Free Sample

Here is a free sample chapter from Candace’s award-winning book Vivatera.

 

Chapter One

Lightseer

Those in shadow watch through gentle cracks of cedar,

upon a young woman

with hair, silver as moonlight, running down her back.

She knows she will die and she waits.

 

Naomi sat straight up. Sun streamed through the leaves above her. How late was it? Disoriented, she looked around. The branches beneath her feet swayed along with the wind. The worn pages of her journal fluttered gently back and forth. She hadn’t expected to fall asleep here, just to get some peace.

“Girl!” The yelling felt far away because of the muffling wind through the trees. She knew it was for her.

“Naomi, you lazy girl!”

Looking through the hollow, she saw Ferrell, mad as ever, his red skin nearly purple with anger. The sun high in the sky, it had to be late morning, which made her late for the market and left poor Zander all alone. The boy might get in trouble for her sake. Best not get caught.

Naomi gathered her dream journal in her knapsack and swung it over her middle. She looked down the tree and saw her boots at the base of the trunk. Well, she couldn’t take those now. Climbing down would risk Ferrell seeing her. She hated the boots anyway. She loved the feeling of her toes in the grass.

Nimble as a cat, she moved along the branches to the next trees. She could hear distant yells with her name thrown in here and there. The further away she got, the better she felt. Ferrell would forgive her if she sold as much meat as he sent.

She followed along the great oak trees lining the rarely traveled road to the town of Sharlot, jumping when needed, but always with grace. She enjoyed testing her limits bounce after bounce. She could see through the trees, along the grass to the village. Not much farther to go.

Naomi rubbed the nape of her neck out of habit, tracing the scar she seldom thought about anymore. The scarf still wound around her throat, secure, just how Malindra taught her to wear it. The feel of the smooth fabric comforted her, reminding her of Malindra’s love. Naomi smiled at the memory of her beloved caregiver.

With a few climbs and a small hop, Naomi’s bare feet slid into the grass, which tickled her legs and toes. The soft ground yielded to her feather-light frame. Naomi cinched her hood tight around her face, her hair concealed beneath. She let the morning air fill her lungs before she sprinted off to town.

T T T

“Where h-have you . . . ?” Zander stuttered. The words always rushed out when he hadn’t talked to anyone for a while, making him seem much younger than his twelve years.

“No worries, Zan,” Naomi said as she approached the cart. “I’m here now. How are you this morning?”

“Okay,” he mumbled. He looked embarrassed, maybe frightened to say anything more on the subject. “Where . . . do . . . you go?”

“The tree,” she said without a thought. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“D-did you d-dream again?”

Naomi couldn’t hide things from Zander. Her dream still sat in slim awareness near the surface of thought: the girl with the amazing silver hair, the lightning outside of the tiny space she hid, something or someone hunting her. She looked terrified, but not of the lightning. The lightning protected her.

Naomi blinked back to reality and looked at Zander. She nodded and patted her sack over her shoulder. “You want to look?”

Zander smiled as Naomi handed over her dream journal. It didn’t look special in any way, just a small, insignificant parchment of scribbles. She’d added to it over the years with scrap pages and spare twine. It really didn’t look important to anyone, but she liked it that way. It gave it character.

Naomi watched Zander carefully as he looked at her newest entry. A worry came over her. “How is your back?”

He looked up embarrassed, afraid to speak.

“May I see?” she asked.

Zander turned and slowly lifted his tunic. The whip marks were completely healed over, no oozing welts or bloody scabs, but smooth and clean. Naomi always liked to check. She had rubbed it the previous night with cornflower oil and it always worked.

“I’m sorry that happened,” Naomi said, thinking of his father’s tirade. “I hate it when he’s in a bad temper.”

Zander shrugged it off and forgot about it. “I’m g-glad I have . . . you.”

Naomi rubbed his shoulder and smiled.

“I’ve only sold . . . a few . . . chops. Some people came to look and asked me a question, b-but I . . .”

“Oh, Zander,” Naomi said with love. She reached her arm all the way around him in a mothering way and squeezed. “I don’t want you to worry about it, okay?”

The boy nodded in relief.

Naomi looked over the crowd. Many people filled the streets and alleys. Women in fancy dresses and masks with ornate, jeweled wraps and men in headdresses with feathers peppered the street with color, like peacocks prancing for approval.

“I don’t know why your father thinks we can sell more meat today than any other day,” she said.

Zander shrugged his shoulders. “I did . . . see a man breathing f-f-fire.”

Naomi scoped the street. She saw no fire-eater, but she did notice more blue than normal: men dressed in blue cloaks, swords strapped to their side. “Who are the men in uniform?”

“G-guards from Southwick,” he stated. “The prince is c-coming.”

“A prince . . .” Naomi repeated, perplexed.

Far from the village, Southwick stood near the sea. Sharlot served as a skipping stone to other, greater cities of Parbraven. Naomi knew very little about this prince, the son of the king. He must have a handsome face, she assumed, to draw such a crowd. She witnessed a glowing review of the monarchy in the faces all around her. An air of hope to a sad people.

In her assessment of the crowd, Naomi spotted someone in a dark-green cloak in a corner alley. She felt something familiar about him, like in the dreams she had scrawled on her parchment. He seemed interested in the crowd as well. He held very still, observing the people, not joining in or carrying on like the others.

The crowd wouldn’t have noticed him, but Naomi sensed a deeper purpose for his presence. She surveyed the street and the guards. When her eyes wandered back to the alley, he had disappeared.

“Zan?” she asked. “Did you see someone in the corner in a green cloak?”

Zander shook his head.

They risked wasting the day with their wandering distractions. She didn’t want Zander hurt because of her curiosity, and restored her focus. “Sorry. Let’s see what we can sell.”

Naomi pulled back her hood. Her hair glinted in shades of honey, seeming to take its energy directly from the sun. The fluid blonde curls attracted attention immediately. The color didn’t appear commonly in Sharlot—or in Parbraven, for that matter.

Zander’s father knew it caught attention of crowds and used it to sell his cargo. People would sometimes ask to touch it for good luck. They wondered where she came from, or where she got such a blessing. Sadly, she didn’t know. It remained a mystery unlikely to be solved. While in town, and when not selling, Naomi covered her hair with a hood.

With her cloak down, trading started immediately. She drew customers without trying. Zander had a hard time keeping up with all the orders. Selling went well for a time, until the crowd erupted.

“The prince comes!” someone yelled. Girls throughout the crowd began giggling. All interest in buying disappeared.

Naomi reached for Zander’s hand as she conceded defeat. “Have you ever seen a prince?” she asked.

Zander shook his head.

“Nor I,” Naomi sighed, reminded of her small existence. “I don’t know much of him. What do you think?”

Zander looked toward the crowd. “I don’t know . . .” he started. “I’ve heard good things . . .”

“Can you tell me?”

Zander merely shrugged. Naomi understood his silence. He hadn’t heard good things, but he hoped for good things, much as others in the town . . . much like herself.

“Can you see down there?” she asked as the crowd moved around them. “Come here.”

Both small, neither could see over the crowd, so Naomi stepped gingerly onto the cart, pulling Zander up with her. From that vantage, they could see everything happening on the street.

“But, the meats—Father?” Zander mumbled.

Naomi hushed him. “He’s coming, Zan. Look!” She pointed into the crowd.

A caravan of animals and performers paraded down the street to the awe of the crowd. Peculiar beasts appeared that neither Naomi nor Zander could recollect seeing before: horses of all sizes, huge cats lying in cages, and an enormous, lumbering, gray creature carrying travelers on its back.

Naomi smiled in spite of her dislike of the whole business. Seeing the animals filled her with joy and amazement. Finally, following behind an oversized, white cat with long, dark, vertical stripes, she saw a large, silver carriage.

She glanced at Zander, who watched, totally absorbed in the spectacle. Smiling, she looked toward the carriage. Sure enough, inside sat a very handsome gentleman waving at the crowd, sometimes blowing kisses to the girls. Dark, brown locks curled around his face and highlighted his bright, blue eyes. Without realizing it, Naomi found herself staring at him, transfixed, like all the rest of the women.

And then she caught his eye.

Blood began to pump faster as she gazed at him. Her cheeks became flushed, her hands sweaty, yet she could not escape. After a few uncomfortable seconds, he looked away to the waving females. Naomi stood embarrassed, her thoughts scattered.

What a stupid thing to do, she thought as she crouched down out of sight. Why did I just stare at him?

“Naomi?” Zander mumbled, confused. “I d-don’t understand.”

Naomi stood back up. “What is it, Zander?”

“Look,” he said pointing, “at the woman in the back.”

Naomi searched and found the woman Zander talked about: a thin, beautiful creature with wonderful features. Her short black hair swept along her cheeks in sweet curls, highlighting her heart-shaped face and pointed chin. Her flowing, gray gown looked like mist as the carriage approached. She sat stone-faced and emotionless, an unreal creature.

“I think I see her, Zander. She looks familiar, maybe.”

“That’s not what I . . .” he stumbled. “. . . look at her neck.” His confusion could hardly find words. He grabbed her hand and pointed it toward the girl.

The carriage traveled right before them at that moment. Without any mistake, without a question or a doubt, Naomi saw what Zander had seen: the scar—the star symbol burned on the nape of the woman’s neck.

Exactly like Naomi’s.

Everything moved in slow motion, registering what she saw. The peculiar scar stood out, clear as day, on the girl’s creamy skin: the lines of the six-star symbol intertwined. Naomi reached for her neck under the scarf which tingled as she rubbed the scar.

A spark of recognition. The young woman—she had seen her before. She knew her. The brief glimpse flashed in memory. White . . . maybe snow . . . cold. Pieces of an intricate puzzle. She needed to know more.

Every fiber inside Naomi yearned to understand what importance this young woman had in her life. She had so many questions—why she looked different than anyone she had ever met, what happened to her parents. Everything remained a mystery. Perhaps this woman held a clue, a key that could unlock where Naomi came from, maybe family, everything.

As the caravan passed, she stood frozen in place. The mystery of her own existence paraded before her very eyes. She felt paralyzed, unable to move under her own power. Precious time slipped by as the carriage moved away from her. She had to act.

Zander looked frightened as he glanced at Naomi’s intense expression.

“Zander, I have to find out who she is.”

“No,” Zander warned. “The g-guards!”

Completely forgetting about the meat, Naomi hopped down from the cart.

“Excuse me!” she pushed her way through the crowd. Her heart pumped hard in her chest. She didn’t care about anything else. She had to get to the carriage. She rushed forward like a salmon swimming upstream.

It only took a moment for the prince to take notice. With a snap of his fingers, the guards were on the move.

“Na—!!” Zander yelled, practically falling from the cart to the ground. “The g-g-gua— ” he started, but fear choked him to silence.

Naomi saw the blue cloaks coming from every direction. The swarm of bodies following the procession smothered her, smashing together in a mass of heat and sweat, confusion and chaos.

“No! Stop!!” Zander yelled.

Even amidst the chaos, Naomi recognized the cry for help. She had heard it so much in the last few years: Zander in trouble. She had become jumbled in the sea of people. With a glance to her side, she saw Zander still on the cart, the blue cloaks surrounding him.

“Leave him!” she shouted at the guards.

A guard grabbed her arm. Naomi struggled away from his grip. Being small, she slipped underneath the large man’s arm and around another cloak.

The crowd became hostile with the pushing and shoving. Her heart pounded and her mind raced. Please, let me get to him. In her peripheral vision, she saw the blue uniforms mixing in the mass of people. The blue headed toward her, she knew it. They had Zander. In another moment, they would have her, too. She had to save him. She had to try.

Suddenly, a strong arm grabbed her and everything went black; she felt herself covered by a thick cloak. A hand held her mouth tightly, preventing a scream. Feeling a swift motion around her waist, she was lifted off the ground and whisked away.

T T T

Darkness and motion. The hand over Naomi’s mouth moved a fraction to allow her breathing, but it did not keep her heart from pounding. The movements created dizziness, and she lost complete perspective of the world under the thick cloak.

Uncomfortable heat from the man’s body smothered any breath she stole through his tight grip. Who was this person? She thought she had been caught by a Southwick guard, but the singular sound of his footsteps against the stone told her differently.

Other little clues made her more curious. His heart beat just as fast as hers. His strength gripped her like iron; she felt so small compared to him as he carried her. She felt a metal blade swing in its sheath; the weapons he wore around his waist clanked next to her body. The complete arsenal of weaponry alarmed her.

The progress finally slowed to a stop, and her feet touched the ground.

“Not a word,” a voice whispered in her ear. The soft plea in his voice caught her off guard.

Naomi nodded her head slowly and felt the hand come off her mouth. The man lifted the draping cloak but still held her arms tight.

The deserted street they had entered looked different from the craziness of the town: an outcropping of homes built tightly together, all in shambles of straw and wood. Clotheslines strung between the houses and connected them intimately. It was quiet. Smoke rose from a few of the humble chimneys, filling the air with the smell of burned wood and grass.

Dread consumed her. Naomi thought she knew the town well, but she did not recognize this side at all. If only she knew how to get back to the street—she felt lost and afraid, with a stranger who had spirited her away from the crowd.

She looked at the man who had captured her. He, towering over her by a foot, and was not as old as she had imagined he might be but no longer a youth—perhaps five and twenty. His shaggy hair hung around his face in untidy waves, getting into his eyes. His skin under the dark green cloak looked browned by the sun.

“Who are you?” she asked. Afraid of the answer, her voice quivered.

He wagged his finger slightly. Confused at the gentle gesture, Naomi’s mind filled with even more questions. But before she could speak, he tugged on her arm, guiding her down the rocky, unused path.

The closer she got to the homes, the worse they looked. Aging wood splintered on the outside of the cylindrical huts. Cotton curtains, tattered by the wind, hung in the dirty windows. The smell of rotting apples, mixed with moldering soil, swirled around. Bones of dead birds lay about the ground, crunching like twigs under her feet.

Naomi’s heart had never thumped so hard.

The stranger led her between the houses and down a small alley just wide enough for the two of them. He stopped, brushed the ground, and uncovered a door under the dirt and a tangle of overgrown weeds.

“Down here,” he whispered.

Naomi hesitated. “No, please,” she begged. Strangely, her thoughts focused not of herself at the moment, but the boy she had left behind. “Please, I can’t leave Zander. I can’t.”

His grip only tightened as he carried her like a rag doll down the steps to the cellar.

Panic filled her. “I have to find him!” She tried to remove her wrist from his iron grip. His other hand closed the door tight.

Darkness consumed them. The cellar stank of rotten apples and damp wood. The earth felt chilly, freezing Naomi to the bone. The warm hand of the stranger guided her backward. She stumbled, but landed in a soft pile of straw. She curled up in the corner, holding her ankles. She shivered all over; her nerves worked outwardly in the chilly cellar. She hadn’t her cloak, which she left near the cart.

“I have to go back for him,” she pleaded.

“I can’t save the boy right now. You were all I could carry.”

Naomi took a deep breath at the word. “Save?”

“Here.” The man wrapped his cloak around Naomi to keep her warm.

His kindness felt out of place. “Thank you.”

The man stood and began pacing the room. His steely grey eyes reflected like deep, shiny onyx from the little bit of light streaming through the old wood slats of the cellar door. Without the cloak, his frame looked fit and strong; not an inch of him appeared unused. He confused her. His natural bearing projected sensibilities—something she hadn’t expected from a kidnapper. She didn’t know what to think of him.

“Can I ask a question?”

An enigmatic smile crossed his face. “I expected that.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“That’s your question?” A small laugh escaped him. “No. Quite the opposite.”

She sat up, curious instead of fearful. “You said you saved me—from what?”

“A better question would be, from whom? And that I couldn’t tell you specifically.” He stabbed a rotten apple with his small blade and flung it. “The last thing I want is Southwick finding you.”

“What’s wrong with Southwick?”

He laughed softly again. “They don’t like me much down there.”

“What about Zander?”

The man knelt before her, his eyes suddenly solemn. “We can’t go back for the boy. I don’t believe he is in danger.”

“Only because you don’t see it.” A nervous knot formed in her stomach for the boy’s safety.

“It’s not him who is in danger, it’s you.” The look in his eyes indicated that he wished he hadn’t said the words.

Naomi didn’t know what to make of him. “The prince’s guard doesn’t scare me.”

The man sat in quiet contemplation. “Naomi Everstar, you are a conundrum. Do you not care for your own life? Don’t you think the Guard wanted you? They swim in a pond with many bigger fish.”

Naomi lost her voice. Shivers ran through her as the word ‘Everstar’ echoed in her mind. She hadn’t heard it in years; Malindra had been the only other person to call her that. “How do you know my name?” She nearly bit her lip with her question. “Who are you?”

He stroked his untidy, unshaven face, contemplating his answer. “My name is Reynolds Fairborne. Some call me Hawk. Does it sound familiar to you?”

Naomi had to admit she did not know the name. But like many things in this world, he did seem familiar, like a whiff of tobacco or change of season. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, no.”

“Just as well,” he replied. “I try not to know many people. Though . . .” He trailed off as he moved next to her and crouched down in the straw. He lowered his voice. “Does it help that I have known you all your life?”

“Me?” Naomi immediately retreated. Her brain tried to make a connection and failed. “I don’t believe you.”

Reynolds took a breath. “Would you believe that I knew Malindra?”

Naomi froze. Speaking those words felt like walking over a grave; Malindra had died years ago. Naomi had only lived eleven summers when it happened; she had now passed seventeen. “But, how? I’ve never seen you before.”

“Somebody had to keep you safe.”

The conversation unsettled her. Naomi huddled in the dark corner, suspended in thought. She didn’t like being watched, but the idea of being protected made her blush. “But why would I need—?”

Reynolds quickly pressed his hand back to her mouth to prevent her from talking, angling his head around the darkness for a better view. Then, swiftly he rose and disappeared into the dark.

Naomi’s heart jumped.

He returned, pulling Naomi to her feet. “She has come. Hold tight to me.”

He led her forward into the dark toward a faint glimmer of color. A light purple glow fell on the back corner of the cellar, behind a maze of crates and barrels.

There, between the high barriers, stood a small, ancient woman, shawled and patched. The purplish light fell around a glowing orb which she cupped in her withered, crippled hands. Her hair resembled white-spun cotton, softly flowing down her back. Not much substance to her, Naomi thought. Spindly legs and spider-web arms. She could blow away with the wind. But her eyes stood out the most: peculiar and white like her hair.

The old lady reached forward. “Hawk?”

“I’m here.” Reynolds stepped out of the shadows. He embraced her, speaking words Naomi could not hear and pointing in Naomi’s direction.

“Let me look at her,” the old woman said, confirming she wasn’t blind. Naomi felt exposed, as if this woman could see right through her. “Come here, Goldie.”

Naomi did as she was asked, although tentatively.

The woman reached toward Naomi’s neck. “May I?” she asked as she slipped off the silk scarf. Naomi put her hand up to her scar and tried to cover it—a self-conscious habit. The old woman rubbed and smelled the fabric, wrapping it around her own hand several times. The scarf shimmered with flecks of dazzling color, shone brilliant in the pale cellar light, highlighting the intricate patterns of gold and pearl. “This was Malindra’s,” she muttered, “made of Shadesilk. Still as beautiful as I remember.” She gently placed the scarf back on Naomi.

“How did you know that?” Naomi asked, amazed.

“I was there when Malindra acquired it. I always liked it, you know.” Her thoughts seemed to drift back to the girl. “And you are Naomi,” she finished, matter-of-factly.

Naomi stood perplexed, not knowing what to say or do. “Yes. How do you know me?”

“I don’t,” the old woman laughed. “I only know of you, and that is enough.” Her eiderdown hair waved in the air as she chuckled to herself. “Do you have any memories of your parents?”

Naomi was stunned. She hadn’t expected this. “No, nothing.”

“Only Malindra?’

“Yes,” she whispered solemnly.

“Oh, child.” The woman’s raspy voice tinged with sadness. “How sad to lose the only family you’ve known. Come,” she beckoned her forward. “It may be safe for now, but the magic will be discovered soon. We have little time.” She turned to Reynolds. “Hawk, lead me.”

Reynolds held out his arm. The cotton-haired woman held to him tightly as they walked. Naomi, though still apprehensive, followed behind. He led them to a back corner of the cellar and removed a stack of crates which led to a barren, cold tunnel. Roots in the earth hung down in the passage, blocking the view of what lay deep beyond. Reynolds reached into his pocket and pulled out something black and small. As he snapped his fingers, a light appeared above his hand. Without saying a word, he led them down the earthen trail.

Creeping softly over the earth, Naomi followed the two along the long path. The claustrophobic atmosphere almost became too much. The air smelled of mustiness and decay. Past the roots, there lay a small room which had sunk down into the ground. Beyond it, from the light above Reynolds’ fingertips, she could barely see what might be a staircase.

Storage of all kinds lay inside the room: crates, barrels, and woven blankets sat about in piles, rotting from the dark earth. The smell overpowered, and rested in the back of Naomi’s throat, prompting her to gag.

Reynolds quickly started to pack gear and food from the barrels.

The old woman turned and grabbed Naomi’s hand. “Help me, Goldie. I cannot see down here.”

Naomi steadied herself and looked back at the woman, confused by her comment. But she led the woman to a crate where she could rest, which creaked as she sat. To calm her stomach, Naomi began breathing through her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Naomi started. “I’m really confused. How did you know Malindra?”

“She was my sister,” the old woman explained, taking a breath to steady herself. “My name is Jeanus. Some call me Lightseer.”

Naomi’s heart erupted in joy. “I never knew Malindra had a sister. She never said. Why didn’t she tell me?”

The old woman laughed, heartier than before. “There are many things left for the world to reveal to us. You are no exception. Reynolds has shouldered his responsibility well.”

“How do you know him?”

“He is my eyes.” Jeanus smiled in his direction. “I cannot see the world of men very well. Years have taken a toll on my sight, but I can see you just fine, bright as the sun. Men sometimes cannot see the world as it is—making up silly explanations for the unexplainable. But you saw the magic today while others did not. Yes?”

Naomi didn’t understand. “Magic? I’m not sure I understand.”

“I am talking about the girl,” the old woman whispered.

“The girl? The girl with the scar?”

“This girl has magic. Do you understand magic?”

Naomi thought about it. She had watched a few of the magicians while with the Travelers as a child. She had watched Malindra make potions, and she’d taught her the cards, but that wasn’t magic at all, just understanding the signs. “No,” she concluded.

Jeanus’s eyes wandered off to something distant. “Magic is brought forth by the elements of the earth itself. There are very few who clearly understand that.” She smiled as she turned back to Naomi. “Do you believe it exists?”

Naomi wasn’t sure what to believe. She had seen no evidence to support the existence of magic, but in her heart, she had always hoped there was. Malindra had used crystals and powders to help her create the illusion, but deep down Naomi knew the old woman’s tricks held no magic, rather illusions for the eyes to pleasure the heart.

Jeanus bent her head as if she had read Naomi’s mind. Her fragile fingers lifted, and, with a twirling motion, she whirled both hands in opposite directions. Streams of ribboning blue light curled around in excited strains, moving together to form a delicate wheel.

Breathless, Naomi watched the magic dance before her. How she wanted to touch it, to be one with it, to manipulate its power. Her finger stretched forward and touched it delicately. The magic moved about her fingers, tickling with gentle kisses.

Then it disappeared, fading away with a wisp of wind.

Reynolds appeared behind her. “I’m ready. Where do we go?”

Jeanus stood up again, urgent. “The camp will be the safest place.”

Reynolds hesitated. His lips pursed in contemplation. “Are you sure?”

“Be careful of the Blackwoods. They will snatch her.” Jeanus looked through Reynolds. “Don’t be tempted, even though it is shorter.”

Reynolds slowly agreed.

She turned to Naomi and fussed with her scarf. “There are spies everywhere. Malindra’s scarf will give you protection. Do not take it off. Trust in your strengths and abilities; they are great. Do not doubt.”

Strengths and abilities, Naomi thought. She didn’t do anything particularly well. If luck constituted talent she would count it, maybe her sense of balance, and her innate ability to trust others—which also counted as a weakness.

“Also, be careful of your friends. They are both a strength and a curse.” Jeanus smiled sweetly at her. “It is sad Malindra did not live to see how beautiful you have become.” She kissed Naomi lightly on the cheek. Her finger stroked the side of Naomi’s face. “How much you look like your mother.”

Naomi stared, shocked. “Did you know her?”

The answer never came.

“Quick, put these on.” Reynolds threw her a pair of old, crusty boots, hitting her in the chest.

Naomi stared at the boots—ugly, black things stinking and rotting with mildew. Somehow, she feared the boots almost more than she feared the danger she was in.

“And this,” Reynolds urged, handing her a well-draped cloak and a pack full of gear.

Naomi did what was asked of her, but a small grumble escaped when she felt the weight of the pack. Shifting her body a bit, she could feel the uncomfortable squeeze around her toes. She longed to stretch them out on the cool ground.

“Jeanus, promise me. Stick with the plan,” Reynolds said behind her.

The old woman waved goodbye. “It is not me who needs to worry. You talk to me like I’m an old fool.” She smiled at Naomi. “Sounds like he doesn’t trust me.”

Reynolds bent down and kissed the woman on the cheek. “Sorry. My trust is something you haven’t earned.” He winked at her.

“Now, go,” she ushered them out. “Go! There is little time.”

Strange emotions seeped into Naomi’s heart:  feelings she hid deep inside that she didn’t fully understand. Longing rose within her, to be with Jeanus, to know her better. The wetness that formed in the corner of her eyes felt foreign. She didn’t like crying.

“Will I see you again?” she asked.

“In time, my dear.”

A clanking sound came from the entrance to the cellar, like something hard was trying to pry open the door.

Jeanus turned sternly, her white eyes nearly red. “You must go! Now!”

Reynolds pulled Naomi with him across the room to where an ancient staircase climbed high to the surface. He extinguished his light and stopped at the eaves, listening.

Naomi heard men’s voices shouting. “What about Jeanus—?” Naomi began, but was quickly silenced by Reynolds’s hand.

“Go. Climb,” he said in a hurried whisper. “At the top of the stairs, there is a storage chamber. It will lead us out. I’ll be right behind you. Now, go.”

Naomi did not hesitate. She climbed as quickly as she could in the pitch black. The dirt stairs were worn smooth by time. Once she climbed thirty feet, they tapered off more like a tunnel, winding this way and that in a confusing maze. Though stumbling a few times, Naomi moved forward, feeling around for a grip from the roots and crevasses.

Bang! She found the door with her head, not realizing it was going to be above her. Naomi went into it full force. She found a ring and used it to lift the hatch, which did not give way easily. But it opened with some effort.

Sunlight streamed into the stairway, blinding her. She crawled out, squinting, to find herself in a small room surrounded by walls of stone. Crates and barrels lined the room, cramming it with goods and clothing. Reynolds appeared in a matter of seconds. The hidden door slid back into place and became impossible to detect against the dirt and stone.

“Where are we?” Naomi asked.

“A Prolian Church,” he answered. “It’s a good escape if you need it. No one looks in a church. I made the tunnel myself.”

“I’ve never been here,” she recalled.

“I don’t think Ferrell Bucklingdown is a religious man.”

“How did you . . . ?” Naomi started, but stopped herself. “You really have been watching me.”

Reynolds looked at her up and down. “You’re a mess,” he said, dusting some of the dirt off her head.

Naomi didn’t care. Working on a pig farm for the last few years made her used to dirt. “Will Jeanus be okay?”

“I wouldn’t worry about her,” Reynolds said. “She can get home all right, resilient little bird.”

“Why did she come here?”

Reynolds looked at her, his eyes speaking to her soul. “I asked her to. Earning your trust wouldn’t be easy, and I need your trust.”

Naomi couldn’t hide her smile. It had worked.

“Come.” He beckoned her forward, and together they slipped out of the room.

They entered a room among many hallways, interconnected in a labyrinth of stone. Naomi lost her perspective, but Reynolds smoothly navigated his way, guiding her.

The grand cathedral echoed like a silent tomb with every footstep the two travelers made. Not a soul stood inside the church, and no one to find them. “It’s a good thing no one’s here,” Reynolds remarked. “I’m not sure they would let someone so dirty on hallowed ground.”

Naomi stared, trying to catch his meaning. Was he joking with her? She hadn’t expected that. His mouth curled into a smile. But just then, they heard footsteps on the stone floor; rushing footsteps coming from the back passages.

“Go, go, go!”

As fast as they could, Naomi and Reynolds ran from the church. The outside streets were empty but for a few wandering souls. Down they ran, taking a few turns to lose their pursuers, all the while hearing their trackers following close behind.

The wall of the city appeared in sight—but no gate.

“Can you climb?”

“Of course.”

“Show me.”

Naomi continued to run. The rush of being chased urged her forward. Reynolds’s footsteps followed behind, but she never turned to look. Upon reaching the wall, Naomi spied a tall tree and quickly climbed up the branches that stretched out over the edge. As she shimmied herself across, she glanced back to Reynolds.

Worry overcame her, but the sounds of the guards reminded her of the danger. He had led the guards away from her, away from the tree. The men in blue followed his lead—his movements smart and agile, like he could predict the moments of the others.

He turned again and led the guards down another alley. A flash of light followed.

Naomi reached for the edge of the wall and dropped down. She strained to listen to what happened on the other side, but the adrenaline pumping in her veins made her tremble. She couldn’t focus.

Take off the boots, she thought. Feel the earth under your feet. She sat near the tree and slipped off the boots, tied them together, and slid them over her shoulder. Her toes stretched deep into the grass and the feel of the cool blades helped her relax.

The tree branches rattled. Naomi looked up to see Reynolds shimmying across the limbs to a safe drop.

“The boots are off already?” he joked.

Naomi didn’t know what to say.

“Come on,” he pulled her up. “I know somewhere safe.”