It did not surprise Fire that the man in the forest shot her. What surprised her was that he shot her by accident.
The arrow whacked her square in the arm and threw her sideways against a boulder, which knocked the air out of her. The pain was too great to ignore, but behind it she focused her mind, made it cold and sharp, like a single star in a black winter sky. If he was a cool man, certain in what he was doing, he would be guarded against her, but Fire rarely encountered this type. More often the men who tried to hurt her were angry or arrogant or frightened enough that she could find a crack in the fortress of their thoughts, and ease her way in.
She found this man's mind instantlyso open, so welcoming, even, that she wondered if he could be a simpleton hired by someone else. She fumbled for the knife in her boot. His footfalls, and then his breath, sounded through the trees. She had no time to waste, for he would shoot her again as soon as he found her. You don't want to kill me. You've changed your mind.
Then he rounded a tree and his blue eyes caught hold of her, and widened in astonishment and horror.
"Not a girl!" he cried out.
Fire's thoughts scrambled. Had he not meant to strike her? Did he not know who she was? Had he meant to murder Archer? She forced her voice calm. "Who was your target?"
"Not who," he said. "What. Your cloak is brown pelt.
Your dress is brown. Rocks alive, girl," he said in a burst of exasperation. He marched toward her and inspected the arrow embedded in her upper arm, the blood that soaked her cloak, her sleeve, her headscarf. "A fellow would think you were hoping to be shot by a hunter."
More accurately, a poacher, since Archer forbade hunting in these woods at this time of day, just so that Fire could pass through here dressed this way. Besides, she'd never seen this shortish, tawny-haired, light-eyed man before. Well. If he was not only a poacher, but a poacher who'd accidentally shot Fire while hunting illegally, then he would not want to turn himself in to Archer's famous temper; but that was what she was going to have to make him want to do. She was losing blood, and she was beginning to feel lightheaded. She would need his assistance to get home.
"Now I'll have to kill you," he said glumly. And then, before she could begin to address that rather bizarre statement:
"Wait. Who are you? Tell me you're not her."
"Not who?" she hedged, reaching again for his mind, and finding it still strangely blank, as if his intentions were floating, lost in a fog."Your hair is covered," he said. "Your eyes, your faceoh, save me." He backed away from her. "Your eyes are so green. I'm a dead man."
He was an odd one, with his talk of killing her, and himself dying, and his peculiar floating brain; and now he looked ready to bolt, which Fire must not allow. She grasped at his thoughts and slid them into place. You don't find my eyes or my face to be all that remarkable.
The man squinted at her, puzzled.
The more you look at me the more you see I'm just an ordinary girl. You've found an ordinary girl injured in the forest, and now you must rescue me. You must take me to Lord Archer.
Here Fire encountered a small resistance in the form of the man's fear. She pulled harder at his mind, and smiled at him, the most gorgeous smile she could muster while throbbing with pain and dying of blood loss. Lord Archer will reward you and keep you safe, and you will be honored as a hero.
There was no hesitation. He eased her quiver and her fiddle case from her back and slung them over his shoulder against his own quiver. He took up both of their bows in one hand and wrapped her right arm, her uninjured arm, around his neck. "Come along, miss," he said. He half led her, half carried her, through the trees toward Archer's holding.
He knows the way, she thought tiredly, and then she let the thought go. It didn't matter who he was or where he came from. It only mattered that she stay awake and inside his head until he'd gotten her home and Archer's people had seized him. She kept her eyes and ears and her mind alert for monsters, for neither her headscarf nor her own mental guard against them would hide her from them if they smelled her blood.
At least she could count on this poacher to be a decent shot.
Archer brought down a raptor monster as Fire and the poacher stumbled out of the trees. A beautiful, long shot from the upper terrace that Fire was in no state to admire, but that caused the poacher to murmur something under his breath about the appropriateness of the young lord's nickname. The monster plummeted from the sky and crashed onto the pathway to the door. Its color was the rich orange-gold of a sunflower.
Archer stood tall and graceful on the stone terrace, eyes raised to the sky, longbow lightly in hand. He reached to the quiver on his back, notched another arrow, and swept the treetops. Then he saw them, the man dragging her bleeding from the forest. He turned on his heel and ran into the house, and even down here, even from this distance and stone walls between them, Fire could hear him yelling. She sent words and feeling into his mind, not mind control, only a message. Don't worry. Seize him and disarm him, but don't hurt him. Please, she added, for whatever it was worth with Archer. He's a nice man and I've had to trick him.
Archer burst through the great front door with his captain Palla, his healer, and five of his guard. He leapt over the raptor and ran to Fire. "I found her in the forest," the poacher cried.
"I found her. I saved her life."
Once the guards had taken hold of the poacher, Fire released his mind. The relief of it weakened her knees and she slumped against Archer.
"Fire," her friend was saying. "Fire. Are you all right?
Where else are you hurt?"
She couldn't stand. Archer grasped her, lowered her to the ground. She shook her head numbly. "Nowhere."
"Let her sit," the healer said. "Let her lie down. I must stop the flow of blood."
Archer was wild. "Will she be all right?"
"Most certainly," the healer said curtly, "if you will get out of my way and let me stop the flow of blood. My lord."
Archer let out a ragged breath and kissed Fire's forehead. He untangled himself from her body and crouched on his heels, clenching and unclenching his fists. Then he turned to peer at the poacher held by his guards, and Fire thought warningly, Archer, for she knew that with his anxieties unsoothed, Archer was transitioning now to fury.
"A nice man who must nonetheless be seized," he hissed at the poacher, standing. "I can see that the arrow in her arm came from your quiver. Who are you and who sent you?"
The poacher barely noticed Archer. He stared down at Fire, boggle-eyed. "She's beautiful again," he said. "I'm a dead man."
"He won't kill you," Fire told him soothingly. "He doesn't kill poachers, and anyway, you saved me."
"If you shot her I'll kill you with pleasure," Archer said.
"It makes no difference what you do," the poacher said.
Archer glared down at the man. "And if you were so intent on rescuing her, why didn't you remove the arrow yourself and bind the wound before dragging her half across the world?"
"Archer," Fire said, and then stopped, choking back a cry as the healer ripped off her bloody sleeve. "He was under my control, and I didn't think of it. Leave him alone."
Archer swung on her. "And why didn't you think of it? Where is your common sense?"
"Lord Archer," the healer said testily. "There will be no yelling at people who are bleeding themselves to unconsciousness.
Make yourself useful. Hold her down, will you, while I remove this arrow; and then you'll do best to look to the skies."
Archer knelt beside her and took hold of her shoulders.
His face was wooden but his voice shook with emotion.
"Forgive me, Fire." To the healer: "We're mad to be doing this outside. They smell the blood."
And then sudden pain, blinding and brilliant. Fire wrenched her head and fought against the healer, against Archer's heavy strength. Her scarf slipped off and released the shimmering prism of her hair: sunrise, poppy, copper, fuchsia, flame. Red, brighter than the blood soaking the pathway.
She ate dinner in her own stone house, which was just beyond Archer's and under the protection of his guard. He had sent the dead raptor monster to her kitchen. Archer was one of very few people who made her feel no shame for craving the taste of monster meat.
She ate in bed, and he sat with her. He cut her meat and encouraged her. Eating hurt, everything hurt.
The poacher was jailed in one of the outdoor monster cages Fire's father, Lord Cansrel, had built into the hill behind the house. "I hope there's a lightning storm," Archer said. "I hope for a flood. I would like the ground under your poacher to crack open and swallow him."
She ignored him. She knew it was only hot air.
"I passed Donal in your hall," he said, "sneaking out with a pile of blankets and pillows. You're building your assassin a bed out there, aren't you? And probably feeding him as well as you feed yourself."
"He's not an assassin, only a poacher with fuzzy eyesight."
"You believe that even less than I do."
"All right, but I do believe that when he shot me, he thought I was a deer."
Archer sat back and crossed his arms. "Perhaps. We'll talk to him again tomorrow. We'll have his story from him."
"I would rather not help."
"I would rather not ask you, darling, but I need to know who this man is and who sent him. He's the second stranger to be seen on my land these two weeks."
Fire lay back, closed her eyes, forced her jaw to chew.
Everyone was a stranger. Strangers came out of the rocks, the hills, and it was impossible to know everyone's truth. She didn't want to knownor did she want to use her powers to find out. It was one thing to take over a man's mind to prevent her own death, and another thing entirely to steal his secrets.
When she turned to Archer again, he was watching her quietly. His white-blond hair and his deep brown eyes, his proud mouth. The familiar features she'd known since she was a toddler and he was a child, always carrying a bow around as long as his own height. It was she who'd first modified his real name, Arklin, to Archer, and he had taught her to shoot. And looking into his face now, the face of a grown man responsible for a northern estate, its money, its farms, its people, she understood his anxiety. It was not a peaceful time in the Dells. In King's City, young King Nash was clinging, with some desperation, to the throne, while rebel lords like Lord Mydogg in the north and Lord Gentian in the south built armies and thought about how to unseat him.
War was coming. And the mountains and forests swarmed with spies and thieves and other lawless men. Strangers were always alarming.
Archer's voice was soft. "You won't be able to go outside alone until you can shoot again. The raptors are out of control. I'm sorry, Fire."
Fire swallowed. She'd been trying not to think about this particular bleakness. "It makes no difference. I can't play fiddle, either, or harp or flute or any of my instruments. I have no need to leave home."
"We'll send word to your students." He sighed and rubbed his neck. "And I'll see whom I can place in their houses in your stead. Until you heal, we'll be forced to trust our neighbors without the help of your insight." For trust was not assumed these days, even among long-standing neighbors, and one of Fire's jobs as she gave music lessons was to keep her eyes and ears open. Occasionally she learned somethinginformation, conversation, the sense of something wrongthat was a help to Archer and his father, Brocker, both loyal allies of the king.
It was also a long time for Fire to live without the comfort of her own music. She closed her eyes again and breathed slowly. These were always the worst injuries, the ones that left her unable to play her fiddle.
She hummed to herself, a song they both knew about the northern Dells, a song that Archer's father always liked her to play when she sat with him.
Archer took the hand of her uninjured arm, and kissed it. He kissed her fingers, her wrist. His lips brushed her forearm.
She stopped humming. She opened her eyes to the sight of his, mischievous and brown, smiling into hers.
You can't be serious, she thought to him.
He touched her hair, which shone against the blankets.
"You look unhappy."
Archer. It hurts to move.
"You don't have to move. And I can erase your pain."
She smiled, despite herself, and spoke aloud. "No doubt. But so can sleep. Go home, Archer. I'm sure you can find someone else's pain to erase."
"So callous," he said teasingly, "when you know how worried I was for you today."
She did know how worried. She merely doubted that the worry had changed his nature.
Of course, after he'd gone, she did not sleep. She tried, but nightmares brought her awake over and over again. Her nightmares were always worse on days when she'd spent time down among the cages, for that was where her father had died.
Cansrel, her beautiful monster father. Monsters in the Dells came from monsters. A monster could breed with a non-monster of its speciesher mother had not been a monster but the progeny was always monstrous. Cansrel had had glittery silver hair with glints of blue, and deep, dark blue eyes. His body, his face breathtaking, smooth and beautifully cut, like crystal reflecting light, glowing with that intangible something that all monsters have. He had been the most stunning man alive when he'd lived, or at least Fire had found him so. He had been better than she at controlling the minds of humans. He had had a great deal more practice.
Fire lay in her bed and fought off the dream memory. The growling leopard monster, midnight blue with gold spots, astride her father. The smell of her father's blood, his gorgeous eyes on her, disbelieving. Dying.
She wished now that she hadn't sent Archer home. Archer understood the nightmares, and Archer was alive and passionate. She wanted his company, his vitality.
In her bed she grew more and more restless, and finally she did a thing that would have turned Archer livid. She dragged herself to her closets and dressed herself, slowly, painfully, in coat and trousers, dark browns and blacks to match the night. Her attempt to wrap her hair almost sent her back to bed, since she needed both arms to do it and lifting her left arm was an agony. Somehow she managed, capitulating at one point to the use of a mirror to be sure that no hair was showing in back. Generally she avoided mirrors. It embarrassed her to lose her own breath at the sight of herself.
She stuck a knife in her belt and hefted a spear and ignored her own conscience calling, singing, screaming to her that she couldn't even protect herself from a porcupine tonight, let alone a monster raptor or monster wolf.
Next was the hardest part of all, one armed. She had to sneak out of her own house by way of the tree outside her window, for Archer's guards stood at all her doorways, and they would never allow her to wander the hills injured and alone. Unless she used her power to control them, and that she would not do. Archer's guards trusted her.
Archer had been the one to notice how closely this ancient tree hugged the house and how easily he could climb it in the dark, two years ago, when Cansrel had still been alive, and Archer had been eighteen and Fire had been fifteen and their friendship had evolved in a manner Cansrel's guards hadn't needed to know the particulars of. A manner that had been unexpected to her, and sweet, and boosted her small list of happinesses. What Archer hadn't known was that Fire had begun to use the route herself, almost immediately, first to skirt Cansrel's men and then, after Cansrel was dead, Archer's own. Not to do anything shocking or forbidden; just to walk at night by herself, without everyone knowing.
She pitched her spear out the window. What followed was an ordeal that involved much swearing and tearing of cloth and fingernails. On solid ground, sweating and shaking and appreciating fully now what a foolish idea this had been, she used her spear as a cane and limped away from the house. She didn't want to go far, just out of the trees so that she could see the stars. They always eased her lonesomeness. She thought of them as beautiful creatures, burning and cold; each solitary, and bleak, and silent like her.
Tonight they were clear and perfect in the sky.
Standing on a rocky patch that rose beyond Cansrel's monster cages, she bathed in the light of the stars and tried to soak up some of their quiet. Breathing deep, she rubbed the place in her hip that still ached sometimes from an arrow scar that was months old. Always one of the trials of a new wound: All the old wounds liked to rise up and start hurting again, too.
She'd never been injured accidentally before. It was hard to know how to categorize this attack in her mind; it almost seemed funny. She had a dagger scar on one forearm, another on her belly. An arrow gouge from years ago in her back. It was a thing that happened now and then. For every peaceful man, there was a man who wanted to hurt her, even kill her, because she was a gorgeous thing he could not have, or because he'd despised her father. And for every attack that had left a scar there were five or six other attacks she'd managed to stop.
Tooth marks on one wrist: a wolf monster. Claw marks at one shoulder: a raptor monster. Other wounds, too, the small, invisible kind. Just this morning, in the town, a man's hot eyes on her body, and the man's wife beside him, burning at Fire with jealousy and hatred. Or the monthly humiliation of needing a guard during her woman's bleedings to protect her from monsters who could smell her blood.
"The attention shouldn't embarrass you," Cansrel would have said. "It should gladden you. Don't you feel it, the joy of having an effect on everyone and everything simply by being?"
Cansrel had never found any of it humiliating. He'd kept predator monsters as petsa silvery lavender raptor, a bloodpurple mountain lion, a grass-colored bear glinting with gold, the midnight blue leopard with gold spots. He'd underfed them on purpose and walked among their cages, his hair uncovered, scratching his own skin with a knife so that his blood beaded on the surface. It had been one of his favorite things to make his monsters scream and roar and scrape their teeth on the metal bars, wild with their desire for his monster body.
She couldn't begin to imagine feeling that way, without fear, or shame.
The air was turning damp and cold, and peace was too far away for her to reach tonight.
Slowly she headed back to her tree. She tried to grab hold and climb, but it didn't take much scrabbling at the trunk for her to understand that she was not, under any circumstances, going to be able to enter her bedroom the way she'd exited.
Leaning into the tree, sore and weary, Fire cursed her stupidity. She had two options now, and neither was acceptable. Either she must turn herself in to the guards at her doors and tomorrow wage a battle over her freedom with Archer, or she must enter the mind of one of those guards and trick his thoughts.
She reached out tentatively to see who was around. The poacher's mind bobbed against hers, asleep in his cage. Guarding her house were a number of men whose minds she recognized. At her side entrance was an older fellow named Krell who was something of a friend to heror would have been, did he not have the tendency to admire her too much. He was a musician, easily as talented as she and more experienced, and they played together sometimes, Fire on her fiddle and Krell on flute or whistle. Too convinced of her perfection, Krell, ever to suspect her. An easy mark.
Fire sighed. Archer was a better friend when he did not know every detail of her life and mind. She would have to do this.
She slipped up to the house and into the trees near the side door. The feeling of a monster reaching for the gates of one's mind was subtle. A strong and practiced person could learn to recognize the encroachment and slam the gates shut. Tonight Krell's mind was alert for trespassers but not for this type of invasion; he was open and bored, and she crept her way in. He noticed a change and adjusted his focus, startled, but she worked quickly to distract him. You heard something. There it is, can you hear it again? Shouts, near the front of the house. Step away from the door and turn to look.
Without pause he moved from the entrance and turned his back to her. She crept out of the trees toward the door.
You hear nothing behind you, only before you. The door behind you is closed.
He never swung around to check, never even doubted the thoughts she'd implanted in his mind. She opened the door behind him, slipped through, and shut herself in, then leaned against the wall of her hallway for a moment, oddly depressed at how easy that had been. It seemed to her that it shouldn't be so easy to make a man into a fool.
Rather bleak now with self-disgust, she slumped her way upstairs to her room. A particular song was stuck in her head, dully playing itself over and over, though she couldn't think why. It was the funeral lament sung in the Dells to mourn the waste of a life.
She supposed thoughts of her father had brought the song to mind. She had never sung it for him or played it on her fiddle. She'd been too numb with grief and confusion to play anything after he'd died. A fire had been lit for him, but she had not gone to see it.
It had been a gift from Cansrel, her fiddle. One of his strange kindnesses, for he'd never had patience for her music. And now Fire was alone, the only remaining human monster in the Dells, and her fiddle was one of few happy things she had to remember him by.
Well, she supposed there was a kind of gladness in his remembrance, some of the time. But it didn't change reality. In one way or another, all that was wrong in the Dells could be traced back to Cansrel.
It was not a thought to bring peace. But delirious now with fatigue, she slept soundly, the Dellian lament a backdrop to her dreams.