Seven sentences.

Seven bleeding sentences after weeks of traveling together, of saving each other, of fighting and surviving. Seven sentences and then he disappears like smoke in a north wind.

Even now, four weeks after he’s gone, my anger flares and fury reddens my gaze. Forget that Elias did not say goodbye—he did not even give me a chance to object to his decision.

Instead he left a note. A pathetically short note.

I find that my jaw is tight, my hands in a white-knuckled grip on the bow I hold. Keenan sighs beside me, his arms crossed as he leans against a tree in the clearing we’ve taken over. He knows me by now. He knows what I’m thinking about that’s making me so angry.

“Focus, Laia.”

I try to push Elias from my mind and do as Keenan asks. I sight my target—an old bucket hanging from a scarlet-leafed maple—and let my arrow fly.

It misses.

Beyond the clearing, the Tribal wagons creak as the wind howls around them, an eerie sound that frosts my blood. Deep autumn already. And winter soon. Winter means snow. Snow means blocked mountain passes. And blocked passes mean not reaching Kauf, Darin, or Elias until spring.

“Stop worrying.” Keenan pulls my right arm taut as I draw the bowstring again. Warmth emanates from him, beating back the icy air. His touch on my bow arm sends a tingle all the way up my neck, and I’m certain he must notice it. He clears his throat, his strong hand holding mine steady. “Keep your shoulders back.”

“We shouldn’t have stopped so early.” My muscles burn, but at least I haven’t dropped the bow after ten minutes, like I did the first few times. We stand just outside the circle of wagons, making best use of the last scraps of daylight before the sun sinks into the forests to our west.

“It’s not even dark yet,” I add. “We could have crossed the river.” I look west, beyond the forest, to a square tower—a Martial garrison. “I’d like to put the river between us and them, anyway.” I put down the bow. “I’m going to talk to Afya—”

“I wouldn’t.” Izzi sticks her tongue out of the corner her mouth as she draws back her own bowstring a few yards away from me. “She’s in a mood.” Izzi’s target is an old boot atop a low-hanging branch. She’s graduated to using actual arrows. I’m still using blunted sticks so as not to accidentally murder anyone unfortunate enough to get in my way.

“She doesn’t like being so deep in the Empire. Or being within sight of the Forest.” Gibran, lounging on a tree stump near Izzi, nods at the northeastern horizon, where low green hills stretch, thick with old-growth trees. The Forest of Dusk is the sentinel on Marinn’s western border—one so effective that in five hundred years of Martial expansion, even the Empire hasn’t been able to penetrate it.

“You’ll see,” Gibran goes on. “When we cross the east branch north of here, she’ll be even grumpier than normal. Very superstitious, my sister.”

“Are you afraid of the Forest, Gibran?” Izzi surveys the distant trees curiously. “Have you ever gotten close?”

“Once,” Gibran says, and his ever-present humor fades. “All I remember is wanting to leave.”

“Gibran! Izzi!” Afya calls from across the camp. “Firewood!”

Gibran groans and flops his head back. As he and Izzi are the youngest in the caravan, Afya assigns them—and usually me—the most menial tasks: gathering firewood, doing the dishes, scrubbing the laundry.

“She might as well put bleeding slaves’ cuffs on us,” Gibran grumbles. Then a sly look crosses his face.

“Hit that shot”—Gibran flashes his lightning smile at Izzi, and a blush rises in her cheeks—“and I’ll gather firewood for a week. Miss, and it’s on you.”

Izzi draws the bow, sights, and knocks the boot off the branch easily. Gibran curses.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Izzi says. “I’ll still keep you company while you do all the work.” Izzi slings her bow on her back and gives Gibran a hand up. For all his blustering, he holds on to her a little longer than he needs to, his eyes lingering on her as she walks ahead of him. I hide a smile, thinking of what Izzi said to me a few nights ago as we fell into sleep. “It’s nice to be admired, Laia, by someone who means well. It’s nice to be thought beautiful.”

They pass Afya, who chivvies them along. I clench my jaw and look away from the Tribeswoman. A feeling of impotence seizes me. I want to tell her we should keep going, but I know she won’t listen. I want to tell her she was wrong for letting Elias leave—for not even bothering to wake me until he was well away, but she won’t care. And I want to rage at her for refusing to allow me or Keenan to take a horse and track Elias down, but she’ll just roll her eyes and tell me again what she told me when I learned Elias left: My duty is to get you safely to Kauf. And you haring off after him interferes.

I must admit that she has carried out her duty with remarkable cleverness. Here in the heart of the Empire, the countryside is crawling with Martial soldiers. Afya’s caravan has been searched a dozen times. Only her savvy as a smuggler has kept us alive.

I put the bow down, my focus shattered.

“Help me get dinner going?” Keenan gives me a rueful smile. He knows well the look on my face. He’s patiently suffered my frustration since Elias left, and he’s realized the only cure is distraction. “It’s my turn to cook,” he says. I fall into step beside him, preoccupied enough that I do not notice Izzi running toward us until she calls out.