Rose stretched her neck and sighed. the low setting sun was hot on her neck and sweat trickled down her back. She groanedand pushed away from the spinning wheel, dropping the bundle of wool back into the pile at her feet.
“Miss Trewin, you haven’t finished.”
She rolled her stiff shoulders and turned to the older, white haired woman. “No, ma’am. But the sun is setting and I’m hungry.” She dusted her lose skirts free from the wool fibers. “I’ll make it up tomorrow.”
The shopkeeper glowered at her but relented with a wave of her hand. “Fine then. Business has been slow anyway.”
“Thank you, Marg.”
Rose smiled softly and slipped past the gruff woman—the first to offer Rose a job in this small town. She wasn’t a great seamstress or spinner, but she worked hard, and Marg wasn’t a cruel shop owner.
“Are you still staying at the inn?” Marg asked as she passed.
She tucked stray hair behind her ear. “Yes. It’s clean and not too expensive.”
Marg snorted softly at her. “You should look for a room somewhere else. There are plenty of people who would rent you a room. I even know of a small cottage or two near the woods.”
“Perhaps,” she said as she dusted off her skirts.
Rose looked up when her boss cackled at her. “You’ve been here nearly six weeks. Living in an inn can’t be enjoyable.”
“No, it is not but . . .” She trailed off. “Thank you again.”
Slipping outside, she wandered down the uneven cobblestone street toward the pub and inn. It was a small building, dingy and worn. The ceiling had a haze of smoke clinging to it, but it had decent food, mostly, and clean beds. It was a small town, smaller than she liked, but it seemed
to suit her. The buildings were a ramshackle collection of stone and
wood, many wedged next to each other as if the city grew too quickly.
Rose settled herself at a small table in the corner. “Dinner ma’am?”
She looked up at the tired barmaid and nodded. “Some ale as well, please.”
The barmaid quickly returned with a bowl of stew and a mug of ale. Rose sipped at the thin broth and poked at the chewy chunks of meat. She wrinkled her nose at it and pulled the mug of ale closer. Leaning back in her creaky chair, she watched the room.
Her view was interrupted by a man stopping in front of her table. “Yes?” Rose drawled and slowly dropped her hand closer to the dagger
sheathed in her boot.
The thin man gestured to the empty chair across from her. “Might I
join you for some conversation and a meal?”
She glanced at the stranger and looked him quickly up and down. Worn and cracked boots, old but nice clothes, dirty face but clear eyes. Before she could shake her head no, he was dragging the chair around and sitting next to her, his back to the wall.
Rose raised an eyebrow at him as he settled in the chair and waved over the barmaid. “Yes, of course . . . help yourself,” she drawled and shifted so she could face him.
He snorted. “A horse makes for stale company after so long.” He turned to the woman. “Some stew and ale, please.”
She sipped her ale and watched him. “I’m Nico.”
Nico gulped down half of his ale before stopping for air. “Have you lived here long?”
She clucked her tongue and finished off her ale. “Born and raised.” She stood from the rickety table. “Now, I must be off. Enjoy your stew.”
Rose walked steadily and calmly toward the narrow stairway in the corner without looking back. She didn’t care for strangers and cared for questions even less, no matter where they came from. Let that traveler think she was born in this rotting little town and forget all about the strange girl he met in the tavern when he left.
Rose unlocked the door to her small room and slipped inside, locking
it behind her. She walked to her narrow bed and pulled the dagger from each boot, dropping them onto the small table next to it. She slipped off the simple skirt of browns and reds and yanked off the constricting bodice. Rose climbed into bed, ignored the sounds of a tavern below her, and tried to sleep.
The night was restless, with the wind howling outside all night. Dreams of her father and life before made for a long night. When morning came, it was gray and cold. Rose looked at the sky from her small window and thought grimly how it fit her mood. She dressed quickly in more reds and browns before heading out of the inn for another day of tedious work. She liked the flashy bright colors of turquoise or green, but those stood out. She paused as she passed the small mirror hanging on the wall. Her hazel eyes and straight brown hair were simple. Too young to have wrinkles, but life didn’t care that she was barely in her second decade and there were small lines at the corners of her eyes. Rose loved bright colors when she was young. Now, reds and browns were her col- ors. They don’t stand out. She snorted at her reflection and left her room.
Rose pulled her long jacket closed against the wind. The walk from the inn to the shop was short but the wind was cold and hard. By the time she reached the shop door, she was half running. The bell dinged softly as Rose tried to smooth her hair back into place.
“Oh, hello dear.”
She gave up pulling her hair out of her face with a huff. “Nasty wind picking up, there better not be a storm coming.”
Marg snorted and turned the page in her ledger. “Oh, someone came looking for you after you left yesterday.”
She snapped her head up. “What?” Alarm made her insides twist. No one should be looking for her. No one should know to come here.
Marg licked her thumb and turned another page. She spoke without bothering to look up, “Yes, tall man. Had quite a lot of black hair. He said he was an old friend of yours.”
Rose tried to swallow but her mouth had gone dry from fear. “What did you tell him?”
Marg finally looked up. “That you’d gone for the day.” “Anything else?”
Marg frowned at her. “No, dear. What’s gotten into you?”
She rubbed her lips with her shaking fingers. “I need to run an errand. I’ll be back later. I’ll make up the missed work tonight.”
Marg frowned at her. “You only just got here, girl. What am I paying you for?”
“I’ll be back.” Rose turned on her heel and went back out into the wind. Her hair whipped around her face as she turned down the narrow alley between the drapery next door. Her light skirt wrapped around her legs in the wind. She took another turn and headed along the back of the buildings toward the inn.
Rose jerked to a stop. She turned faced the speaker. “You know I hate that name.”
A tall man leaned against the wall, his dark hair hiding most of his face. She could never tell if it was to be sensual, to hide his face, or if he simply couldn’t control his messy locks.
“I thought I’d wait around for you.”
“Why are you here, Gavin? Have you finally found someone who will hire you?”
He leaned against the shop wall, trying to look relaxed, but Rose could see the strain in his neck and the clench of his jaw.
“I’m looking for better employ, if you must know. You, however, are a long way from home. Your father must be so worried.”
Rose pulled her hands out of her pockets and kept her arms lose at her sides. The wind pulled her hair from the loose braid and it whipped around her face. “I’m sure,” she drawled. “Is that what you’re going to do, Gavin? Rush back to him with news of my whereabouts, hope that lets you back into his fold? Do you think presenting me as a gift will get you work?”
He jerked away from the wall and grabbed her hard by the arm. “He’ll be mighty pleased to know your location. Might even pay me good coin for the information. And if he won’t, others will. You know they will.”
A quick, hard whirl freed her arm from Gavin’s grip. Before he could say more, she turned away. He shouted after her but she ignored him; keeping her back straight. She slipped in through the servant’s door near the stables and used their hallways to get up to her room. She locked the door behind her and let out a deep breath.
Her little room was barren: a small bed against one wall, a short rick-
ety desk along the other. She had no decorations and her few personal items were still packed in her bag. If she were to leave, no one would remember she’d been here. Her spot at the small spinner shop would be easily filled.
Rose slumped onto her small bed. This was the farthest west she’d been, had even crossed the province borders into Amora and still her past found her. She’d been here too long already, and Gavin couldn’t be allowed to sell his news of her. She curled onto the bed, tucked the scratchy wool blanket around her, and set in to wait for the night.
When moonlight filtered in through her window, Rose climbed from her stiff bed. With an angry sigh, she pulled on her trousers and stuffed her feet into her worn and cracked boots.
With the dagger in her bodice, she slipped into the hallway, peer- ing through the shadows in each room as she passed it. It was an easy enough trick, looking through the shadows as though they were nothing more than windows.
She found him back in his room, bent over at the short table in the corner. The soft glow from an oil lamp distorted any more details. Rose looked up and down the hallway, saw no one else, and stepped into the shadow casted by the still lit candles. She fell into the darkness, became part of it, and was in Gavin’s room. She didn’t know how it worked, where the magic came from, or why she could use it when no one else apparently could.
When she’d still attended the lectures at the small schoolhouse in town, before her father made her work, she was told there were different planes of the world. The gods lived in one, the world in another. Rose often wondered if the shadows were another plane, and that was what she was touching.
It scared her back then. It scared her still. Maybe if she wasn’t afraid of it, she’d know what she could truly do with it. Rose had never pressed herself with her magic. Never challenged herself.
She drew her small knife as she moved closer. She paused in the shad- ows, the cool mist that always seem to be present ghosting over her skin. This would be difficult. His back was straight and rigid. Even through the
loose sleeves of his shirt, long lines of muscle were visible. She had one
shot, one try for this to be easy and finished. Good thing I’ve had practice.
Rose moved closer in the light shadow.
With a deep breath, she fell out of the shadow.
The bed dipped as her weight suddenly appeared on it. The second she was back in the real world her hand whipped around his mouth and pulled him back against her, her dagger sliding across his neck a second later. She pushed him to the ground, her hands and arms covered in blood. There were splashes on the wall across from her.
She stayed kneeling on the bed, her breathing deep and raged. Gavin choked on the floor in front of her. She should say something. He stared at her as if he was waiting for her to say something. Instead Rose looked at her bloody dagger and stained arms. They never could stay clean for long, no matter how far she went.
Rose sank back into the shadows and stayed in them until she was back in her own room. A headache started between her eyes from the time in shadow, it had been a long time since she’d used her magic. A nauseous feeling settled in her stomach, but she didn’t think that was from her magic. With a sniff, Rose methodically cleaned herself in the small bowl and changed her shirt and bodice. Throwing her ruined shirt into the small wood stove, Rose locked it all away with the rest of her past. She’d see it again in her nightmares.
Quietly, Rose walked around the small room and gathered her things: a few changes of clothes, old and worn, her one good set of boots. Numbly, she blinked at the tears in her eyes and hauled her pack over her shoulder. Rose tossed the key onto the bed and headed off toward the servants’ stairs. Once outside, Rose heaved a sigh and started toward the edge of town. She was just passing the stables set behind the inn when the first tear made its way down her cheek.
Rose took a deep breath and pinched her lips together, but that didn’t stop the tears as she walked. She wrung her hands in her shirt, as if there was still sticky blood to be wiped off. Her breathing came back, the tears came faster, and Rose had to cover her mouth to stop the sob.
“Stupid,” she cursed herself and gulped down air. She let herself think, for just a second, while working the spinning wheel in Marg’s dusty little shop that she could stay. “You know better.” Oh, but it had been nice. The illusion of a normal life, working a boring job for too little coin in a small
town. Rose took a deep breath, her tears slowing and her pace quicken-
ing. She should’ve remembered it was an illusion.
Rose followed the uneven cobblestones past the old buildings, the cool night air blowing loose strands of hair around her temples. She just needed to go further. Rose scrubbed at her cheeks with her sleeves and cleared her throat. She walked through town, past the slaughter house at the edge, the smell of rotting meat following her into the fields. Eventually those faded, and with sore feet Rose walked into the tree line.
The crickets were loud around her and every so often she’d hear the hoot of an owl. The moon was large in the sky and provided light on the small trade road. And so, she walked and tried not to think of Gavin and the look in his eyes. Or his blood. She reminded herself Gavin had killed and robbed. His death was no loss. Rose thought, for a second, she hadn’t needed to kill him. She could’ve just slipped away without a word, but if Gavin sent word she was this far west . . . if her father turned his attention toward her after so many years. . . . Rose snorted. She would not go back to her father.
When her feet hurt enough to make her limp, she walked off the small road into the forest and settled against a large tree. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She let her head fall back against the rough trunk and closed her eyes. Rose sent a short prayer to the gods she wouldn’t dream and let herself sleep.
A hand on her shoulder woke her, her heart jumping into her throat. Rose palmed her dagger and had it shoved against the person’s ribs as she opened her eyes. The man kneeling above her stilled and slowly lifted his hand from her shoulder. Rose kept her dagger pressed against his ribs.
“You’re all right.”
Rose looked around before slowly sitting up and scooting back against the tree. She kept her dagger raised. “What are you doing?”
“Checking on you,” the stranger said and cautiously moved backward on his haunches. “A young woman asleep in the woods. . . . I was check- ing to make sure you were not injured.”
Rose eyed the man, trying to point where she’d seen him before. He was familiar, but she couldn’t remember why. “I’m fine.”