[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]
The sun slanted slowly lower in the sky as she perched there, though it was barely discernable—it wouldn’t be dark tonight until late, as usual for the summer. Still, she noticed as she always did. Sometimes she wondered if that was a gift from one of her parents. Usually, she decided it didn’t matter.
Kailey’s fingers tightened around the book in her lap.
I wish he’d never told me. Then I’d have been able to come back out here and just—just be. I’d have been able to come back out here and go back to what I was doing before Finn found me and told me that he was hurt. Everything would be normal.
Instead she was dwelling on things she couldn’t change—things that might not even be decided yet.
Damn you, Lin. Damn you.
A flicker of motion and light caught her eye from downhill and instantly every nerve fired, every muscle tensing. She strained her ears as she slowly straightened from her lean against the tree’s trunk to peer downhill, toward the motion and light she thought she’d saw. Her heart hammered in her throat, lodged there, making it hard to breathe—or it would have, if she’d have dared to try. Faintly on the wind, she heard the sound of voices.
The Hunt’s scouting parties aren’t due back for weeks yet and Cameron travels alone. She leaned a little further forward, trying to stay hidden in the tree, squinting between the branches.
There. Six riders were below the orchard, already off the road, as if they’d already been riding cross-country. She leaned forward even more, caught sight of the sun reflecting off metal.
At this distance, she couldn’t make out what they were saying, nor could she clearly see their faces. But they were armed, and they seemed to be strangers as they paused at the edge of the orchard, seeming to debate what its presence meant there.
I have to warn the others. She swallowed bile, heart still going at twice its normal speed. Please, please don’t let them see me. Please.
Quietly, carefully, she wedged her book between two branches and began to ease out of the tree. There would be no time for her shoes. She had to move fast.
Gods and monsters, she thought, lips clamped tightly together as she carefully climbed down, trying to keep hidden, worried her stomach would betray her. Is this what it was like for them every day?
If it was, she took back every desire she’d ever had to know what it was like here before the treaties, before the end of the wars. She just wanted the peace they’d had to last forever instead.
Her feet hit the ground and she winced slightly as she came down on a twig. Holding her breath, she peered down the hill. The strangers were still paused down there, still talking.
Another glint of metal. One of the horses snorted and pawed at the ground.
Sucking in a deep breath, Kailey turned and ran.