Chapter Twenty-seven

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Even after a full two days of unimpeded travel, Rinnet couldn't stop thinking about the figure in the mist. It could have been an animal. It probably was. But it was getting to the point where every rustle in the brush made her look over her shoulder.

She abandoned the silver horse. She stole another one an hour later.

This one was better, anyway. Younger, faster. Certainly not a warhorse, but sturdy enough that it could have been. The dun coloring blended in well with the bark and foliage, and the mare looked like just about any other horse. A perfect fit, really.

Rinnet left that horse behind just a day later. Too many times something had moved in the corner of her eye without her fully seeing it.

The repeated incidents set her teeth on edge. A throbbing ache worked its way into her head, and the tension in her shoulders made her neck stiff. And though she got temporary relief from abandoning the stolen horses, she felt just as vulnerable on foot. She was less likely to be spotted, but she was also slower and less likely to escape if someone was following her.

So she stole another. She wouldn't be able to keep it up. The settlements grew closer and closer together the more she traveled south. The collections of shacks almost resembled villages, with more livestock and fewer wild animal pelts, and she even saw a few Guardsmen along the way. The instant she spotted one approaching her on the path, her hands would twitch. It was hard to hold still when they passed by.

She made herself keep the third horse. Another dun colored mare, not as good as the last one but suitable enough. She had to steal it when she was certain no one would be around to watch. Fortunately, the closer settlements meant people trusted each other more than the isolated northerners, and nobody stood watch late at night. There wasn't even a single lantern to betray Rinnet's shadow as she slipped into the stable nearest the road and took off.

But, as if the notion that someone following her wasn't enough, Rinnet knew she would have to stop somewhere for provisions soon. She took her entire share from the Tevarian camp when she left, but they weren't supposed to be up north very long, and Yurovin had mentioned they could hunt should they run low on food.

Rinnet didn't recognize the animals up here other than the brushbirds, and they weren't all that edible. And besides, she didn't have time to hunt. Every waking minute she spent heading south. She'd already be slower if she kept one horse — it would get tired, and she couldn't replace it.

When she finally did stop for food, she kept the hood of her cloak up, even though there hadn't been rain for days. She went into the first shop she saw and kept her head down as much as possible.

The shopkeeper didn't seem to notice or care. He eyed her heavy cloak as she came up to the counter and clicked his tongue. "Coming from up north, eh?"

Rinnet nodded.

"Weather bad up there?"

Another silent nod, eyes to the floor.

The shopkeeper didn't take the hint. "Been up there myself when we all conquered Hatawa. Thought I might want to move up there, take advantage of the new land." He blew out a puff of air and shook his head. "Rained the whole time. Cold, damp, miserable. The Guardsmen up there are a real lot, too. Is it always like that?"

Rinnet ran her tongue over the backs of her teeth. "I'm not from there," she said.

"With a coat like that?"

Rinnet shrugged.

The shopkeeper shrugged back. "Lucky enough. Can't imagine why the queen wanted that soggy plot in the first place, though." He took a moment to hold up the palsa fruit Rinnet had placed on the counter and puffed again. "You like this stuff? I don't take the chance myself. I hear the poison from it can kill a person, even just as much as can coat the point of a needle."

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