Read First Year Online

Authors: Rachel E. Carter

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance

First Year

BOOK: First Year
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Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE 3
 

CHAPTER TWO 10
 

CHAPTER THREE 19
 

CHAPTER FOUR 34
 

CHAPTER FIVE 40
 

CHAPTER SIX 50
 

CHAPTER SEVEN 60
 

CHAPTER EIGHT 66
 

CHAPTER NINE 76
 

CHAPTER TEN 84
 

CHAPTER ELEVEN 93
 

CHAPTER TWELVE 101
 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN 107
 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN 115
 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN 128
 

About the Author 134
 

Acknowledgments

Where it all began…. To Kitty & Shells,
 

You made me a writer. Before everything, there was the two of you. All the books, the music, the talks, the years of writing and dreaming. they all lead back to you.
 

Shells -There will always be Eden’s Crush, Final Fantasy, and your parents’ house. I can’t guess the hours we spent plotting away -and it was you who always kept me going when the writing got tough. I can’t wait to read your novels someday, and I am so happy to have you in my life.
 

Kitty -Who else would listen to me rave about the “poor devil” for hours on end? I might have been crazy (and a little obsessed) but you believed in me anyway. It was our stories that led me to write this book in the first place -and without you there would be no Darren. J&D 4 Eva.
 

To Christina,
 

Unlike the other two, you never had a choice. Yet you supported me always. Thank you for listening to years of stories-that-never-got-written and Savage Garden on repeat. Some day when I write about the dinosaurs, you will be the first to know. I love you and you are the best sister one could ever have (even if I don’t always acknowledge that)!
 

To Darren Hayes,
 

You are my muse. Thanks for years of amazing music. And, yes, I named my favorite character after the best artist of all time. It was either that or my firstborn child, and this book came first.
 

CHAPTER ONE

“Don’t look now,” I said softly.
Did I sound calm?
I hoped so. It was hard to tell with the frantic beating in my chest. “But I think we are being followed.”

My brother paled, hands freezing on the reins. Almost unconsciously, his head began to turn in the direction of my warning.

“Alex!” I hissed.

He jerked his head back guiltily. I hoped the movement would go unnoticed by the four riders trailing a quarter of a mile behind us. They hadn’t appeared too concerned with our procession thus far, but the fact that the men were still following us after the last main road had ended left an unsettling taste in the back of my mouth.

It was getting dark fast. At the elevation we were traveling, there wouldn’t be much light left for long. Already the sun had wedged itself behind one of the larger outcroppings of rock, and the rest of its rays were fading much too quickly for my liking.

I had hoped the party would stop to make camp at one of the few sites we had passed—after all, what weary traveler wouldn’t prefer the comfort of a well-worn pit and nearby stream? I, for one, would have insisted as much if it hadn’t been for the uncanny appearance of those behind us.

“How do you know they are ‘following’ us?” Alex whispered loudly. Our horses continued their steady climb into the dark hillside. “Shouldn’t we be stopping soon?” he added. “I’m sure they’ll continue on, and then you’ll see your worry was all for nothing.”

“Alex,” I said through clenched teeth, “their saddlebags are far too light for a trek like this. That’s not
nothing
.”

“So?”

I forced myself not to let my frustration show. It wasn’t Alex’s fault he didn’t understand my concern. His faction was Restoration. He cared about healing people, not what it looked like to harm them.

“Only fools—or bandits—would travel so empty-handed. Four grown men are not fools, Alex. Even fools would have known to take that last main road to an inn…” I swallowed. “But a bandit, they wouldn’t need to bother with packs since, well, because they would be taking our own instead.”

My twin slowly mulled over my words. I wondered if he would believe me. I wasn’t exactly known for my easygoing temperament. I hoped he didn’t think this was just another one of my “rash judgments” as our parents were wont to assume.

As I waited for Alex’s response, I pretended to check the footholds, giving myself an opportunity to spy on our shadow once more. Though the men were much harder to identify without the broad light of day, there was still no mistaking the glint of steel bulging from one of the men’s hip. Only a soldier or knight was allowed to bear such metal.

A chill ran through me. I doubted he was either.

“Right,” Alex said abruptly.

In as much nonchalance as one could muster under the circumstances, I faced my brother stubbornly. “Alex—”

“I believe you.”

Oh.
I paused.

“What should we do, Ry?” Gone was his relaxed smile, and in its place a timid frown…and an unsure, flickering blue stare. At first I didn’t recognize the expression—he looked so much younger than his fifteen years. But then I realized it was fear producing the vulnerability in my brother’s eyes.

My twin, the rational, levelheaded, sane half of me, was afraid. What did that mean for the two of us? I refused to contemplate the answer. Instead, I scanned the trail ahead, trying to make out our intended route amid the lumbering pines.

Unfortunately, it was much easier to point out the problem than come up with a solution.

We should have taken the main road,
I acknowledged belatedly.
If I hadn’t been so set on the fastest route to the Academy, we would be on a nice, well-traveled path instead of a desolate mountain range, about to be robbed.
 

But it was too late now.

“Ryiah?”

I bit my lip. Alex was looking to me for an answer. This was, after all, my forte. What had I told my parents before we left home? I would join Combat or die trying.

A fine choice of words. What had been meant as a melodramatic proclamation was now to be my intended irony. I could not fight our way out of this. Not against four grown, arms-holding men. Not without magic.

For the millionth time I silently questioned the gods’ motive in my inability to cast. But this wasn’t the time to sulk in my inadequacies. I needed to pick a plan fast.

I peered into the trees, straining to see any sort of upcoming detour. If we could find a way to circle back, lose the men in a chase, and then return to the main road… Or maybe lose them in hiding, taking cover under darkness and then move out again at first light?

Perhaps Alex was right, and the men would just carry on. We could just set up camp here and now and be none the worse.

Yes, and pigs might fly,
I scolded myself.
You want to be a warrior mage, and yet you shirk at the first sign of danger.
 

I
do not
shirk.

“When I say ‘go,’” I whispered, sidling as close to Alex as my own mount could manage, “I want you to take off west. I’ll head east—”

Alex opened his mouth to protest, and I hushed him.

“We have to split up. Staying together would only increase their chance of catching us.”

My brother stared me down defiantly. “I am
not
leaving you, Ry.”

I ignored him. “We can meet up at that tavern we passed earlier just before the fork. If… If one of us isn’t there within a couple hours of daylight, then we hire the local guard to help search out the other. It might take a little longer if we are on foot.” I swallowed. “Local thugs don’t usually kill unless someone puts up a fight.” At least that’s what I’d heard.

“But what if they—”

“They won’t,” I said.

He shook his head stubbornly. “If they find out you’re a
girl
—”

I looked my brother in the eye. “It’s our best bet, Alex. If you stay with me, you will not be helping either one of us.”

Alex swore. “Ryiah, I don’t like this plan one bit.”

I motioned for him to get ready, and leaned forward to stand in the stirrups with both hands gripped firmly to the horse’s mane. Alex copied my movements, and as soon as he was in a similar stance, I nodded.

“Now!”
 

In a cloud of rising dirt and debris, my charge took off at a breathless gallop. The thundering clash of hooves and the cries of surprise from the party behind us left me with an elated sense of victory. We had managed to catch them off-guard.

As tempting as it was to check their progress, I kept my eyes glued to the forest in front of me. Dark, twisting branches struck out at my face and ripped across my skin. Harsh wind tore at my already-chapped lips. I willed myself to ignore the numbing cold and sudden, jarring cuts from above.

I hoped Alex was having better luck in his bit of the woods. I could barely see five feet in front of me and had to rely on the mare for navigation. Now that she knew our general direction, it was up to her to avoid what I could not.

The subtle whistle of steel slicing through air alerted me a second too late. One of the men’s blades flew past, nicking the back of my right thigh in its course. I cried out and then immediately regretted the noise.

The wound felt shallow, but it was still sudden and biting enough for me to lose balance. I fell back against the saddle, and the mare startled at the sudden shift in weight, slowing her gallop to a canter. I hastily moved to correct the error, ignoring the added pressure on my leg as I attempted to crouch once more in the stirrups and return her to speed.

At that same moment the mare stumbled over some loose footing and sent me pitching forward. My hands, slick with sweat, lost hold of her mane, and I was sent careening to the ground. I barely registered what was happening before I hit the dirt with a sickening thud. I had only a fraction of a second to roll before hooves came clamoring past.

The mare took off into the darkness. I attempted to stand and ignore the shaking of my legs. My entire right side ached, and I had new cuts on my hands from trying to brace my fall. I wondered if the hammering in my ears was from the pulsing of blood or the approaching of bandits.

Maybe they hadn’t seen me fall. Maybe they still thought I was astride. It was dark enough. I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the stabbing pains as I stumbled toward the nearest brush. I took a couple of hobbling steps until the hammering gave way to the shouts of men and the unmistakable sounds of heavy footfall.

The bandits had dismounted and were searching the area.

I ducked under the bush, ignoring the many thorns that raked across my face and arms, and prayed that the loud snapping of branches was just a quiet rustle outside my head.

Burrowing as deep as I dared, I waited. My breath was shaky and ragged, and I tried not to imagine all the horrible possibilities that could await me if I were found. I willed myself to breathe slowly, letting my racing heart ease. It was no use.

I could hear their voices. They were getting louder. A flutter of soft wind brought the rancid smell of days’ old sweat and ale, and I wondered how close they were. The bush I hid under smelled oddly sweet, like some sort of forest berry. I hoped its leaves would hide me well.

How many had followed me?
I wondered.
Where was Alex right now? Was he still riding west?
I strained to hear the approaching voices.

…Saw the boy limping…” one was saying.

Another man cleared his throat. “He couldn’t have gone far.”

There were only two that I could distinguish. If there were a third man, he was staying silent. Judging from the number of footsteps, however, I was inclined to go with the former.

The crunching of pine needles a mere step away froze my heart in my throat.

One of the men was right beside the bush. I could hear the shuffling of feet against some of the outlying roots. I made a silent prayer to the gods that he would continue on.

“I reckon he went the other way, Jared,” the man said. “There’s nothing this way but brush.”

“Naw, he’s got to be this way.”

The voices were now both coming from the same spot just above me. My pulse pounded so violently I was certain they could hear it. I refused to breathe as I waited for them to pass.

“Smells good out here,” the first was saying.

“It’s the blackberries, you dolt,” the second man, Jared, replied. He shoved a hand in to grasp at a dark clumping of fruit and pulled it back back with a curse: “Fool thorns!”

The other man pushed past and reached in further, managing to catch a hand full of berries and my hair in the process. I didn’t realize some of it had come loose from my braid, tangled in the thorns until the man yanked his fist back. As the hair ripped from my scalp an unwilling cry escaped my lips.

I slapped a hand over my mouth, but it was too late. They had heard me.

The next second flew past in a blur as the men yanked me from my den and tossed me roughly to the bare forest ground at their feet.

BOOK: First Year
10.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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