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A sudden burst of pain slammed into Willow's shoulder, and she cried out, struggling not to pitch forward. When she was steady on her feet again, she turned around and saw one of the youngsters from the village standing twenty yards away, a look of satisfaction on his rounded face.
He had hurled a bolt of power at hera schoolboy's clumsy assault. He should have hit her square in the back. She could do far worse to him if she chose, but she ordered herself not to retaliate.
"Is this how you amuse yourself?" she asked, hoping her voice sounded calm. Six months ago she would have been shocked by the attack. Now nothing surprised her.
His expression was defiant. "Your sister betrayed us. You'd do the same, if the elders hadn't fixed it so you can't leave the village."
"My sister didn't betray anyone. She escaped to save her life."
Willow hoped she spoke the truth. In reality she didn't know if Rowan was alive and well. She could only pray to Ravina for her safety.
The boy made a scoffing sound. "She left Valleyhold with an outlander. He could bring his soldiers back here to slay us all."
Prince Grantland of Arandal, she silently added. And as far as she knew, all he'd wanted to do was get out of Valleyhold alive. Aloud she said, "He won't do that. And if he did, they wouldn't get through the wards."
"No thanks to you. The elders don't even trust you on shield duty, do they?"
It was true. Every adult in Valleyhold took his or her turn sending psychic energy to the invisible dome that kept invaders from their high mountain refuge. Everyone but her.
More than a hundred years ago, her people's psychic powers had branded them as witches in the kingdom of Arandal. Those who had escaped with their lives had found asylum in this hidden valley and erected a barrier that prevented enemies from attacking. But it also kept anyone inside from leavingunless they were given specific permission.
Willow sighed, knowing there was no point in trying to defend herself with wordsor any other way.
Hoping the little vermin wasn't going attack again, she turned and marched up the hill toward the meadows where she could be alone. She had a carry bag slung over her shoulder, with some food and extra clothes. If she wanted to stay up on the mountain in one of the sheepherder's huts, she could.
Until her seventeenth year, Valleyhold had been a place of friendship and laughter. A place of warmth and comfort where she'd felt secure in her role as a highborn daughter of respected parents. Now it was a prison, with no escape.
Instead of stopping to gather the herbs she'd promised her mother, she climbed steadily away from the village.
She had learned her lesson the hard way and stopped well short of the protective dome. Every time she'd approached the barrier, her head had begun to pound and her breath had grown labored. She knew that if she tried to get through, she would kill herself in the attempt. She was trapped in here, and she had to accept that.
She had had good reason to leave. Her parents had betrothed her to a powerful wizard who hid his evil plans from all but a few people. Rowan and Grantland had killed him, been threatened with death or worse by the elders and managed to escape.