"Mary?" Rike ducked beneath a branch. "You've been quiet." The statement left an unasked question in the air.
A breeze inflicted a chill on the otherwise temperate afternoon. Spring leaves brushed against each other in a soft rush, encouraging new buds to unfurl while birdsong graced the treetops. It was easy to imagine all was right in the world.
Except for the glaring, red symbol above Rike's bed frame.
They spent the morning moving Rike's things to the shop. The town guard that came to investigate had left minutes after establishing that whoever searched Rike's cabin left nothing behind. There was not much to be done about it, but warn the town of a thief.
And the red circles still stained Mary's fingertips, even after she scrubbed them nearly raw.
"You're the talkative one. Why haven't you said anything?" She tugged her sleeve down and fisted her hand, hiding the marks.
"What are you thinking about?" He hopped onto a log. "You've got that look, like when you don't know what wood stain to use, or when a customer can't make a decision and there's a line, or when"—he reached the end of the log and spun to face her—"you have an idea, and you don't like it."
He wasn't wrong.
"And now you look like you're thinking of excuses to avoid confronting—"
"We'll talk about my 'idea' later." Mary cut him off. "I'm not done thinking."
He grinned triumphantly.
"Do you mind finishing the report? I have a lot of work today." She strode past him, bumping his shoulder hard enough to send him stumbling off the log.
He let out a deep, reluctant sigh. "Leave me with the paperwork. I see how it is."
"Thanks, Rike. I appreciate it."
"I'll help you out with the ashwood when I'm done," he called, splitting paths to head to the courthouse.
Mary leaned her forehead against a trunk, the coolness easing a creeping headache.
She didn't buy his confidence for a second. Rike was shaken.
One thing she appreciated when she first met Rike was that he didn't ask personal questions, and she returned the favor. It's why their friendship had lasted so long.
But, if her suspicions were correct, he'd have to tell her what that symbol meant, and not just for his safety.
Mary rubbed her eyes and trudged the last few yards to the woodshed. She built it without a south-facing wall for her convenience, preferring ease of access.
She hefted a log onto her shoulder and grabbed a smaller one under the opposite arm, bending awkwardly to do so. Then, using her foot, she rolled a third beside the wicker basket at the entrance.
Mary plopped onto her makeshift seat and set the smaller of the two logs on her lap, letting the one from her shoulder slide to the dirt with a thump.
The ashwood logs had plaited, light gray bark, and if she were a sentimental type, she'd find it pretty. She picked at the edge of a plait, breaking the outer layer from the bast to reveal the slightly rubbery inner bark. She repeated this process, careful not to hold onto the inner bark, which was coated in a thin layer of fluid and would slip from her grasp as it bled.
Holding onto the outer bark did not, however, stop the fluid from smearing over her hands as she worked, leaving blue streaks as it dried. She tore the last piece off, and braced the log between her feet, pulling a knife from her pocket.
She unclasped the sheath and unfolded the blade from the handle.
She turned it in her grip so the serrated side pointed away from the log and the straight edge dug into the wood, peeling away the outside that seeped blue. She set the shavings in the basket, and slowly a pile formed.
The handle, slick with fluid, slipped out of her grasp and tore at her sleeve. Mary bolted upright, the knife falling to the damp earth. She tripped over her seat, falling on her backside.
She clutched her wrist, smothering a panicked whine by biting down on her lip.
She huddled into herself, and counted.
One . . .
Mary loosened her grip over her wrist and gulped in a deep breath.
Two . . .
She peeled her eyes open and raised her head, turning right, left, then over her shoulder. No one.
Three . . .
She examined the tear. Small.
Four . . .
She pushed her sleeve up. No blood. Only a bit of skin scraped off.
Five . . .
Mary pushed herself to her feet.
Six . . .
She was fine.
Mary tugged her sleeve down and dusted her hands on her skirt. She picked up the knife and folded the blade inside the handle.
She'd have Bridget finish.
She headed to a bucket half full of rainwater to wash off. The blue stain on her hands faded a shade or two, but not entirely. She didn't mind. It'd come off in a few days.
She grabbed a towel from the backroom to dry off.
"Mary, is that you?" Bridget called.
"No," Mary responded, waltzing into the storefront as she said so.
"Someone wants to make a request." Bridget pointed her thumb to a man across the counter.
What was his name?
"Bridget, you remember how to get wood shavings for dye?"
"On it." She let the string of beads she was working on fall back into the bowl.
Mary waited a moment after she left. "I said we don't do 'requests' here."
"You sure? Everyone else tells me you do." He picked at a scab on his arm. "Besides, I think this one will be easy." With the last word, he clapped his hands on the counter.
When she did not respond except for a blank stare, he continued, "You see, I lost a compass a while ago."
"I said I can't help you," she snapped, putting another foot of space between them.
Her eyes narrowed. She held the towel in front of her chest, wringing it in her already dry hands. Her nail caught on a loose thread, so she ripped the string off.
"Why you backing up for?" He vaulted the counter.
"What do you think you're doing?" she said, alarmed. Her shoulder blades bumped against the shelf, sending a half-finished amulet to the floor.
He caught her around the elbow, putting a halt to her retreat. Not that there was anywhere to go but the wall.
She bared her teeth in a snarl, ready to split his arm in two. Judging from his widening smile, he knew what she was thinking. And he was amused.
"Ask your friends if they've seen a compass around. Maybe they'll have an idea."
"Buy a new compass." She yanked her arm. His hold slid down to her wrist but tightened again.
"Oh, but it's sentimental to me." His other arm reached up as if to block her in, and she readied herself to shove him off, or perhaps kick in his kneecaps if that didn't work.
But the mark on his hand made her do a double-take.
Her fingertips were stained the same color, hidden under layers of blue dye.
He released her wrist, his expression smug. Instead of trapping her in, he swiped something from the shelf behind her, pinching it between his thumb and index finger.
"Did someone request a feather?" he joked, rolling the quill across his fingers to watch it spin.
"If you liked it so much, you should've taken better care of it."
The towel sat crumpled on the floor. She held her hands behind her, gripping the material of her skirt hard.
He rolled his neck and let his head loll forward, leering at her through thick lashes.
He let go of the feather, and as it floated down his hand lingered at his side, where her—his—knife hung sheathed. "I'll be back tomorrow. I expect my compass will be ready by then?" His amusement was gone.
"I'll call the guard if you're not gone in three seconds."
He spun the knife in his hands, not paying attention. Did he listen to a word she said?
"I hear there's a thief around town. I'd be careful if I were you." He strapped the knife to his side once more.
Mary grit her teeth, preparing vitriol so scathing he'd never show his face again. But as suddenly as he had appeared, the man departed without a second glance.
She stormed to the porch and whipped her head right, then left. No trace of him.
"Cavas N'ain," she swore, running her fingers through her hair.
Fortunately, Rike wasn't here to point out his favorite curses were rubbing off on her.
She paced the length of her store, fisting the hem of her sleeves.
What did the man know of the compass? Why did he threaten them?
Mary disliked violence, but if he had stayed another second—
She slumped onto the bench, banishing the creeping thoughts that threatened to consume her. Mary untied her now-messed ponytail, brown framing her face.
If he wanted the compass, she wouldn't be the one to give it to him. She didn't know where Rike got it, or why he kept it, but no one threatened her or her friend.
She finger-combed through her hair and re-tied it on her way to the woodshed.
"How's it going?"
Bridget flicked a wood-shaving off her trousers."Well, I just started, and I think I'm permanently blue now."
"It does that."
A line formed between Bridget's eyebrows as she studied Mary. "What's up? You're a little flushed."
Mary bit her lip. "If I were to take a trip with Rike for a while, would you be able to watch the shop?"
"Sure." She cut a long sliver from the log. "When?"
"Soon. Maybe tomorrow."
"And you're telling me now?" She sat up straight.
"Don't worry, I'll adjust opening hours so you don't have to be here all day and—"
"No, I got it, just tell me earlier next time." Bridget turned back to her work.
"Okay." Mary sighed in relief. "Okay. I'll be back this evening to give you some instructions. Keep an ear out for the door."
Bridget acknowledged her with a grunt, wedging her blade under a tough piece of bark Mary had missed.
Not nearly as many people walked the street as they did on market day, but those that did gave her a wide berth. Her pace was nearly a jog, and if anyone did stand in her path, they dodged out of her line of sight as if to avoid the lightning in her eyes.
Only one person was oblivious enough to not immediately dive out of her way.
"Mary!" Rike strolled toward her, returning from the courthouse. "Why are you going so fast?"
She spun him around, pushing him into the walkway between two buildings.
"Uh, what are we doing here?"
"Your 'friend.' The trader. He did that to your cabin, didn't he?" Mary didn't realize until she spoke that she was out of breath.
"I . . ." His eyes widened, then he ducked his head. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so."
"Rike, why didn't you say something?"
"I didn't want to drag you into it." He toed the dirt, forming a dent. "And I didn't know what to tell the guard."
"Well, he came over a few minutes ago. Basically demanded I hand over the compass."
"He what?" His head snapped up. "H–he didn't do anything, did he?"
"Made some banal threats is all." She rubbed her wrist, then flinched away when Rike noticed.
A muscle in his jaw bunched as he clenched it. "What did he say?"
"He implied he was going to search my shop next if he didn't have the compass tomorrow."
"I'm so sorry." He held a hand to his temple. "I didn't think I'd run into anyone in Julla," he muttered.
"And I didn't think anyone who knew about Carafrin would show up on my doorstep asking to hire us. So stop apologizing. I have an idea."
"Wait a minute." His brow furrowed. "Did you say he knew about Carafrin?"
"That's not our main problem right now." She waved his question aside. "I don't know about you, but I'm not moving unless I have to. So we're going to take a trip, and while we're gone let's hope your 'friend' assumes we left for good. If not, we bought ourselves more time to get out of this."
"No, this is my problem." He shook his head. "You stay here; I'll leave and—"
"You will absolutely not go anywhere without me. Not with where I'm planning to go."
One side of his mouth twitched. "And where is that?"
The Hillside Inn, like many places in Julla, received little traffic during the winter months. When summer came, happy conversation and laughter spilled from its doors, and inside, the stale, warm air wrapped its arms around its patrons in a familiar, albeit stifling, hug.
Now, the atmosphere hung frozen. Only the whisper of a breeze and the occasional clink of plates and cups broke the quiet. Coals smoldered in the fireplace, doing nothing to add light and color to the otherwise worn, gray walls and tables.
"What can I do you for?" Shonan's voice rang out from the far end of the room.
Mary weaved around a table to stand closer to the innkeeper. "We're looking for . . ."
Uhh. Mary racked her brain.
Hanson? Hanson. Haaanson.
"Harrison." She cleared her throat. "Is he here?"
"Not sure." He plopped a hefty list on the table, sifting through the first few pages. "I can check his room."
"That would be great, thank you."
The innkeeper twirled his keys around a finger as he ascended the staircase, the steps creaking beneath his weight.
Mary had given Rike a rundown of her and Harrison's conversation outside, sneaking glances at the road in case they were overheard. His jaw had dropped when she told him the price.
"I mean if he's that rich we could rob him. But that would be rude, so we should take the job instead. And if he does pay half upfront—"
"This is not so much a job as a forced vacation, Rike."
He had had several minutes to calm down, but even now at the inn, he was practically bouncing on his toes. "I can't wait to find the Shifter."
"We're not going to find a Shifter. They're dead."
"You're such a pessimist."
She rolled her eyes. "If we didn't need an excuse to leave Julla for a while, I wouldn't even consider it. He's not from around here. And even if he didn't already know of us, I wouldn't trust him."
He whistled. "Trust issues too."
She sent him a glare. He examined the ceiling, very interested in the hickory beams that crisscrossed in triangles to support the roof.
Mary bit off the retort forming on her tongue and relaxed, wiping the glare off her face. "Harrison." She tipped her chin in greeting.
He stood at the top of the stairs. "It's good to see you again. And you must be Rike." His smile was wide and welcoming, and other than the stubble on his face, he looked the same as he had three days ago.
His eyes shifted to Shonan and then the few patrons sitting at tables. "It might be best to come to my room to talk. Please, follow me."
Rike shrugged and took the stairs two at a time. Mary climbed at a reasonable speed, her hand gliding up the railing.
"Thank you for coming. I was going to leave soon." Once inside, he gently shut the door but left it unlocked.
"I'm Harrison." He offered his hand to Rike, who clasped it in his own.
"So you're the man who thinks there's Bluebloods near Hulf."
"I don't think, I know." He sat down on the bed. "Have a seat. There's a lot to discuss."
That reminded her. "Before all that, how did you hear about what happened in Carafrin?"
To be fair, it wasn't exactly subtle work by either of them. Which is why they had moved. But not far enough, apparently.
She slid out a chair from the desk and took a seat while Rike half-leaned, half-sat on the footboard of the bed.
"My sister lived there at the time; I don't think you met her, but from what she told me you made quite an impression on the Grandee."
That made sense. There were plenty of Rillinian visitors at the castle.
She shook her head. "If we did meet I don't recall."
"Are those your friend's letters?" Rike pointed over her shoulder.
Mary craned her neck to see the desk, where a couple of pages fluttered under a paperweight. The writing wasn't visible from how they were folded.
Harrison inclined his head. "They are. Mary read the one on top; feel free to go through the rest. She filled you in?" He scooted over to close the window so they did not fly away in the breeze.
"Yeah, she did."
Mary handed Rike the letters, withholding her commentary.
Rike scanned them, nodding to himself and occasionally making a noise like 'uhhuh'.
He did not know how to read Rillinian.
"I can't say I expected you to accept my invitation. You didn't seem . . . interested. What changed your mind?" He directed his question at her.
Mary shrugged. "I still don't believe there are any Shifters near, or in, the Forest of Impressions. But it can't hurt to look. Besides,"—she crossed her ankles—"if you want to pay us 200 crests for tracking something that doesn't exist, that's your decision."
"He's not paying us for nothing." Rike kept scanning the words, and if she didn't know better, she would have believed he comprehended them. "If there is a Shifter, we can find it."
A twinge of unease settled in her stomach.
"How long have they been in Hulf?" he said, done pretending to read. Mary took back the letters.
Odd. There were no seals.
"Rashida's been there for a month. Originally, she was traveling from Sawara to visit Bregain, but stayed in Hulf when she heard about the Blueblood sighting."
Rike continued to ask questions: about Hulf, what Rashida found near the tree, how long it had been since the Shifter was last seen, etcetera. Mary listened with half an ear, reading the older letters and rereading the most recent one.
They didn't shed much more information than Harrison had already told her, or than what she already had ingrained in her mind from hours studying maps. They did, however, give her a better idea of the town's culture.
Due to its proximity to the forest, Hulf had been closed off from most travelers. No one wanted to go near a graveyard, much less one that acted as a barrier between Rillin, Ajercho, and the Cursed lands. Partially because of this isolation, the villagers of Hulf were a suspicious, but practical, people. And they respected, if feared, the "Blue Forest."
She didn't care for the nickname.
"How will we receive payment?" Mary interjected into a break in the conversation.
"Ah. Thank you for reminding me. I'll write each of you a banknote." He dug in his satchel, procuring a pen. He scrawled his large signature on two notes and handed one to Mary. "I don't know if Julla has a bank, but these can be redeemed in Bregain. Just sign at the bottom, here."
She signed it and nodded to Rike who did the same for his.
"When will we be leaving?"
"Preferably as soon as you're ready. The stables have horses available; I'll talk to Shonan about it tonight."
"Tomorrow morning, then."
"Tomorrow morning." Relief filled his smile. "Perfect."