Ailis ran until her feet were sore. She was deep into the forest now, further than she’d ever been before. Every now and then she had to stop, leaning against a tree and panting until she had gotten her breath back. The forest stretched on and on around the edge of the lake, further than she could ever have imagined.
Surely she had lost the soldiers by now. They had nearly caught her this time. She was merely floating, just like she did every day when she could sneak away from her chores. She stood on the rock at the edge of the lake and just let herself hover in the air. She never went too far or too high. She didn’t want anyone seeing her or discovering she had magic. It was peaceful in the air. She felt more like herself—where she could imagine she was secretly a princess rather than just a blacksmith’s daughter.
But this time she had gotten careless and had drifted lazily toward the treetops. That is when she first saw the men in black cloaks. She had heard all about these men that wore black cloaks. The villagers were all terrified of them. And the worst of the lot was that sergeant with the scar on his left cheek. Three jagged lines—almost like someone had scratched him viciously, or in desperation, Ailis thought. She had made the mistake of looking up as he rode through the village once. He had stared at her with those dead eyes as though he wanted to devour her.
When Ailis saw the horsemen through the trees she quickly returned to the ground and started to run. She knew she could have flown away from them but she couldn’t be seen in the air.
Ailis heard a noise and began to run again. Her plan was to circle back around to the village and return by the coastal path. As Ailis neared the village she stopped running. She ran her hands over her skirt and blouse to straighten it and adjusted the scarf around her hair. She stopped by a wild apple tree and filled her basket. It would be a ready excuse if anybody stopped her. She tried to calm the fear in her stomach.
The sun rose high in the sky when she caught the scent of wood smoke from the village. Ailis heaved a sigh of relief. Just over the next rise and she would be back in the village safe and sound.
Ailis left the forest and walked across the field of heath that ran down to the beach. In the distance she could see the village’s fishing boats bobbing on the open sea. They wouldn’t return until evening with their catch.
She could hear hammering from the blacksmith’s forge and she smiled. It wasn’t so bad being the blacksmith’s daughter. It could have been worse. Bryn was a highly respected artisan in the village and that afforded Ailis more freedom from menial chores than some of the other girls her age.
Ailis took an apple from her basket and was just about to take a bite when she saw the four horsemen blocking her path.
‘You there. Girl. Stop.’
Ailis shuddered when she saw it was the man with the scar. She was frozen to the spot.
‘What business do you have out here? We have been hunting a young girl seen in the forest. What do you have to say for yourself?’
‘I—I was just fetching apples. To make my Da a pie.’ She tried to control the nervousness in her voice.
‘A likely story. Who is your da?’
‘The—the blacksmith—Bryn—the blacksmith.’
The sergeant looked at her more closely, searching her face. His black gloved hand involuntarily stroked the scars on his cheek.
‘How old are you, girl?’
Ailis felt tears well into her eyes but forced them back down. The pendant between her breasts was turning hot.
‘Just take her here, Hom. Nobody need ever know.’ The second horsemen leered at her. Ailis fought back the urge to wet herself.
‘This little one is not worth your effort.’
A woman appeared behind the horsemen. Hom turned in his saddle to see who dared address the black cloaks. It was just another peasant woman. Hom drew his sword. The sun glinted wickedly on the blade. He smiled viciously to feel its familiar weight in his hand.
‘Why don’t you go about your business, old woman, before I slay you right here.’
‘You don’t want to kill anyone today.’ She moved her hand from under her cloak. ‘Return to your camp.’
Hom looked at her uncertainly for a moment before sheathing his sword.
‘Come, men. Let us return to camp. We will take the wench another day.’
He glared at the woman and turned his horse. The four men rode away in a cloud of dust.
Ailis collapsed to her knees with shock.
The woman cupped her hand around Ailis’ chin and raised the girl to her feet.
‘Run home, child. You need to take more care with your gift. It’s not your time yet, but soon.’
Ailis looked questioningly into the woman’s eyes. They were dark but flecked with blue, like snowflakes.
Ailis found her feet moving quickly toward the village. She looked back over her shoulder.
The woman was gone.