* * *

Four Years Ago…

SERA VALENCE CREPT through a patch of twisted brambles, ignoring the tugs on her clothes and hair. A doe mehed pitifully eight paces away. It saw her.

“Ssh,” she whispered. “Don’t scare it.”

“You don’t scare it,” Byn whispered from behind her. “I’m the one keeping it calm, remember?”

Sera crawled from the brambles on hands and knees. The doe’s panicked eyes grew wider, wetter. If it tried to run, she might never be able to help it.

The crippled animal panted and blinked, but it did not scramble up on its ruined leg. Thanks to the complicated beast glyph Byn had scribed on Sera’s face — Staga — this doe saw her as another deer. It saw her as a friend.

Sera knelt beside the doe and took the dream world, a network of black lines and yellow sky filled with flashes of orange life. The doe glowed among that life. As Sera traced severed tendon and gnawed bone, she grimaced. This poor animal had chewed its own foot off, probably after days stuck in a trap, and that made her chest ache.

As a Bloodmender, a wielder of the power of the Five Who Had Made the World, Sera could harness her pure blood to heal fractured bones, even mend split flesh, but regrowing a leg was beyond her. As Senior Healer Landra said, no lesson was more difficult than accepting one’s limitations. Sera could not save this poor doe.

Yet she could ease the animal’s suffering. It would cost her, in blood and energy, but she would practice soothing glyphs today. She settled in front of the mehing doe, pictured the glyphs she had learned at Solyr, and waited until she had them firmly in mind.

Soon she split her index finger with one sharpened thumbnail. She took the doe’s ruined leg in one hand, gently, and Byn’s glyphs held. She scribed with her other finger, in her own blood, along its mangled fur.

Once certain her glyphs were correct, Sera ignited them. Blood left her body in a rush that made her light-headed. The doe’s orange form grew less turgid in the dream world, a sign the animal was relaxing.

Sera massaged its knee, searching for flashes suggesting pain. No flashes came. The doe breathed easy now, but she couldn’t let it relax.

If it relaxed, it might try to get up again, and nothing she could do would ease the pain of stepping on a ruined stump. She scribed another glyph on the doe’s head, just above its nose. She would make it sleep now.

“Sera,” Byn whispered.

She ignored him. Sleep was a tricky glyph, with a hooked curve on the tail end she always got wrong. Last time she got it wrong, the animal leapt up and almost bit her hand off.

“Sera!” Byn hissed. “Move!”

The urgency in his voice yanked her from the dream world. “Why?”

A mass of teeth and claws bolted from the woods. The doe hopped up, knocking Sera onto her back, and then a flurry of claws and teeth tore into it: a grayback, one of the Lorilan’s fierce wolves.

Sera gasped for breath as blood flew and the doe shrieked. It was dying and she couldn’t breathe. How could she help it if she couldn’t breathe?

Byn hauled her into his arms. Then he was charging through the forest, crashing through branches like a startled bear. Sera watched over his shoulder as the doe thrashed, as bone snapped, as that wolf ripped it open.

This was not the peaceful end she had hoped to give the poor creature, but it was an end. Worse happened every day in the Lorilan woods. Byn was still running, grunting, but the wolf was not coming after them.

Sera sucked in breath. “Byn.” It came out as a hoarse whisper. She pushed at him, trying to get his attention, but not so hard he might drop her. She did not want him to drop her while he sprinted through the woods.

“We’re safe!” she rasped, taking her voice back. “You can put me down now!”

He kept running, each breath ragged in his throat. How far had he carried her? He was going to hurt himself.

“Byn!” Sera thumped his chest. “Stop!”

He stumbled into a clearing and slowed, still clutching her in his arms. Leaves of red and brown carpeted the ground. He thumped to his knees, and that allowed Sera to finally wriggle free.

Byn gulped down air, chest heaving, as blood coursed down one cheek. Tiny scratches bled across his wide face, sweat glistened in his tousled brown hair, and his arms trembled. He had run himself ragged for her.

“You stupid jerk,” Sera whispered. Then her voice grew a great deal louder. “Why did you do that?”

His big brown eyes focused on her. “Drown me, that was terrifying.” He leaned close. “Are you hurt?”

“Am I…?” Was he serious?

“Did it scratch you?”

“I’m fine,” Sera said, pushing up and brushing leaves off her dress. “Byn, you have a serious cut on your face.” She took his head in healer’s hands and eased it left, then right. “Several cuts.”

She wanted to take the dream world and tend him, but her memory of that doe’s eyes challenged and haunted her. That poor animal had died alone, in agony, after chewing off its own foot.

Few deaths came without pain — that was why Sera became a Bloodmender, to make death less painful — but her failure to help the doe pass peacefully hurt. No one deserved to gnaw their own leg off in the woods. If this was the world the Five had made, maybe the Five were wrong.

“Hey.” Byn took her hand in his, gentle, like she’d been with the doe. “Come to the Harbor Day dance with me.”

Sera’s eyes snapped to his. “Excuse me?”

“We’ll dress up like snooty nobles.” Byn’s big hand swallowed hers, warm and calloused. “It’ll be fun.”

“And you decided now was the time to ask me?”

“Why not?”

“You’re covered in blood and a wolf tried to eat us!”

Byn grinned in the way that made Kara punch him in the arm. “So?”

“So isn’t this the wrong time to ask a girl to a dance with you?” Sera’s heart pounded like that grayback was chasing them.

Byn released her hand. “Honestly, all I thought, back there, was how empty I’d feel if something happened to you.”

The ache in Sera’s chest grew.

“I saw that grayback creeping up on you, and I thought ‘What if I lose Sera? What if it tears her throat out, and I never asked her to go to a dance with me?’“

He was serious. Sera knew he would ask this now because he was Byn, after all. Her Byn.

How many times had he come out here with her to practice glyphs? Why did she always go to the Lorilan with him and not Kara, her best friend? Kara made her feel welcome and warm, but Byn made her feel safe.

“I don’t think I could get past it,” Byn said, “if I lost the chance to tell you I like you. I like everything about you. The way you lean close to people when you’re worried about then, the way you frown when you’re concentrating, even your little snorts.”

Sera’s face burned like she had lingered too long in the sun. She liked Byn too, for many reasons, including his mad dash through the woods.

Byn wiped more blood from his cheek. “So? How about it? Go to the dance with me?”

Sera breathed, focused, decided. “All right.”

“All right!”

“But I’m going to fix your face first.”

Byn’s wide grin made her forget about the doe.

Read Chapter 2

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