If she’d known the beasts were still in the forest, she would never have left the path.
“They didn’t see me. It’s alright. They didn’t see me.”
Sacha panted out the words like a mantra as she fled away from the trees across an open field. Her breath came in broken sobs and her legs screamed from exertion. A bolt of lightning seared the sky, and then snaked down to strike the earth, so close, the ozone scorched her nose. She screamed and covered her head, but she didn’t stop running. She couldn’t stop. They would catch her.
Another flash made her looked up at the threat of the churning clouds, but then she stumbled on the uneven ground and fell to her knees, wincing as stones cut into her skin. She glanced back toward the forest, lit momentarily by the electricity in the sky. No sign of movement. Not yet.
Scrambling to her feet, she kept her gaze on the field as she ran, ignoring the violence in the sky. A few more steps, and she’d be at the cart-path; a couple more, the hedgerow.
When she stumbled up to the laurel hedge bordering the road, she cried out in triumph. But almost immediately, relief gave way to renewed panic—the biggest opening in that wall of shining leaves would scarcely let in a mouse. She wrestled with the interwoven branches, but her hands were shaking worse than the grasses in the storm, and she couldn’t manage to do more than rattle twigs.
She spoke to herself with authority, but her voice still quavered.
She took a huge breath and held it for a moment, willing herself to concentrate on spreading the inflexible branches. She almost wept when a gap opened under her hands. Without hesitating, she squirmed her way into the hedge.
The stiff-fingered laurel grabbed at her loose clothes like her little brothers’ grubby hands pulling on her skirts when they wanted something. But unlike her loving brothers, the branches tore at her, scratching angry welts in her cheeks and hands as she forced her way deeper into a musty world of animal droppings and fallen leaves. When she reached the laurel’s trunks, she cowered to the ground, her breath ragged and gasping.
“Remember what Zoren said. Breathe. Breathe.”
Sacha crouched in the dank leaves counting breaths until her gibbering mind quieted enough that she could turn her attention beyond the hedgerow. She listened, but all she heard was the thunder and the fat drops of rain as they struck the packed earth of the road. She needed to see what was out there.
Closing her eyes, she called up her power. When it was pulsing with her heartbeat, she reached her senses beyond the tangle of sticks. She held her breath, and then opened her mind’s-eye onto the barren stretch of cart-path beyond the hedge.
The only thing she could see in the darkness was the vaguest of shapes in the field and the dark smudge of forest beyond. Her Affinity was strong—really strong—but it still couldn’t illuminate the night.
But the lightning could. As the next blaze etched the landscape in white, she saw them. Three misshapen forms, hunched and brutish, were lumping down the path, their gaits graceless and tortured. With each new flash, she caught a detail. Mismatched limbs. Mangy fur. Curving claws. The creatures lifted grotesque snouts to howl, then swung them back and forth as though scenting for her.
A sickening chill raised the hair on her neck. These were the beasts she didn’t believe in. Coldwights.
She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering, but the effort did not stop her heart from speeding again. She tried to remember what Zoren had taught her about Coldwights’ Savage magic, but all her stunned brain could recall was to hide in laurel.
She cursed herself for needing to remember even that. She wouldn’t be crouching like a hare in a hole now if she’d hurried home and shut herself up behind stone walls and heavy doors. That’s what everyone did on nights like this one, nights where the storm was a mad beast roaring down from the tops of the Bleaken Mountains to ravage the valley below.
But she hadn’t followed custom this evening. Like a fool, she been too busy searching the forest floor to notice the growing threat in the sky. She’d been day-dreaming of discovering a patch of freresbalm and had been blind to the storm, blind to the growing dusk.
Yet, if only she’d found the devilish root! A discovery like that would have been worth the risk of the thunderstorm—maybe even worth being seen by Coldwights. She’d have been celebrated all the way to Coltshire. Perhaps then everyone would stop looking at her as though they were waiting for something. Maybe then they would admire her magic, rather than casting slant-eyed glances at her as she walked down the lane to Zoren’s cottage.
But now, instead of basking in the town’s praises, she found herself huddled in the barbed embrace of a hedge with Coldwights at her heels.
A sound that wasn’t storm brought her out of her brooding. She peered around her and cursed. Her Affinity-guided sight had faded. Now all she saw in front of her was the curve of laurel leaves and branches.
Mustering her power again, she pushed her senses out to scan the darkness. The creatures had reached the cart-path. They called out to one another with strangled yelps, slinking right to the edge of the lane before stopping to stare at the hedgerow with hungry eyes. She could sense their yearning, and terror threatened to send her running again. With blanching knuckles, she gripped the branches. She had to stay here. The laurel would protect her.
The Coldwights paced in the grass beside the road, snapping and snarling, scrabbling at the earth but coming no closer.
Finally, after an age of dripping teeth and vicious growls, the creatures turned away, howling in frustration.
Sacha eased her hands from the rough branches. Blood now slicking her palms, but she didn’t give it a moment’s thought. She watched the Coldwights slog back toward the trees, and even once the forest had swallowed them, she didn’t move to leave the hedgerow. The beasts might be trying to trick her out of her safe den.
But after several more minutes with no sense of the creatures, she pulled her awareness back into her own body and let her power die away.
Now that the imminent threat of the Coldwights had passed, she began to shake. Gods! What on the green earth had she been thinking? She could just hear Zoren’s voice scolding, her concern hidden in a lesson—“You weren’t thinking, girl. And so you find yourself cold and in danger in a hedgerow, rather than warm and safe in your own feather-bed.”
Bed. Yes. But what to do? Run for home, or stay in the laurel until the storm passed?
The thought of her parents and her little brothers finally drove her from her refuge. Pulling in a deep breath, she drew her power up once more and sent her Affinity-guided sight to its limit. Admittedly, it wasn’t that far, but she found no malevolent presence nearby, only the sparks of small, wild creatures—voles, mice, insects. Careful this time, she navigated the clutch of the laurel branches, and when she’d dragged herself from their final grasp, she ran.