Navaeli forced chilly air into her lungs, each breath feeling like a dozen daggers to her chest. Trees broke up the night wind, but even so, it lashed harshly against her skin. It was especially harsh against the throbbing arrow wound in her ankle. She had no time to stop and attend to it.
The forest around her passed in thick layers of haze and leaves, of blue shadows and faded earth. Ripping her snagged poncho out of a bush, Navaeli fled the distant glare of torchlight through the trees, and the armored figures that it heralded, casting broken shadows through the woods. The crest engraved into their breastplates was much too far away to make out, but Navaeli knew it all the same. An executioner’s sword crossed over a forging hammer — the mark of the Irongardhe.
Hounds bayed from a distance she wished was farther as the dirt underfoot yielded to wet stones and silt, and their call tore deeper than any arrow or sword.
Stumbling, Navaeli silenced a gasp as her toes met a river’s frigid currents. The water’s touch left her numb.
“Head north,” a voice whispered to her. A silky feminine one, one that sounded like taloned hands gripping her shoulders, one that smelled of ash and crushed bones. The one only she could hear. “We are so close, yet you head the wrong way.”
“North is death,” Navaeli hissed through her teeth.
The phantom grip tensed in irritation and then faded away.
Hearing her pursuers gaining ground, Navaeli plunged into the frigid currents. She could barely feel the rocks now. The river was wide, but shallow, and the water lapped greedily at her arrow wound. Its searing dampened. On the other side, she fought against thicker undergrowth and heavy bushes. Her legs wobbled beneath her. Wincing at the crunch of leaves, she collapsed into a patch of foliage. Though she couldn’t see a thing through the darkness, Navaeli could hear the hounds snarling, and soon enough, pacing the length of the river.
Their masters’ voices could be heard too. Navaeli’s skin prickled with goosebumps, and she closed her eyes. “The fiend went this way,” one of the knights called out. “Your arrow struck true. There’s blood, here, in the soil.”
“Did she cross over?”
Navaeli held her breath, gripping the bush with what little strength she had left. She didn’t move. She didn’t dare breathe. Even her heartbeat, rushing in her ears, sounded too loud to her.
“She wasn’t headed toward the village when we found her.”
“True. Might’ve dipped in to lose the scent and run back the way she came. Spread out, quickly now — don’t lose the trail,” the second knight barked with a twinge of unease.
The hounds’ baying echoed along the riverbed, and the heavy tromp of boots started up again only to fade into the river’s burbling. A moment of silence passed. Then another. It seemed too good to be true. Navaeli counted off the seconds in her head, waiting with bated breath for them to turn around, to cross the river, to find her.
Eventually, Navaeli had to admit that the chase was over. They were gone. A breath of relief sank out of her, followed by a long-held gasp of pain. One danger gone, another brought to the fore. She yanked up the cuff of her sirwal to look at her ankle. In the pallid starlight, she could see only the ugly cut of the wound and dark streaks of blood trailing down her foot.
A cold sweat crept down her neck. It would be just her luck to escape the Irongardhe only to bleed out before the next dawn broke.
“Well,” Navaeli murmured into the empty air, “do you know what to do about this?”
The voice, as it often did, remained silent.
An unspoken curse rose to Navaeli’s lips. It’d be no use looking inside her satchel, for she hadn’t any bandages on her. Her hands shook as she fumbled for the knife tucked into her poncho. She hacked off a bit of the poncho’s edge and wrapped the coarse fabric as tightly around her ankle as she dared. Feeling returned to the wound — warmth, accompanied by a sharp ache.
Having lost the energy to even sit up, Navaeli slumped into the bracken. It would be unwise to stay where she was. She might be found. But weariness had overtaken her, and she couldn’t spur herself to action.
“If I die out here, you are to blame,” she whispered through chattering teeth.A faint, disappointed scoff sounded at the border of her mind. “You are lucky to be alive in the first place. None of this would happen to you . . . if you would only give in to me.”
Shadow Herald is set to release May 20th, 2021. Learn more here!