Mary blew on the toy. She added the last touch to the wooden horse moments before she left, impatient to give it to her friend's son. Linette must be busy in the morning rush, but Mary didn't want to hold on to the horse after she finished it. Besides, she'd be in and out.
Shouts and laughter rang through the center of town, the commotion an annoyance to her ears and etching a frown into her face.
She expertly dodged a girl with a platter of dried peppers.
"Give it back!"
Mary held the horse above her head as a child roughly bumped past her in pursuit of a sibling.
She bit back a scolding. Children these days.
As soon as the thought crossed her mind she felt like a senile old woman. Maybe she needed to get out more.
When she'd first moved to Julla, Mary had thought the small town would be peaceful. Well, besides the steady flow of travelers that came through. And it was peaceful, for the most part, if monotony was considered peaceful. She'd lived here longer than any place since leaving her hometown, and although she appreciated a more permanent home, it wouldn't last.
Not as long as her and Rike's reputation preceded them enough for their location to be discovered by, say . . . whomever so happened to be desperate enough to track a dead race, for example.
She wove her way around the townspeople, the clacking of pans ringing one store down from where she shoved through the crowd. A line had formed outside the bakery, and although it didn't extend more than a couple feet, she chose to avoid it. She skirted the building, fingers trailing along the rough brick of the wall until she reached a door. She knocked and, not waiting for an answer, opened it.
"Is Anders here?" Mary let the door swing closed behind her. "I have something for him."
Linette shoved a basket of loaves to a boy and told him to deal with the next order. She wiped her forehead, leaving a streak of white. "Actually he's a little sick. I don't think he should have visitors." She spotted the horse Mary held. "Oh he'll love that! Why don't I give it to him?"
Mary handed it to her. "It's not bad is it?"
"Just a cough. But I don't want it to get worse so he's resting right now." Linette blew a strand of hair from her face.
"Does he need any medicine? I know—"
"He'll be fine, don't worry." She gave Mary's arm a squeeze. " The physician will look at him tomorrow if it gets worse."
"I hope he gets better soon, then." Mary took a step back, not wanting to keep Linette from her work. "I'll see you later."
Harsh spring light flooded the town, casting shadows in-between buildings. Most of the clouds had disappeared, leaving the sun to reflect against the remaining snow and grate her eyes.
She blinked, resisting the urge to sneeze.
She glowered at the crowd, but plowed through the way she came. The street was nothing like the ones in Carafrin, so she shouldn't complain. How she had managed to walk anywhere on a market day was beyond her.
To reach her shop, she had to pass the Hillside Inn, which stood above and behind the main street, partially built into the hill that supported it. She lingered at one of two unlit streetlights that stood on either side of the cobbled path to the steps, ignoring a complaint from a man who bumped past her, not expecting her to slow down.
Should she . . . ?
Better not. If she never spoke to him, he would leave, and that problem would be gone from her life. She didn't want the money nor the danger he brought with it.
She snapped around, stepping right into a puddle of mud and her foot shot out from under her.
She careened right into the arms of a passerby.
Mary lifted her head to meet familiar, dark eyes.
The Ajerchan woman's eyebrows were raised in surprise. "Are you okay?"
"Sorry." Mary scrambled to get off, but all she accomplished was nearly falling on her face. The woman held onto Mary's shoulders until she regained her footing.
"Don't be. I was about to visit actually. I wanted to ask you something." She wrung her hands and glanced at her feet before meeting Mary's gaze. "That is, if you have a minute . . . ?"
White teeth peeked from her shy grin, contrasting with rich brown skin, and Mary found herself almost jealous.
"I have time." Mary returned a tight smile. "Did you need something you didn't see in the shop?"
"Yeah, I forgot to ask you last time. I need one or two deerskin hides, and Shonan said your friend is a tanner?"
Shonan owned the Hillside Inn. He loved giving 'advice' as he called it, but she thought Shonan simply liked the sound of his voice. Either way, the man knew a fair amount about the town from living here since he was a child, and certainly didn't have qualms vocalizing any of it.
"More or less." Mary shrugged. "He probably has a few. If you want to come by tomorrow I'll have it."
"That's not necessary." She waved vaguely at the street. "It looks like you'll be busy today. I can go ask him. He lives a little southeast of town, right?"
Mary nodded. "He may not be home but you can try. It's a little hidden in the trees, but there's a trail that leads right to it. Tell me if you don't find him."
"Thank you. Oh!" She clapped her hands together. "And do you know if he'll be there tomorrow?"
"Should be in the morning, but not after noon."
"Okay. Thanks again." She stepped away slowly, flashing that white smile. Mary lost sight as a merchant pulled an oversized cart between them.
"I said it'd be ready next week." Mary flicked through her list, finding his name under "Vilasco" with the day agreed on. She doubted it was a real name; most went under aliases for an order. "Before opening hours."
"I heard it already arrived." The man put his hands in his pockets, raising his chin.
"You have to pick it up at the time I gave you." Mary lowered her voice, but it was no less steely. "If you make a request, you can't be here outside those hours."
"It's already here, and I need it. No one's here anyway." He opened his arms wide, then let them fall to his sides.
"Doesn't matter. I can't have regular customers walking in when I'm in the middle of a transaction. No exceptions." Mary did not waver.
"N—" He stopped himself, bracing against the counter and letting out a loud exhale. "Fine. Fine. I'll come later when you're closed."
"No you won't. I won't be here this evening." Mary drummed her fingers under the counter, unwilling to show her impatience, but it was there nevertheless.
"What if—" The bell clanked, and he jolted, standing rigid like a child caught somewhere their parents told them not to go.
"Hey Mary," Bridget greeted, kicking the door closed behind her, arms occupied. She shifted her hold on a broken chair, straining to see over the backrest.
"If you really need it tomorrow, come before eight and bring an extra five ril for the early processing fee." She ushered him outside, more or less shoving him into the rainy drizzle, and watched him until he disappeared around a corner.
She inhaled the scent of petrichor, leaning far enough over the railing to feel tiny droplets on her face. If it got any wetter, she and Rike might have to find something else to do this afternoon besides hunting. They should've gone yesterday when it was sunny.
"Early processing fee, huh?"
Mary pushed away from the railing. Bridget leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed and a smirk on her lips.
"If you're going to make up fees, at least ask for more than five." She tsked, twisting a mahogany strand of hair around her finger.
Mary examined her palms, picking at flakes of old paint and slivers. "Honestly I'd have paid that much to be rid of him."
That was the first and last time she'd consent to an early pick up, even with a 'fee'. But she'd rather not risk him coming back later today and harassing Bridget. Not that she couldn't handle herself. She had a stubborn streak almost as hard as Mary's, which often surprised those who met her, as she was generally far more amiable.
Bridget snorted. "What time are you leaving again?"
"Once we move a few things to the woodshed." Mary hopped off the deck and waved for her to follow. She pointed to the side wall, supporting a pile of imported blue Ashwood. Each log remained unsplit, the bark still fresh and intact. It came shortly after she returned from Linette's the day before, but with market day and all, she didn't get to finish putting it away.
"You can just go now if you'd like." Bridget heaved a log over her shoulder. Despite her small frame and young age, she was rather strong. "I got this."
"Go have fun with Rike before I make you," she threatened.
"Is that any way to talk to your employer?" Mary crossed her arms.
Bridget giggled and strode to the shed, not giving her a response.
Mary shook her head and headed for Rike's cabin. Drops sprinkled down, more of a mist than actual rain. Breaks between the clouds allowed the sun's rays to grace the fields in the distance, and under the trees she no longer felt the drops.
Smoke curled from a ring of stones, the fire inside extinguished from the moisture. Beyond it, Rike held a couple tanning racks in one arm, using the other to awkwardly take down a third.
Rike jumped, his rack falling over. "Some warning, Mary."
"You know, for a tracker you sure are easy to sneak up on. It's a wonder you catch anything at all."
He frowned, putting a hand on his hip. "You are so mean to me, and I've been nothing but a gentleman. Who hurt you Mary? Who?"
She picked up the rack he dropped. "You ready to scare some poor, unsuspecting rabbits?"
"Always. You got the compass?"
"We don't need it for hunting." Mary gave him a pointed look. "It's a little unnecessary, don't you think?"
"Whatever you say. Did you bring it?" His hand remained outstretched.
Mary sighed, and dug into her pocket to fish it out. "Yes." She dropped it in his waiting hand.
She marched to his cabin and set the rack against a shelf she built for him. Her and Rike's bows lay on top. Lately she hadn't practiced as much as she should, except for when hunting with Rike. Running a business limited her spare time.
Her fingers wrapped around the leather handle. It fit perfectly into her grip.
She didn't wait for him to set his racks down, eager to get started.
She set the bottom of the bow in the dirt and stepped on the other side of the arch, holding it steady as she bent the wood far enough to loop the string in the groove. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, getting ready to string his own bow. "Where we going?" Mary said around the quiver's shoulder strap she held in-between her teeth.
"Hmm." Rike pursed his lips. "Let's ask the foot."
Mary groaned. He pulled a cord from around his neck. A rabbit's foot hung at the end.
"It's gross that you have that thing." She swung the quiver over her shoulder.
"It is not." Rike held it out and set the compass on top. The needle wobbled, then settled east. "That way."
Mary nocked an arrow, but kept the string slack.
Rike could hunt fine without the compass, in fact he was far better than her, and she could hold her own. Why he insisted on using it didn't make sense to her. Although, to be fair, tracking did become more difficult as the snow disappeared.
They kept a quick pace, but the nearest rabbit didn't make an appearance for many minutes. Rike halted, and if Mary was any closer she'd have slammed into him. He squinted at the compass.
"It's moving," he said. "And it's close." He nodded to Mary and she stalked in a wide half circle, Rike doing the same in the opposite direction.
A flash of movement bolted across the clearing. She drew the arrow to her cheek, staring at the last spot it darted to. She took a silent step forward.
Then Rike's reckless stomping through the underbrush sent it running right for her. She loosed the arrow, and to her surprise it struck its mark with a solid thud.
"You got it!" Rike cheered.
"Huh. I did." Mary straightened. She almost never hit the mark on her first try.
He bent to grab her kill and lifted it up by the scruff of its neck. Red stained its chest, the arrow stuck right below the shoulder. She joined him, wiggling the shaft out of fur and flesh.
She spotted a patch of snow under the shade of a tree and scooped up a handful to wipe the tip of blood. "It's a decent size. Do you want to share or find another?" she asked, careful not to touch the arrowhead directly.
"It's big enough. Let's find the creek."
"Shall we use the compass for that too? I'm not so sure I remember where it is." She held her hand perpendicular to her forehead, scanning the trees and scrubs for any sign of a stream.
Rike stared at her, his nose scrunched.
"Did you just stomp your foot?" She raised an eyebrow.
"I was shifting my weight."
"Uh huh." Mary unstrung her bow and lead the way to the creek.
Mary let Rike clean the rabbit while she scoured for dry wood. She tossed anything that would catch fire into a pile, leaving the most damp pieces to the soil.
Soon, they sat in front of a warm fire, watching flames lick the skin of the skewered rabbit. Smoke mixed with new grass and Ajerchan spices in the air. An hour from touching the horizon, the sun set the clouds aflame in pink and gold. The edges glowed celestial yellow, leaving spots in her vision when she closed her eyes. It reminded her of sunsets far south of Rillin. Every one was beauty. All it needed were the mountains, painted blue with distance, and purple wildflowers scattered across iron-rich soil. And behind her, both beckoning and untouchable, the Forest of Impressions.
Mary's eyelids drooped and she stretched her legs out. At least one of her boots had a hole worn through, making her toes freeze.
"Scoot over." She nudged Rike. The rock they shared left little room for her to sit.
"If I scoot over I'll fall off." He nudged back, but moved his arm behind her to create more space.
She tried a new strategy. "Go check the rabbit."
"It's not done yet."
"It's browning. Turn it over."
The cool edge of the compass dug into her side from his pocket, and she gave up trying to push him off her seat.
She arched her back, flexing her muscles and stretching out the knots.
"Have we gotten any more requests recently?"
Mary paused mid-stretch, for a moment forgetting to breathe.
"I—we did," she said slowly. "But it's outside our expertise, trust me."
"Well now I'm curious."
"Someone wanted to track down a Shifter is all." She shrugged. "I told him no."
"Shifter, as in, a Blueblood?" He pulled a leaf from her ponytail and flicked it away.
"What other Shifters do you know?"
"You know what I mean. Was he actually serious?"
Mary dropped her gaze to the smoldering embers, studying their flares of light. "He seemed pretty convinced. But have you ever met an insane person who wasn't confident they were right?"
"Sane people are plenty wrong from my experience, but you have a point. Did he 'see' one?"
"No, a friend of his sent a letter or two about a supposed sighting by Hulf. It's at least close to the forest. Last time I heard Bluebloods were in the Piroda Desert."
"Haven't heard that one. Although,"—Rike tossed the compass like a coin—"if anyone can find one, it'd be us." He winked.
Mary scoffed. "Yeah. More likely we'll be eaten by the first Beast that crosses our path."
"But what a way to go." He tossed his head back, soaking in the view of the first few stars, peeking out from disappearing cloud cover. "I wonder if there are any Shifters. I'd love to meet one."
"Don't hold your breath." Mary rocked onto her feet and approached the fire. Immediately she missed the warmth of her friend at her side, but the rabbit was going to burn if she didn't turn it. The heat nipped at her hands, the rest of her still chilly.
They chatted until all that remained of the rabbit was bones and the sky afforded hardly enough light to see their way home.
"I miss this, you know." He walked so close his breath brushed her cheek when he spoke.
"Whenever I'm tracking requests. I miss doing it with you."
"Hold on." Mary gripped his sleeve, preventing him from continuing. She squinted, and from a distance there was nothing amiss. "Is something . . . off to you?"
". . . No?"
Mary frowned. As they got closer to Rike's cabin, she stubbed her toe.
"Agh," she grunted.
"Fine." She pushed down the urge to kick the stone. Odd, there weren't a lot around Rike's cabin, except for . . .
"The fireplace." Stones, no longer crowded in a circle, lay strewn across the area. "You didn't move it, did you?"
He didn't answer, but headed for the door. It hung on a broken hinge, and his pace quickened with each step.
"Wait!" Mary rushed after him.
When she stepped inside, everything was scattered as if a fight between stray dogs had broken loose.
Cold ashes smudged the floorboards. Furs, once on the bed, had been tossed unceremoniously onto the floor. The mattress itself had a huge tear down the middle. Rike's shelf was on its side, contents spilled and sifted through.
Mary kneeled down next to the pile. Upon close inspection, none of his things were broken, except for the shelf itself. Her fingers traced a deep crack in its side, too deep for her to fix.
"Not an animal," she whispered. It was a mess, but a purposeful one.
She tip-toed over a broken rack, the hide sporting a muddy footprint. Rike had managed to light a candle which he held up to the wall, where a large, red circle dripped with a swirling "S" in its center, painted with gods' knew what.
"Rike . . . What is that?"
His face was ghostly.
Mary tentatively felt the paint. It left wet circles on her fingertips. Fresh.
"Let's get out of here." Mary blew out the candle and gripped his wrist. He stumbled along, legs taking their time recalling how to walk.
She dragged him until they were both sprinting, terrified of what they couldn't see in the night. Mary fumbled with her keys once they reached her place, racing against what, she didn't know.
She wasted no time tossing wood into the fire, encouraging a blaze to chase the night away. One by one, she lit her sconces, largely unused until now.
She was still breathing hard. With nothing else to light, she wrapped her arms around Rike, who stood stock-still in the center of the floor.
When their heart rates calmed, she sucked in a rattling breath. "We should tell the guard."
"I'm not going out there." He tried to laugh, but the sound didn't hide his fear.
"Not tonight, no."
For a long moment, neither moved. Light danced all around them, offering comfort from what lay beyond the walls that shielded them. The single window faced north, nothing visible from outside but a single streetlight close to the inn. She itched to close it.
Mary pulled away enough to look at him. "We'll talk about it tomorrow."
He nodded. The shadows cast across his cheekbones, creating dark circles under his tired eyes.
She slid a candle off from a high shelf and held it against a sconce before extinguishing it, along with the other sconces. Then she checked and double-checked that everything was locked.
Rike closed the shutters over the window.
"Come on." Mary was not scared of the dark, but ascending the stairs alone did not appeal to her at the moment.
"There's more blankets in the wardrobe." The spare room next to hers had little but a cot and a couple pieces of semi-broken furniture. She blew the dust off a candle on the side table and lit it for him.
He sat on the mattress, and it creaked beneath his weight.
"You okay?" She set the candle down, the table wobbling slightly.
"Go get some sleep, Mary. I'm fine." He toed off his boots.
He was not okay, not that she expected him to admit it. But she'd wait until he wanted to talk. "I'll see you in the morning, then."
"Oh, and Mary?" He tossed her the compass. "Hide this somewhere I can't find."
She left his door open a crack.
The paint on her fingers had dried, but she used the other hand to open her room. She sniffed the paint, and then again to be sure. Relief flooded her like a river in spring. Not blood.
All she wanted to do was sleep, but she knelt by her bed, and reached for the loose board at the bottom of the wall. She drew out a small chest, the contents of which rarely left the box. A layer of dust stubbornly clung to the lid, despite her opening it not two days ago. She set the compass inside, her fingertips grazing the material that cushioned Rike's most valuable possession.
The faint musk of old leather reached her nose, and she snapped the lid shut.
Once the compass was safely hidden, she slipped out of her dress and changed her shift. The curtains were pulled open over her window, so she went to tug them closed.
She paused midway. The waxing moon draped her in silver, clear and proud in the blackness. She let the curtains fall back in place.
Her room was on the second story. No harm in keeping it open.
The moon watched over her as she slept.