell me where she is!”
Emmeline trembled against the knotted trunk, her breath hitching in and out. Fear rooted her to the ground as if she were connected to the great tree itself. She wanted to slip into one of the many gnarled holes and hide within its protection, but the reminder of her promise pounded its way into her thoughts. She had to run. She had promised to run.
Emmeline took a hesitant step away from the tree and cringed. How could she leave her father after what she had just seen? She took another step forward and a twig snapped under her foot. Pausing, she listened to the thrum of her heart. She couldn’t run, she reasoned. The thick trees covered her from sight, but the dry forest floor would announce her retreat. With a twinge of guilt, and a flood of relief, she crept back to the tree and bent low to the ground.
Several soldiers positioned themselves near her father while the others threw torches. Angry flames burst to life on the roof, the windows shattered and black smoke filled the air. Emmeline’s legs buckled. She slid to the forest floor, dry needles pricking her arms and legs. Her mouth went dry as she watched the fire swallow the timbers and reach toward the sky for more to consume.
The leader scanned the tree line, his eyes narrowed in calculation. Emmeline pressed herself against the trunk. Heat flooded her body, leaving her breathless. She reached a hand to her chest just as another surge of warmth spread through her, filling her with an urgent energy she had never felt before.
Her father turned toward their home and winced. He fisted his hand and pressed it against his open mouth. He didn’t notice the leader pulling his gaze from the forest and raising the hilt of his sword near the back of his head. Emmeline opened her mouth to call out a warning, but a sickening thud filled the air and sucked the breath from her throat. Her father fell to the ground, motionless.
Emmeline pulled herself off the ground and fell against the tree, her fingers trembling as they gripped whatever they could find. Everything spun in front of her.
“Pick him up,” the leader shouted over the crackling flames. “We’ll have need of him later.” His eyes narrowed and scanned the forest once again.
Emmeline held her breath.
“Find the girl,” he said. “She can’t be far.”
Eager hounds bayed as they clamored from their confined spaces. With dogs on the hunt, Emmeline knew she had only moments before they discovered her. Taking a quick breath, she unplanted her feet and fled into the forest, leaving everything she had ever known behind her.