Read an Excerpt
They were coming closer to Maddie’s hiding place.
There were a dozen of them, spread out in a long cordon, five meters apart and covering sixty meters of territory. Each one carried a flaming torch, holding it high to dispel the gathering gloom of twilight. She was approaching the line of searchers head-on. If she could break through the line, or simply remain unseen while they passed her, she would be free and clear.
Actually, “hiding place” was something of an overstatement for Maddie’s position. She was simply lying prone, covered from head to toe by her cloak, among knee-high, dried stalks of grass.
In the fields on either side of the one she had selected to hide in, the grass grew waist high, waving gently in the early evening breeze. It would have provided better concealment from the dozen men searching for her. But she had chosen the shorter grass for a reason.
They would expect a fugitive to seek concealment in the longer grass, so they would look more carefully there. The short stubble where she lay provided only scant cover, and the searchers would study the ground with less attention to detail, assuming they would easily spot someone trying to stay concealed there.
At least, that was what she had hoped when she had selected her current path through the search line. In addition, the fields on either side were narrower, so the searchers would be closer together. Since they’d expect her to be hiding there, they would pay greater attention to the ground and any abnormalities they might see there.
Like a huddled shape under a gray-green Ranger cloak.
The uncertain light also gave her an advantage. The sun had sunk below the horizon, and only a reflection of its light remained in the western sky. It cast long shadows and pools of darkness across the rough surface of the field. And instead of aiding the searchers, the light from the pitch-fed torches was flickering and uneven, making their task even more difficult as it shifted and wavered.
She could sense the yellow glow of one of the torches now, as a searcher came closer. She resisted the unbearable temptation to look up and see where he was. Her face was darkened by the mud and grime she had smeared on it before setting out to break through the cordon. But even so, it would shine as a pale oval in the dusk. And the movement would be even more noticeable. She lay, facedown, her eyes fixed on the stalks of dry grass a few centimeters from her face, seeing the yellow torchlight creeping over them, casting shadows that gradually shortened as the source of light grew closer and closer.
Her heart pounded in her chest as she heard the rustle of boots. She could hear the blood pulsing in her ears like a drumbeat.
Trust the cloak. The old mantra, drummed into her brain over and over by her mentor, repeated itself now. The searcher couldn’t hear her heartbeat. That was a fanciful notion, she knew. And if she stayed still as a corpse, he wouldn’t see her either. The cloak would protect her. It always had in the past, and it would do so now.
“All right! I see you. Stand up and surrender.”
The voice was very close. It couldn’t have been more than three meters away. And there was a confident tone to it. For a second, she nearly gave in to the urge to stand. But then she remembered Will’s words when he had been instructing her in the art of remaining unseen by searchers.
They may try to trick you into showing yourself. They might call out that they can see you and tell you to stand up. Don’t fall for it.
So she lay motionless. The voice came again. “Come on! I said I can see you!”
But the voice wasn’t as confident as it had been. There was a distinct uncertainty to it, as if the searcher realized the ruse had been unsuccessful—or that there was nobody near him concealed in the rough grass. After a few more seconds, he muttered a soft curse and began to move again. His boots crunched in the stubble, and she sensed he had passed her by—which meant he was casting his gaze ahead of him, and away from her. She watched the tiny shadows thrown by the grass stalks elongate and angle to the left. He was moving to the right, then.
She realized she had been holding her breath and silently released it, feeling the tension in her body ease. Her heart rate slowed from its wild gallop to a more controlled canter.
In a few minutes, he’d be clear of her and unable to hear any slight noise she might make moving. She waited, counting slowly to 120, listening as the rustle of his boots moved away until she could no longer hear them. She tensed her muscles. When she had gone to ground, her left arm had been thrown out ahead of her. Her right was doubled underneath her body, and she would use that to help her rise from the ground a few centimeters and begin to creep slowly away from her hiding spot.
She began to apply pressure to her right hand, feeling the sharp grass stalks digging painfully into it. It would have been so natural to move her hand slightly to a more comfortable position. But again she resisted temptation.
Unnecessary movement might give her away. Better to put up with the discomfort. Of course, she’d have to move her arm to propel herself along the ground in a belly crawl. But that was a necessary movement. Otherwise, she’d be here all night. So she began to set her muscles once more.
There had been a sound—faint and unrecognizable—from the grass in front of her. And as she registered it, she remembered another piece of advice that Will had given her.
Sometimes, there’ll be a sweeper, she could hear his calm voice saying in her brain. Another searcher who follows the line, ten or twelve meters behind it, looking to catch someone who’s evaded the first line and is beginning to move again. It’s an old trick, but you’d be surprised how many have been caught by it.
She relaxed again and waited, head close to the ground, facedown. Now she heard the sound again, and this time she recognized it. Whoever was coming was lifting his feet high out of the grass, then setting them down evenly and squarely on the ground, testing each step so it didn’t shuffle or create extra noise. It was the way she had been taught to step when she wanted to keep noise to a minimum, and she realized that this new arrival was well skilled in the art of silent movement.
She strained her ears, listening for any trace, any sound that would tell her how close he was, and which direction he was coming from. He seemed to be slightly to her right and moving diagonally, so that he would cross close by her position. And so far, she could see no sign of light from a torch. She bit her lip with frustration. A torch would have given him uncertain, uneven light, which would actually help conceal her. Plus the brightness of the flame close to his face would reduce his night vision considerably. Now that it was nearly full dark, a torch was almost more hindrance than help.
He was close. Even with the care he was taking to keep noise to a minimum, she could hear the faint sounds that he made. The fact that he was stepping smoothly and rhythmically helped her keep track of him. Once she figured out his timing, she knew when to listen for the next, almost silent, footstep.
Now he was very close. But he was moving across her front, angling to pass down her left side, and she knew she had eluded him. She felt a surge of triumph as he took another pace, taking him fractionally away from her. Three more steps in that direction and she’d be in the clear.
Then, inexplicably, he angled back again, changing direction to move parallel to where she lay. Her heart rate soared again as she realized how close he was to finding her.
She felt a searing pain in her left hand as he placed his foot squarely on it, bearing down with all his weight as he raised his other foot for another step.
“Ow!” she cried, before she could stop herself.
At the same time, she inadvertently flinched with the pain, just as he recoiled a pace, sensing a foreign object underfoot. It was only a small movement on her part, but it was enough. The sweeper gave a cry of triumph, and she felt an iron grip on the back of her cloak, just below the cowl, hauling her to her feet.
“Got you!” he said, the satisfaction obvious in his voice. He turned her to face him, at the same time that he called to the search line. “Back here! I’ve got him!”
He pushed her hood back and studied her face more closely.
“But you’re not a him, are you?” he said. “You’re Will Treaty’s apprentice.Well, you are a catch, and no mistake.”
She struggled in his grip, hoping to break free, even though the exercise was now well and truly over. The rest of the searchers, hearing his shout, hurried back and gathered round them, the torchlight showing their grinning faces all too clearly.
“Bad luck,” said one, a handsome fourth-year apprentice. “You nearly made it.”
He jerked his head to the edge of the field, and she twisted in her captor’s grip to look. The little hut she had been tasked to reach was barely fifty meters away. If it hadn’t been for this clodhopping sweeper with his clumsy great feet, she would have made it.
And that would have given her a perfect score for her end-of-year assessment.
On a low hilltop a hundred meters away, Will Treaty and Gilan watched the events in the stubble field as the search line gathered around Maddie and her captor. Even at this distance, and in the gathering dark, the torchlight gave sufficient illumination for Will to see Maddie’s dejected, frustrated reaction.
“That was bad luck,” Gilan said. “She nearly made it. And she did everything right.”
“Right up until the moment she went Ow! You trod on me!” Will grinned.
Gilan looked sidelong at his old friend. “As I said, that was bad luck.”
“Halt always said a Ranger makes his own luck,” Will replied.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were pleased she was caught,” Gilan said.
Will shrugged. “I’m not too displeased,” he admitted. “She was set for a perfect score, and I’m not sure I wanted that. It wouldn’t have been good for her ego.” He paused slightly. “Or my patience.”
“I take it you speak from experience?” Gilan asked.
Will nodded. “She got a perfect score at the end of second year,” he said. “And I heard about it for the next three months—any time I tried to correct her or suggest that she might be going about a task the wrong way. She does tend to be a little headstrong.”
Gilan nodded. “True. But she is very good, you have to admit.”
“I admit it. But she’s also her mother’s daughter. Can you imagine how Evanlyn would have been in her place?”
This time, Gilan grinned at the thought. “You’re referring to Her Highness Princess Cassandra in that derogatory tone, are you?” He was mildly amused by the fact that Will continued to refer to the princess by the name she had assumed when he had first met her.
Will shook his head ruefully. “I am indeed,” he replied. “The more I see of Maddie, the more I see her mother in her.”
“Which possibly explains why she is such a high achiever,” Gilan suggested, and Will had to agree.
“True.” He stood up from where he had been sitting, leaning against the bole of a tree. The search party and their quarry were heading back to the Gathering Ground, the line of torches twinkling in the darkness. “Let’s get back to camp and sit in on the debrief,” he said.