EXCERPT

The summons comes for House Daired, debts will be paid, and dragonfire might not save them this time.

Flamebringer is out now!

FLAMEBRINGER

From CHAPTER ONE

THE LONG WAY AROUND

 

We had made a terrible mistake.

I felt it in every beat of Akarra’s wings, in every white-clouded breath that rushed back to sting my face with ice crystals, every tear drawn out on the knife-blade of the wind. The storm was getting stronger. Snow was falling thick and fast, though falling was no longer the right word. Falling implied verticality. This snow drove toward us with single-minded horizontal fury, Tekari-like in its efforts to unseat Alastair and me. Worst of all, it was getting dark. I gripped Alastair’s waist with fingers I could no longer feel and squinted over his shoulder. Through ice-rimed eyelashes I could just make out the ground far beneath in patches of white and dirty gray where the snow had scraped its frozen claws over the Barrens of the Old Wilds. Still no trees in sight. Or hills or mountains or landmarks or anything. We were lost.

“Alastair, we have to turn back!” I shouted. The wind spun my voice away. I tried again, pulling down my scarf and clumsily waving one hand in the hopes he would see it.

He turned a little. The length of cloth wound around his mouth and chin was frosted with snow. “Can’t land here,” he shouted back, each word fighting its way through the wind. “Not . . . cover . . . shelter . . . wait.”

Wait for what? I wanted to scream, though I knew it was useless. The storm had long since swallowed our bearings, and landing in weather like this would be a near death sentence, dragon companion notwithstanding. No shelter, no wood for a fire, with night falling and our food stores already low, and no guarantee we’d be able to get in the air again if the Tekari of the Old Wilds found us, we had no choice but to keep going. No storm could go on forever.

But then, no dragon could either. Ice glistened on Akarra’s scales, her saddle, and the edges of her wings. We no longer flew straight but dipped and swayed with every draft, and in the lull between gusts I heard her labored breathing. It had been a long time since she’d had a proper meal. It’d been a long time since any of us had eaten. I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead against Alastair’s back. Janna have mercy, why did we do this?

The gods didn’t answer. They didn’t need to. It had been almost two days since we flew from Morianton on the shores of Lake Meera, chasing the Wydrick-ghastradi and his valkyrie mount. His words from the tavern still burned in my ears, vicious, poisonous, louder than the howling of the storm. “The summons comes for the House of Edan Daired and old things will be called into account. The ledger will be brought forth, and when all Arle kneels before our master, then you’ll know I’ve won.”

All through the night we’d flown after him, blindly, furiously, Akarra’s dragonfire burning through the swirling snowflakes like the avenging sword of Mikla himself.

It was a sword that proved blunted and faithless in our foolish hands. The first rays of dawn had found us in the mountain pass west of Lake Meera, illuminating the whole lake valley and the Old Wilds beyond. At Alastair’s command Akarra landed, breaking the crust of snow that spread all around us in a smooth white blanket, unmarked by any sign of Wydrick or his valkyrie.

“We’ve lost them,” I said.

Alastair’s voice came muffled from beneath his scarf, the single word short and sharp as the wind. “Yes.”

“What now, khela?” Akarra asked. “The ghastradi warn of a war that is coming, we are many leagues from our allies, and you”—she looked over her shoulder at the empty scabbard on Alastair’s back—“have no sword.”

We’d tried, even in our haste, to find a sword for Alastair in Morianton, but our bad luck had held. The blacksmith had nothing beyond a hunting axe, and the local regiment of Rangers had made themselves scarce since the flight of their captain. Alastair had fairly thrown a pair of silver dragonbacks at the blacksmith in return for the axe. It was a crude thing, bereft of the razor-edged elegance of Alastair’s Orordrin-wrought blade, which was now sunk in the depths of Lake Meera, but still better than nothing. Or so I’d thought. That little delay had cost us our quarry.

Akarra must have seen our dark looks at the mention of weapons. “Do we return to the town?” she’d asked.

I looked behind us. Watery sunlight poured from cracks in the overcast sky without warming anything. Far below us the waters of Lake Meera caught it like a wintery mirror, shattered on its northern shore by the promontory and battlements of Castle Selwyn. Save for the steward Mòrag and a handful of servants, the castle was empty now, bereft of its mistress after the madness of its vanished lord. I thought of what else it held, intangible but no less real: grief and silence and the hollow condolences of the midwife. We’d left nothing behind there but heartache and loss.

I turned from the lake and looked out over the pass, toward the Old Wilds. The horizon stretched in a solemn gray line farther than I could see, any landmarks lost in the haze of distance. Clouds like leaden curtains were already gathering in the south.

Alastair shook the snow from his cloak. “We need to regroup and take council. If Wydrick was sent to Lake Meera to recruit allies for the coming war, then we need to do the same.”

I’d agreed, trying not to think of the kind of allies Wydrick had tried to recruit. An ancient vengeful spirit from the Old Wastes, a creature that thrived on fears and drove children to their deaths, a shadow of a shadow of the first darkness that fell upon the world. I thanked the gods the Green Lady had fled in the end, but that was still little comfort. We had no idea if Wydrick had succeeded with other creatures like her, or what on earth we could do if he had.

“Akarra, how far is An-Edannathair?” Alastair asked.

“Edan’s Crest? You want to speak to the Vehryshi?”

 

“Your people may know more about the ghastradi than human lore can tell,” he said. “Where they came from, whom they serve. They may even know how to kill them.”

The dread weight of his words and their unspoken corollary settled over me like a snowdrift. And if they didn’t know? Or worse, if couldn’t be killed at all?

“I’ve never heard tales of the ghast-ridden in the Eyries, Alastair,” Akarra said at last.

“Other dragons might have.”

She shifted beneath us and studied the sky. A few snowflakes settled on her back and evaporated in a hiss of steam. “The peaks of An-Edannathair are many leagues’ flight south and west, and I don’t like the look of those clouds.”

“It won’t be any easier taking the eastern route back through the mountains,” I offered, thinking of Rookwood and the Vesh ambush we’d escaped on our way to Castle Selwyn. “I agree with Alastair. If there’s a chance we’ll find answers with the dragons, we should take it.”

“Very well. But the wind is shifting, khela, Aliza. It’ll be hard going, and we’ll have to take it in stages. You’d both best wrap up.”

We’d obeyed, hunkering down in our fur-lined cloaks as she caught the updraft and soared out over the pass, toward the Dragonsmoor Mountains and home.

The snow started soon after that. It hadn’t seemed dangerous at first: stronger winds, a few snowflakes, a deepening chill, but nothing life-threatening. Akarra predicted the storm would move east, spending its wrath on the mountains surrounding Lake Meera and the Langloch and leaving us a clear path through the Old Wilds.

She was wrong. It grew worse.

Not an hour after we’d set out the wind turned and all direction lost meaning; up meant deeper into the heart of the storm and down was blinding whiteness and struggling dragon and numb fingers clinging to any handhold I could find. Shards of ice drove through my cloak, knifing through my riding clothes as if they were silk. My hair had stopped whipping around my face only because it was frozen in place. The sweat and melted snow streaming down my neck soaked into my collar, only to freeze again. My lungs burned with the cold.

I opened my eyes and regretted it at once. More tears welled up as the wind scoured bits of ice across my face. Even Alastair’s back was no shelter anymore. He’d refused to switch places when we set off, insisting on taking the full force of the storm, and my heart ached as I felt him shiver through the layers of cloak and armor.

Janna, if you’re listening, give us strength. I mouthed the names of the Fourfold God with all the faith I had left and willed my arms to warm him. Mikla, protect us. Odei, make a way out. Thell—

Akarra faltered. Dark shapes rose out of the snow ahead, faint but growing clearer as we hurtled toward them: sharp, spiky things that looked like they’d hurt if we hit them, and oh gods, we’re going to hit them. The world tilted. My scarf slipped and powder filled my mouth, stinging like a thousand wasps and silencing my scream. I slid sideways, scrabbling for purchase on Akarra’s saddle, but I was no longer master of my limbs. Akarra roared and somewhere Alastair was shouting, but the dark prickly thing loomed out of the storm, and in ducking to avoid it I lost my grip on the saddle. I fell.

There was whiteness and blowing cold and pain. My side throbbed and I gasped for air, choking on snowflakes as I fought to catch the breath knocked out of me. For a second everything swam: frozen tears and trembling shades of blue and white and violet and more of those dark prickling shapes and the biting, driving, howling, ever-present snow.

“Aliza!”

Sensation returned slowly, in gasps and aching everything. Rational thought came next. I fell. I fell and I’m not dead. Akarra must have been close to the ground.

Dark shapes much like the ones I’d seen before falling now swayed crazily in my peripheral vision. I rolled to my side and looked up, realizing as I did that the snow was no longer blinding and the wind had lessened. For a second I stared at the shape above me, numb brain trying to make sense of it. Straight, with bristly bits coming off. And green? Is that green?

“Pine,” I muttered, then louder, “A pine!”

It was the first tree we’d seen since leaving Lake Meera. Hope warmed me like nothing else could. We were still lost, grounded in the midst of a blizzard, and very nearly frozen to death, but at least we’d made it across the Barrens.

“Aliza! Where are you?”

 

“Here!” I struggled to my feet, wincing at a pain in my hip. The snow was thin beneath the boughs of the tree and I could see bare earth and pine needles underfoot. It was only after I’d taken a few limping steps toward Alastair’s voice that a new thought tempered my excitement. We’d found trees on the border of the Barrens, yes, but which border? I racked my brain for a mental map of the Old Wilds. Our route to the dragon’s Keep at An-Edannathair should’ve taken us southwest, back across the treeless marshes of the Widdermere. If the winds had pushed us southeast, these would be the forests surrounding Lykaina and direwolf country. If we’d been blown north or northwest, we’d be deep in the heart of the Northern Wastes and undisputed Tekari territory. If we’d been driven west . . .

 

Cold that had nothing to do with the snow filled my heart. “Alastair?” I cried as loudly as I dared.

 

“Aliza!”

 

“Here! I’m here!”

 

Alastair shuffled into sight. Akarra followed, clearing the way with the occasional blast of dragonfire. I caught his arm and pulled him into the protective shadow of the tree. The lowest branches dropped pine needles around us as he crouched next to me, breathing hard and covered in snow. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “But, Alastair, look! We’re through the Barrens!”

He peered through the branches as Akarra dropped to her foreknees outside our little copse. “Do you know where we are, Akarra?”

“I’m not sure.”

 

Alastair growled something in Eth and Akarra looked at him sharply.

 

“No, I don’t have every corner of Arle memorized,” she said. “You can’t expect me to keep track of landmarks in a storm like that.”

More Eth.

 

“It was all I could do to keep us in the air!” she snapped.

 

“You should’ve turned around when you realized the storm was too much for you,” Alastair said in Arlean.

 

This time Akarra responded in Eth and their voices rose, fiery words mixed with the slither of falling snow and the howl of the wind, loud enough to set my head pounding. I pressed cold hands to my temples. For Thell’s sake . . .

 

“ENOUGH!” I cried, no longer caring if there were any Tekari around to overhear. “This isn’t helping! Alastair, we wanted to come this way, remember? Don’t put this on Akarra.”

 

“Listen to your wife,” she growled.

 

I whirled on her. “And Alastair and I are about to lose our noses to frostbite, so don’t you start either, all right?”

 

Akarra looked away. Alastair straightened the hunting axe in his sword-belt and ran a hand through his hair, shaking free beads of ice. His Rider’s plait had long ago come undone. “Fine. Akarra,” he said at last with exaggerated civility, “what’s your best guess as to where we are?”

“I can’t say for certain.”

 

“I said guess.”

 

Akarra snorted. A heap of snow slid off the nearest branch with a wet slumping sound.

 

“Please,” he added.

 

“The storm pushed us west, khela, fast and far. You know where we are.”

 

Alastair flexed stiff fingers in front of him and said nothing. My heart sank as understanding crept through the cracks in their silence. “Rushless Wood. That’s what you’re both trying not to say, aren’t you?”

 

“We can’t be sure,” Alastair said.

 

“Even if we’re not, it doesn’t matter,” Akarra said. “We can’t keep flying in this weather. You two will freeze to death and I’ll drop from hunger by the time we reach anything like a landmark.” She sniffed the wind and peered up into the darkening sky. “It’s too late to do anything more tonight. We’d best make camp here.”

 

Alastair pulled off his sword-belt and harness and hung them over one of the lower branches, and after several minutes’ struggle with the buckles, I did the same with our panniers. Together we cleared the dusting of snow around the tree trunk. The ground was cold, hard, and knotted with roots, but it was dry, or at least drier. There were even enough pine needles and dead twigs for a small pile of kindling, which Akarra lit with a carefully aimed blast of dragonfire. Three times it fizzled and smoldered before catching, and the cheers Alastair and I gave at the tiny tongues of flame were loud enough to make Akarra shush us.

“Until we know where we are, I’d rather not advertise our presence any more than we already have,” she said with a frown toward the darkening woods. She shifted closer to the fire and wrapped her tail around the trunk, enclosing us in a living, anxious fortress. Ice sloughed off her, running in little rivulets between scales. “I’ll take first watch.”

 

“I’ll take second,” Alastair said in a considerably less peevish tone. “Wake me in a few hours.”

 

Akarra tucked her head under her opposite wing. Alastair fished a bit of bardsbread from our panniers and sat with his back to her steaming side. I sat next to him, taking the chunk of bread he offered without enthusiasm. We chewed for a minute in silence.

 

“I was wrong,” he said at last.

 

“Hm?”

 

“To follow Wydrick. We wouldn’t be out here if we hadn’t chased him from Morianton.”

“We couldn’t just let him fly away.”

“Yes, we could have,” he said firmly. “I should’ve known he was taunting us. On the road north, in Morianton, even now. That’s all he’s ever done, all he’s ever been: a taunt. From our earliest days as boys together. Any time he trained longer with my father or bested me in a Sparring or mastered something before me, he would never let me forget it.” He exhaled long and slow, his breath suspended in a frozen white cloud in front of him. “We should have taken the long way around.”

I went back to gnawing at the stale loaf. Argument, justification, sympathy: whatever he was looking for, I was too tired to give. My jaw worked up and down, cold muscles moving mechanically as I navigated the crust of coarse seeds that stuck in my teeth. I no longer remembered what real food tasted like. Everything was chill and grit and cramp and numb hands and throbbing head, and still Alastair went on, chipping out icy monuments to his regret from the frozen air.

“I should have known he was playing with us. He—”

 

“Alastair, stop. I wanted to catch Wydrick as much as you did, all right? We all decided to follow him back there,” I said. “Stop trying to take the blame.”

 

His silence took on a grudging edge as he pulled off the length of cloth that he’d been using as a scarf. It’d once been one of his spare shirts, sacrificed to his dagger when we’d started up the mountains. I’d donned the other half beneath my hood like a cowl, though it hadn’t helped much. Breathing through the thin cloth had transformed it into a frozen shell that chafed my nose and did little to block the cold. It now lay slumped in a soggy circle around my neck. I tugged it off and hung it on a branch above the fire, hoping rather than believing that the fitful flame would dry it out by morning.

When Alastair’s silence continued, I settled against Akarra’s side and negotiated a more comfortable sleeping patch. The living furnace at our backs kept enough of the cold at bay to prevent our freezing to death, but Akarra could warm only that which she touched, and the cold found other ways in. It worked through my clothes like a dull needle, pricking my face, my arms, my feet. The enormity of my folly in taking four walls and a roof for granted for so many years struck me once more, the Old Wilds’ birch rod to the back of my spoiled complacency.

You brought this on yourself, you know. Before the words had come only in a whisper; now they thundered inside me, an unyielding magistrate sitting in judgment over my folly. I squeezed my eyes shut. I had been afraid, and in my fear I had lied, claiming readiness to accompany Alastair and Akarra with all the unthinking enthusiasm of the nakla I was. And I had paid for my naiveté. Holy gods, how I had paid for it. I was paying for it still.

 

I drew my knees up almost to my chin, curling reflexively inward against the question that I knew was coming, that would always and forever be coming for me in the dark place between sleeping and waking.

 

What if?

 

What if I’d stayed at Pendragon? What if I’d not forced my body through weeks of physical hardship, terrible food, and the terror of the trek across the Old Wilds? What if I’d never seen Castle Selwyn, never faced the horror that was the Green Lady? What if I’d not fallen on my stomach in the ruined abbey? What if I’d never been on that beach when Wydrick and his ghast came to survey their murderous handiwork? What if, what if, what if, if, if?

If I’d stayed at Pendragon, would our child have lived?

 

Neither the fire nor the woods nor the winter silence had an answer. A tear slid down my cheek, warm as blood.

 

“Do you remember what Tristan said?” Alastair asked.

 

I opened my eyes.

 

‘You’ve tasted the lifeblood of one of the Great Tekari,’” he murmured. “He said there would be consequences.”

“Aye, I remember.”

 

He touched my heartstone on its chain around his neck. The deep green gem had formed from the last drop of lifeblood of the Greater Lindworm, spilled from the heart Alastair had eaten to cure himself of its poison. Getting the heart had cost him the life of one of his oldest friends, and I didn’t doubt that it was that knowledge as much as the physical reminder of the Worm’s sting that slowed his sword arm and gnawed away at his confidence. “Aliza, I need to know what’s happening to me.”

 

“You’re still healing, that’s what’s happening.” I rolled over again. “Give it time.”

 

“What if you’re wrong?

 

“Alastair, please.”

 

“North Fields changed something in me. I can feel it. What if I’m never the way I was?”

 

Yes, what if? What if? “You know I don’t know the answer to that.”

 

He drew deeper under his cloak and pulled his hood over his eyes. I tossed a few more twigs onto the fire and wondered how much longer it’d keep up the pretense. It was smoking in earnest now, the flames no larger than my hand. I sank into my little bearskin bundle and fought my way back into darkness.

It wasn’t sleep that waited for me within that darkness, though—merely cold and panicked restlessness. When Alastair shook me awake a few hours later, I felt more tired than I had been when we’d lain down. The fire had long since burned out and snow was sifting in through the branches, dusting our panniers in white. By the rhythm of Akarra’s breath at my back I guessed she was asleep, though hers too was a restless one. Her wings fluttered above us, fighting dream-winds. I stretched my stiff limbs, wrapped my cloak around my knees, and listened to the howl of the storm.

Hours crept by. I measured them by the accumulation of powder along the branches just visible in the distilled moonlight. Snow still fell, but the storm had finally slackened, and here and there the clouds parted long enough to show a glimpse of sky beyond. Apart from the sound of our breathing, all was deathly still. Shivers ran icy-nailed fingers along my arms and down my back. Akarra no longer felt as warm as she had when we had lain down. I forced my eyes open and sat rigid beneath my cloak, but my mind drifted like the snow and I wondered, not for the first time, how many nights it would take to get to An-Edannathair. Many more like this and we might not make it at all.

The soft crunch of snow sounded outside our copse. I forgot about the cold.

 

“Alastair!” I shook his shoulder. He stirred and opened his eyes. “There’s something out there,” I whispered.

 

I could see his struggle against the cold and clinging fog of sleep as he stared at me, trying to make sense of my words or perhaps just to remember where we were. A second later he was on his feet, axe in hand. He nudged Akarra’s wingtip and spoke softly in Eth. She too took longer than usual to wake, but her sides flared with sudden heat when she did. She peered out into the snowy darkness.

 

“I don’t see anything,” she said. “What did you hear, Aliza?”

 

“Footsteps,” I said.

 

Alastair drew back the curtain of branches and looked out. “From where?”

“I’m not sure.”

 

He muttered something and ducked under the boughs. I followed the crunch of his steps as he circled the tree. “There’s nothing,” he said. “No tracks anywhere.”

 

“And I don’t smell anything,” Akarra added. “You must have heard the snow falling off the branches.”

 

Alastair returned and sat next to me with a grunt. “Or you may have been dreaming.”

 

Akarra shielded us with one wing and exhaled a thin stream of dragonfire into the pile of blackened kindling, which sputtered and caught with a crackle. “Better you sleep now, Aliza. I’ll take the rest of your watch.”

 

“No, you sleep,” I muttered. “I’ll finish my own watch.”

 

Neither of them argued, and that worried me most of all.

 

The moon slipped behind the clouds. I focused on tending the fire, breaking off dry twigs from the boughs overhead and tossing them onto the kindling with clumsy fingers. After nodding off a third time, I finally gave in and woke Akarra for the final watch. She said nothing, only stretched her wings and set her face toward the Barrens and the Wood and whatever waited for us there.

 

I was glad when she shook us awake at dawn. A dream had troubled me during that second sleep, but I couldn’t remember the details, only dark trees and blood and somewhere close by, the thump of a fourth heartbeat.

 

~

 

Daylight proved a blessing and a curse. Sore backsides and numb fingers combined to make both Alastair and me less than cheerful, and with no hope of breakfast beyond a few bites of bread, I was rapidly heading for irritable by the time we stumbled from the shelter of the tree. The scene outside our makeshift camp improved my mood a little. The pine grew on a ridge overlooking a valley so thick with trees there was no ground visible, and through the trailing snow we caught glimpses of mountains to the south. One peak stood above the others, shining white for a moment before the clouds swirled over the sun and veiled it from our sight.

“Dragonsmoor,” Akarra said without the enthusiasm I expected.

 

“Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked.

 

“Rushless Wood stands between us and the peaks of An-Edannathair.”

 

“At least we’re not in direwolf country,” I said, reaching for a lightness I didn’t feel. Just somewhere that may be much worse.

 

“It’s farther than it looks.”

 

I felt the westward wind on my face, remnants of the blizzard that had blown us so far off course. If it didn’t change soon, Akarra would have to fight it the entire way to the mountains. Silently I calculated. A fortnight on the road to Lake Meera, another few weeks at Castle Selwyn, a night and a day across the Barrens, one night on the border of the Rushless, and how much longer through the Wood? We had been away from home for almost a month. I wondered when Alastair’s staff would start to worry. “How far is House Pendragon from here?” I asked Akarra.

“Farther than that. Several days at least.”

 

“Can you fly?” Alastair asked her.

 

“I’m unsteady enough as it is, khela. I wouldn’t trust myself to keep you from falling.” She hung her head, and he rested his forehead against her side. “I need to eat,” she said in a faint voice.

 

At the mention of eating, my stomach growled loudly enough to draw both their gazes. I busied myself with gathering our scarves, now more frozen than dried, from their branches and pretended nothing had happened. I’d been able to push the hollow feeling away for minutes at a time by thinking about how very little food we had left, but hearing Akarra admit her own weakness broke down that defense. It felt as if a lifetime had passed since our last meal at Castle Selwyn.

 

“Then we’ll go on foot.” Alastair donned his scabbard and threw one of the panniers over his shoulder. He must have seen my despairing look. “For now,” he added. “There are bound to be wild animals in that forest.”

 

“I’m not leaving you to hunt, khela,” Akarra said.

 

“Then we’ll hunt with you.”

 

She raised one horned eyebrow.

 

“We’ll go quietly.”

 

“If you say,” she said. “But stay close, both of you. I don’t like the look of those trees, and there’s a strange smell.”

 

I sniffed and inhaled a snowflake. “What is it?”

 

“I don’t know. Not something dead but—well, not something alive either.” She looked over at Alastair, who’d left his axe within easy reach at his hip. “Keep that ready, will you?”

 

~

 

The ridge was slippery with snow-covered pine needles. Akarra conceded after the first nearly turned ankle and flew us down to the border of the trees. I tried not to think of the Marsh-Rider Lydon Tam and his description of the inhabitants of Rushless Wood, nor of his foster sister Johanna Mauntell, of her wild laughter and bared teeth and the symbol of the Bleeding Tree carved into her back. If he was right, there was danger here that had nothing to do with the Tekari. We kept close to Akarra as we entered the Wood.

The pines petered out after the first few yards. Trees of a kind I’d never seen before took their place, growing so thick it took careful maneuvering for Akarra to move through them in places. They had the look of poplars, but their trunks were several arms’ lengths around and the bark smooth and silvery, like birch. What branches they had grew high above the ground. It was quiet under the trees and solemn, as if we’d entered an endless pillared hall in the ruins of an ancient overgrown palace, and the trees deadened the sound of the wind enough to make me uneasy. Something was off about these woods. For midmorning, there were a few too many shadows.

“Do you feel that, Aliza?” Alastair asked after a few minutes. He kept his voice low.

 

“What?”

 

“The cold. It’s gone.”

Now that he pointed it out, I realized I’d stopped shivering. The air was still. I looked up. Interwoven branches formed a roof overhead that blocked most of the snow and the few flakes that made it through melted before they reached the ground. We continued in silence for a long time, alternately walking and sitting on Akarra’s back. The knot of anxiety in my gut did not loosen. Light took on a curious quality beneath the trees and it was hard to judge how long we’d been in the Wood, though by the ache in my feet and the rumbling of my stomach I guessed it was past noon when an odd sight brought us to a halt.

 

“Akarra, wait a moment.” I slipped down from her back.

 

“What is it?” Alastair asked.

 

I stopped in front of the tree that had caught my eye. A dark streak at chest height marred its silvery bark. At first I’d thought it was fire damage, but on closer inspection the bark proved unharmed. The stain had grown with the wood. It ran up the side of the trunk like moss, but there was no moss to be seen, and it was dark reddish, not black or green. Odd.

 

“Alastair, get off my back,” Akarra said quietly.

 

No sooner had he dismounted than she sprang upward, jaws snapping. Twigs fell around us. She landed clumsily, wings hitting tree trunks on either side, the remains of a squirrel’s drey sticking out from her teeth. With a crunch and a spurt of flame she bit down, then spat it out.

 

“Empty,” she growled. “And tastes foul.”

 

Alastair said a few conciliatory words in Eth and remounted. I didn’t.

 

“Aliza?”

 

I stared at the place the twigs had fallen. Bloodred sap leaked from their broken ends. The uneasy feeling crested as I turned to the tree again. “Just a moment.”

 

“What is it?” Akarra asked.

 

I waved for quiet and moved closer, pressing my ear to the silvery bark. Perhaps I was only imagining it. I hoped I was only imagining it.

 

I wasn’t. I made the fourfold gesture and backed away, stumbling over leaf litter and exposed roots.

 

“The trees. The trees have heartbeats.”