Authors: Jessica Leake
Copyright © 2014 by Jessica Leake
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.
Cover design by Rain Saukas
Cover photo credit ThinkStock
Print ISBN: 978-1-940456-14-0
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-940456-21-8
Printed in the United States of America
For my best friend and love of my life, who also happens to be my husband
Bransfield Estate, Gloucestershire, England 1905
The horse’s hooves thunder across the hillside, and my heart pounds with each bunching of his muscles. My hair breaks free of its pins, pale strands sweeping across my cheek. Though the wind breaks through the thin barrier of my breeches and tall boots, the smile never leaves my face. Mild discomfort is a small price to pay for a journey unhindered by the heavy skirts of my riding habit.
I glance at Robert, who is keeping easy pace with me.
“Careful, dear sister,” Robert calls out, the wind snatching at his words, “I’m gaining on you.”
I laugh. “Serenity will refuse to jump this next bank, just as she always does.”
I press my booted heels to Orion’s sides, and a little thrill jolts through me as he charges forward. His excitement bubbles over my skin, making his buoyant joy hard to distinguish from my own. Arcana, derived from the warmth of the sun, cloaks us both, its invisible golden bands connecting us until we are nearly one creature. He floods my mind with his every thought: the way the light layer of snow gives way beneath his hooves, how crisp the air smells when he takes deep breaths, the light pressure of my weight on his back. The mare behind him is on his mind, too, a speck of awareness I take advantage of; it tells me how close I am to reaching the creek before my brother, therefore winning our little race.
The bank jump approaches. It’s nothing but a fallen log on a hilltop, but from this direction, the horses will have to jump down nearly four feet. Orion’s ears prick forward as he notices the log, and his strides increase. I loosen the reins and let him have his head.
One heartbeat, two, and then he arcs over it. I follow his center of balance, lifting up slightly from the saddle as his legs stretch toward the snowy ground beneath us. His front hooves land, the rest of his body follows, and his long strides cover the ground until we are at the creek. I spin him around to face the bank.
The teasing smirk on my face disappears as Robert’s horse jumps the log. “Well done,” I say, pride blooming in my chest.
But then Robert’s mare slips on the landing.
Too fast, her legs fold beneath her weight, dragging my brother down with her. I drop the reins and sit up straight in the saddle. My arms reach toward Robert as though I am trying to catch him. A deep tug at the core of me, and my power unfurls, sliding over my skin like silk. The familiar smell of energy releasing washes over me, like the refreshing scent of the earth right after it rains.
Golden light pours from my fingertips and bathes Robert and his horse in brightness. Robert squints as the light glitters around him, illuminating his mop of unruly blond hair. The arcana stops Serenity’s fall and suspends her inches above the ground.
I wince as more energy siphons away; it becomes more difficult to concentrate. There are times when drawing from the sun as a source of power is not always convenient; a heavily clouded sky, one which renders the sun’s rays essentially useless, is one of those times. With each beat of my heart, more energy leaves me. Pain radiates from my chest as Serenity treads the air in slow motion. When she finally straightens out her legs, the light fades, leaving them safe at the bottom of the hill.
As though I’ve just surfaced from the depths of the ocean, I take gulping breaths of air. My heart flutters wildly while my hands fall to my lap as the rest of me goes limp. The power of arcana leaves me, and Orion tosses his head at the loss of connection. Like a room suddenly plunged into darkness, Orion’s images disappear from my mind, and I can no longer guide him by my thoughts alone.
Robert walks his mare toward me. My lips part in surprise when I see his wide grin. “Wren,” he says, “beautiful save with the light. I would have been a broken wreck for sure.”
I try to smile back, but the image of Robert twisted beneath his horse at the bottom of a hill makes it impossible. I force some tension back into my limbs, since I refuse to let him know how much using arcana has cost me.
When I fail to respond, he tilts his head, the smile falling. “Are you alright? You look pale.”
Fatigue threatens to take over, but I fight it. My heart beats sluggishly in my chest.
Don’t lose consciousness. Don’t lose consciousness.
As if the sky hears my prayer, the clouds part, and a slice of sunshine falls across my arm. I soak up its energy greedily. It fills my body like partaking of a banquet after days of no food. In a few heartbeats, my strength is almost restored, my brother none the wiser.
“Of course I’m pale,” I say. “I just watched my brother nearly break his neck.”
“Come now, you can’t still be fretting over that little mishap. I’m well.” He gives his horse a pat on the neck. “Serenity is well.”
“You’re incorrigible. Next you’ll be crowing you got the silly thing to jump it in the first place.”
His grin returns. “Of course. I’m only sorry I didn’t make it to the creek in time.”
I give the smallest shake of my head. “Let’s rest here for a few moments, since I’m in no hurry to return home. Father will have our heads for racing the horses again.”
Robert chuckles. “My head, perhaps. Yours he will dote over and continue to ignore every wild thing you do.”
I give a shrug of my shoulders. “It’s the least he can do when one considers how much time and energy goes into keeping my darling older brother alive.”
He opens his mouth to retort, but shuts it immediately after, a look of concern flashing across his face. I follow his line of sight to Margaret, one of the maids. Her shawl has slipped unheeded to the ground, and an overturned basket of bread lies at her feet.
Though she is too far for me to make out her precise expression, I can tell by her stiff posture that something is very wrong. My heart pounds a warning inside my chest.
“Margaret!” I call out, my voice wavering despite my best effort to appear calm. “Are you alright?”
My voice seems to rouse her, and she takes one small step backward. Robert and I—even our horses—stand frozen, waiting her response. Instead of answering, she turns and flees. I watch slushy footprints form ahead of us as cold dread fills my stomach.
“She saw everything,” Robert says, his face tight.
I manage a single nod. Our father will not be pleased.
Charles, our footman, greets us as we enter the manor. His eyes are quick to avoid mine, and the snake pit of nerves within me returns. Does the whole house know already?
“Begging your pardon, milady,” he says while Robert kicks the dirt and snow from his boots. “Your father would like to see you in his study.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” I say, and he responds with a short bow. I give him a harried smile before pulling Robert into one of the nearby sitting rooms.
The room’s cheerful yellow chintz print on the walls does nothing to calm me. I close the door and lean against it. “I told you we should’ve questioned Margaret.”
Unflappable as usual, Robert flipped on the lamp beside his favorite chair and sat down. “What would you have me do? Run her down on horseback? I’m sure
wouldn’t have frightened her at all.”
“She’s obviously told everyone she encountered.”
“Margaret is as kind and timid as a mouse. I very much doubt she told everyone. We didn’t give her that much of a head start.”
I shake my head. “Thomas knows. He could barely stand to look at me.”
Robert’s expression turns skeptical. “You mean the way he always looks at you when you’re dressed as a gentleman instead of a lady? Truly, Wren, you’re reading too much into everything. This has happened before,” Robert says in his infuriatingly nonchalant way, “and it will happen again.”
“I was seven the last time it happened,” I say, my voice coming out as more of a screech. “Everything’s different now.”