I love that sound. It’s the noise an arrow makes when it leaves my bow on a good shot. Not too loud or too soft, and very little twang. When I hear it, I know my aim is perfect.
This morning I hadn’t heard the sound much. The weather was cold and snowy, and that had my concentration off. There wasn’t even supposed to be frost on the ground for at least another month.
Something was terribly wrong with the weather.
My parents tried to pretend the snow and cold were nothing more than a passing storm, but it was supposed to rain this time of year, not snow.
I might be only twelve, but I knew that much. Fall had just begun.
I noticed the worried looks in their eyes, too, when they glanced at the sky. Something dangerous was happening.
“Woof!” Leland barked at my side, interrupting my thoughts. He was waiting for me to tell him to fetch my last arrow. Leland has been my best friend since my parents brought him home when I was seven. He’s five now. That’s thirty-five in people years, but he still acts like a puppy.
Leland’s a very big dog with lots of bushy yellow, tan, and brown fur. We’re not exactly sure what breed he is, but his feet are as wide as my dad’s hands put together, and he stands taller than my waist.
Leland is also the best guardian a girl can have. Most of the time he’s a playful giant, but when I’m in danger he becomes as fierce as a mother bear protecting her cubs.
“Emily!” my dad called from the other side of a thicket of bare trees. “It’s time to leave.”
“Coming!” I shouted. I scratched Leland’s big head. “Fetch, boy. Go get it.”
The dog bounded off through the dusty snow with his tongue hanging out, and I turned to rejoin my parents.
We’d camped last night on our way to Willowhill, the nearest town on the Longrapid River. Normally the trip takes less than a day, but the unusual weather had slowed us down.
Except for the weather, I was excited about the trip. Once a year, Willowhill observes the Celebration of Leaves, an autumn festival, and I was going to participate in the festival’s Sling and Archery competition.
This was the first year I’d be old enough to compete, and I planned on winning. I’m not trying to brag, but no one my age is better with a bow.
Pushing my way through the snow-covered trees, I found my parents packed and ready to go. They were sitting at the front of the wagon. Dad held the horses’ reins in his hands.
I guess I look like both of my parents. I’m tall and slender like Mom, but my red hair and freckles definitely come from Dad.
“Done practicing, Emily?” my Mom asked from behind her wool scarf. She was bundled up tightly against the cold.
I was, too, only I wasn’t wearing a dress like her. I never wore dresses, bonnets, skirts, or anything too girly. Archers need comfortable clothes that don’t get tangled up in our legs and feet.
I usually wear boy’s clothes and keep my hair in a ponytail. Maybe that makes me weird, but I like it that way just fine. No one can shoot like me. That’s what matters.
We spent the rest of the morning slowly rolling and bumping our way to town. I passed the time by waxing my bow and straightening the fletchings on my arrows. Our wagon pulled into town late in the afternoon, but the dark grey sky didn’t make spotting the sun easy. A light snow continued to fall.
As its name suggests, Willowhill was built on a tall, round hill and is surrounded by old willow trees. Some of the buildings in town even have great tree trunks growing in their walls.
“Here, take this to pay Mr. Barleyhop for our room,” Dad told me. “Your mother and I will stable the horses.” A small leather coin purse dangled from a thin cord in his hand.
I snatched the purse eagerly and attached it to my belt. “You got it! I’ll meet you there,” I said. “C’mon, Leland.” Mr. Barleyhop owned the Eternal Flame Inn, the biggest and best inn in town. People from miles around stayed there during the Celebration of Leaves.
Best of all, my friend Daniel would be there. He was an orphan, but Mr. Barleyhop allowed him to live at the inn in exchange for doing odd jobs.
The Eternal Flame was so crowded that I could barely push my way into the common room. A common room is a gathering place where guests eat, drink, talk, tell stories, and listen to music.
People stood about discussing the strange weather in quiet voices. None of them seemed happy.
When I spotted Mr. Barleyhop across the room, I sent Leland ahead to cut a path through the crowd. I reached for my coin purse and found it—
Someone had stolen my gold!
What was I going to do? Someone had stolen my coin purse and gold. I wouldn’t be able to pay Mr. Barleyhop for a room or afford the entry fee for the Sling and Archery competition.
The Celebration of Leaves was ruined!
Suddenly, I realized that I was surrounded by strangers, and the common room felt smaller. A thief was nearby. It could be anyone. I started gasping for breath and grabbed Leland’s collar to keep him close.
Men with shaggy beards and faces wrinkled from working in the sun spoke in deep voices. Women glanced at me and whispered to one another. I didn’t recognize anyone, and their dark conversations made me uncomfortable.
“It’s the end of the world…” a woman shuddered.
“…unnatural snow…” a man muttered, shaking his head.
“…Longrapid River running backward,” said someone I couldn’t see.
Everyone sounded worried and tense. A soft whisper right in my ear startled me. “I’m a human shadow.”
“Who…?” I spun around, but there was no one there. At least no one paying any attention to me.
I wanted to scream. Hadn’t anyone noticed that I’d been robbed? Hadn’t anyone seen the thief leaning over my shoulder?
I tried to calm down and take a deep breath. That’s when I saw him. The thief. He hurriedly slipped through a door labeled private and marked with the picture of a large silver key.
I only caught a quick glance, but he was wearing a dark hood pulled over his head and moving fast. Sneaking that carefully meant he was up to no good.
I didn’t wait. I had to get my coin purse back. With Leland serving as my personal battering ram, I struggled through the crowd. A battering ram is heavy wooden beam used to force open the door to a castle.
People muttered as I pushed my way past, but Leland’s size quieted them. No one wanted to disturb the giant-of-a-dog.
The private door was unlocked and we entered. I’d have unslung my bow from my shoulder if I’d thought it would be of use indoors.
While I’d stayed at the Eternal Flame with my parents many times, I’d never been beyond the private door. I’d always wondered what might be hidden on the other side.
Finally knowing was a disappointment. The room wasn’t large or full of gleaming treasures like I’d imagined. It looked like a library.
Books lined the shelves on two walls, and a torch burned above a small fireplace on a third wall. Oddly, the torch didn’t give off any smoke and had a greenish tint to its flame.
I sighed heavily. The room was empty except for Leland and me.
“Guess we lost—”
A section of one bookcase suddenly slid open like a door, startling me. Darkness filled the space beyond.
“I told you I was a human shadow,” said a familiar voice.
End of the preview.
Thanks for reading!
Copyright © 2003 Sigil Publishing, Inc.
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