Shadow Study

By: Maria V. Snyder


1

YELENA

Ugh, mud, Kiki said as she splashed through another puddle. The wet muck clung to her copper coat and dripped from her long tail. It packed into her hooves and coated the hair of her fetlocks with each step.

Through our mental connection I sensed her tired discomfort. Stop? I asked. Rest?

No. Images of fresh hay, a clean stall and being groomed formed in Kiki’s mind. Home, soon.

Surprised, I glanced around the forest. Melting piles of snow mixed with black clumps of dead leaves—signs that the cold season was losing its grip. Rain tapped steadily on the bare branches. The light faded, turning the already gray woods leaden. For the past few hours, I’d been huddling under my sopping-wet cloak, trying to keep warm. With my thoughts fixed on my rendezvous with Valek, I’d failed to keep track of our location.

I scanned the area with my magic, projecting my awareness out to seek life. A few brave rabbits foraged in the soggy underbrush and a couple of deer stood frozen, listening to the squishy plodding of Kiki’s passage. No souls haunted these woods. No humans within miles.

That wasn’t a surprise. This remote area in the northeastern Featherstone lands had been chosen for that very reason. After Owen Moon ambushed us about four years ago, Valek and I had decided to move to a less well-known location near the Ixian border.

I leaned forward in the saddle. We were getting close and my wet cloak no longer pressed so hard on my shoulders. At this pace, we’d reach our cozy cottage within the hour. Valek’s involvement with our friend Opal’s rescue from the Bloodrose Clan and the aftermath had kept him busy for months. Finally we would have a few precious days all to ourselves before he reported back to the Commander. He should already be there waiting for me. Visions of sharing a hot bath, snuggling by a roaring fire and relaxing on the couch once again distracted me.

Kiki snorted in amusement and broke into a gallop. Behind the clouds the sun set, robbing the forest of all color. I trusted Kiki to find the path in the semidarkness as I kept a light magical connection to the wildlife nearby.

In midstride, Kiki jigged to the right. Movement flashed to the left along with the unmistakable twang of a bow. Kiki twisted under me. I grabbed for her mane, but a force slammed into my chest and knocked me from the saddle.

Hitting the ground hard, I felt all the air in my lungs whoosh out as pain erupted. Fire burned with each of my desperate gasps. Without thought, I projected again, searching for the...person who had attacked me. Despite the agony, I pushed as far as I could. No one.

Kiki, smells? I asked. She stood over me, protecting me.

Pine. Wet. Mud.

See magician?

No.

Not good. The person had to be protected by a magical null shield. It was the only way to hide from me. Null shields blocked magic. At least it also prevented the magician from attacking me with his or her magic since it blocked magic from both sides of the shield. But it wouldn’t stop another arrow. And perhaps the next one wouldn’t miss.

I glanced at the shaft. The arrow had struck two inches above and one inch to the left of my heart, lodging just below my clavicle. Fear banished the pain for a moment. I needed to move. Now.

Rolling on my side, I paused as an icy sensation spread across my chest. The tip had been poisoned! I plopped back in the mud. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on expelling the cold liquid. It flowed from the wound, mixing with the blood already soaked into my shirt.

Instead of disappearing, the poison remained as if being refilled as fast as I ejected it. With pain clouding my thoughts, the reason eluded me.

Kiki, however, figured it out. She clamped her teeth on the arrow’s shaft. I had a second to realize what she planned before she yanked the arrow from my chest.

I cried as intense pain exploded, blood gushed and metal scraped bone all at once. Stunned, I lay on the ground as black and white spots swirled in my vision. On the verge of losing consciousness, I focused on the hollow barbed tip of the arrow coated with my blood, reminding me of the danger. I remained a target. And I wasn’t about to make it easy for my attacker to get another shot.

Fix hole, Kiki said.

I debated. If I healed myself now, then I’d be too weak to defend myself. Not like I was in fighting condition. Although I still had access to my magic, it was useless against arrows and, as long as the assassin hid behind the null shield, I couldn’t touch him or her with my magic, either.