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It wasn't too late. If she went back now, nobody would know she'd ever been missing. She could put the boy's leggings and loose shirt back in her brother's room and pretend she wasn't dying inside.
Rowan shifted the strap of her carry bag on her shoulder and turned to look down at Valleyhold, the secret village where she had lived all her life.
From her vantage point at the top of a low mountain, she couldn't see the thatched roofs of the comfortable houses, the hidden garden plots, the herds of sheep, or even the meeting hall or the market square. They were all hidden by trees planted to conceal the existence of her people from anyone who might wander into these mountains.
And the wards that guarded the valley would prevent anyone from coming closer.
Facing away from the village again, she pressed her palm against the transparent wall that shielded her people. It was like the skin of a soap bubble, yet much strongerstrong enough to hold back the enemies who would destroy everyone she knew if their existence was discovered.
Along with the invisible wall came another protection. A soundless warning. A buzzing in Rowan's head.
Danger. Go back. Danger.
It was only an echo on this side of the barrier. She knew that on the other side, its power was magnified a thousand times.
The villagers kept the protections in place by the strength of their mental powers. It was taxing work, but everyone took on the duty for a few hours once a fortnight.
Rowan's chest tightened painfully. She should be lying on one of the narrow cots at the guardhouse two days hence. But she would be gone, and someone would have to fill her place.
Unless she changed her mind.
She stroked her hand against the transparent shield, feeling a slight vibration. She had only been here a few times. The elders took groups of young children up the mountain to the barrier and recounted the solemn tale of the great massacre when her people had been hunted down and killed by soldiers from Arandal.
The survivors had come here. For more than a century, they had lived and prospered here. Rowan had been happy in Valleyhold until everything changed.
It hadn't happened all in a flash. But she knew when the destructive seeds had been plantedtwo years ago, when Telman had come to the village. A man who had ignored the warnings of danger, walked through the barrier, and lived. Proof positive of his strong mental powers.
The village elders had been awed, and he'd wormed his way in among them, making himself useful with his talents and suggestions. He'd acted as though he was only looking out for the best interests of the village, but Rowan knew he had ambitions. And one of them was to have her for his wife. When he had begun to court her six months ago, his touch made her insides curdle.
"Telman." She whispered his name aloud to give herself the courage she needed to take the final step.
He was evil, although it seemed few others could sense it. Did no one else see his ugly snake tattoo as a symbol of his true nature?
Not even her parents heeded the warning. They had left her alone with him more than once as a sign of their regard.
But she knew better. In the garden when they were alone, he had stroked aside her blond hair and whispered in her ear.
"You are so beautiful. With powers of the mind few possess. I will take your virginity and teach you to please me in every way a woman can serve a man. You will attend to my needs, and you will have the honor of bearing my childrensons who will form a dynasty to rule the valley and beyond."