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He shouldn’t be so far outside the walls.
He shouldn’t be away from work so long.
He definitely shouldn’t be wasting so much time on what was probably a fool’s errand; it was stupid to expect that he’d find any more of the stones out here, even if he looked for hours.
He could hear Saren now: Stupid boy. Stupid Xander, where were you? What were you doing? I had messages for you to carry, money for you to earn, money to line my pocket, money to feed you and me. You let me down, boy, you let us down, and now what will we have for supper?
The old man had been like a father to him, Xander reflected. Best to cut his losses now and get back to the Keep while it was still light out. How much longer did he have? He looked up. The afternoon sun, peeking between the leaves of the forest canopy far above, was going down already. Another hour or so of light. He ought to get back. He could hear Saren’s disapproving voice in his mind.
He could hear Geni’s, too.
Oh, Xander. You shouldn’t have.
Five more minutes, he thought. If I don’t find one in five more minutes, I’ll turn back. He noted the trail markings, and took a few hesitant steps deeper into the forest. The Keeper’s Wood. He’d roamed it since he was a boy; knew every one of these trails like the back of his hand. There was no reason to be afraid of anything in here, was there? No reason to be hesitant about what might lurk around the next bend in the path, or behind the massive tree trunks that blocked the way in front of him?
No. No reason at all.
Except that Lord Ambrose had declared the wood off-limits a month earlier. On the day the Knights had ridden in from the West, the Keeper—and his Council—had issued several proclamations. Times have changed, Lord Ambrose had said. Things are no longer as they were. In order to ensure the safety of the Keep and all its residents, I hereby make, in the name of the King, the following proclamations. The wood, off-limits to all but those on the Keeper’s business. Etc., etc.
Well, Xander thought. He intended the stones for Geni. So by the strict letter of the law, he was, in fact, here on Lord Ambrose’s business. Because Geni was Ambrose’s business, wasn’t she?
He sighed. Somehow, he didn’t think the Lord would see it that way, if Xander were caught and brought before him.
Best to finish here, and get out.
The trail narrowed; it led him downhill to the banks of a small stream. The spring rains had been falling pretty hard for the last week; the little stream had overflowed its bank. He left the path, walked alongside the water for a while, heading back upstream, in the direction of the Keep, using the roots and limbs of some of the trees to keep his balance, to keep from falling in. He was wearing the boots he’d found the other day, and if he got them wet . . .
Treat these well, boy, you could work for a year and not earn enough to buy another pair like them, the devil’s own luck you have, finding them in the first place, having them turn out to be your size in the second, boy, boy are you listening, boy?
There’d be hell to pay, he knew.
He walked for a while longer, was about to give up when he saw a glint on the far side of the little stream; something reflecting the last light of the dying sun. It looked like . . . it might be . . . no way to be certain, of course, except to get closer.
It was a good ten feet to the other side of the stream. He was no athlete, Xander knew. He was small for his age, fifteen, and barely a hundred and twenty pounds, and not blessed with the coordination other boys his age were already displaying—the kind of coordination that made for a good warrior. What he was, though, was fast. Nimble. That was what made him such a good messenger.
Closer. How to get closer?
With a running start, that kind of speed might let him jump across the bank. Might. Only one way to find out, wasn’t there?
He took a deep breath, a couple of steps back, and leapt.
He didn’t make it. But luck was with him. Just as he jumped, he caught sight of a flat rock in the middle of the stream. A dry-looking rock, sticking up out of the water. The jump took him to that, and from that a second jump took him to the other side. And the thing he’d seen glittering in the sun. He bent down and picked it up. He smiled.
It was a small black stone, shaped like an arrowhead—triangular, smooth to the touch on one side, like crystal, rough on the other. A midnight stone—the second one he’d found in the afternoon’s searching. Geni would like this one even better than the first; he was sure of it. The shape of it, the way it sparkled . . .
Oh, Xander. You shouldn’t have.
He smiled to himself, picturing her. The look on her face.
If my father found out you were in the wood . . .
Who’s going to tell him? You?
No. Of course not. But it’s not safe.
I was careful. I stuck to the trails. Don’t worry about me.
But I do.
Xander pictured himself handing her the stone. Their fingers touch. Their eyes meet.
His stomach rumbled. He pictured another scene.
You let me down, boy, you let us down, and now what will we have for supper?
He blinked, came out of his little reverie, and saw that the shadows around him had lengthened even further. Saren would kill him. And rightfully so. Too dark to run any more messages today, by the time he got back to the Keep. Too dark, even, he realized, to use the trails, overgrown as they’d gotten in the last few weeks. The stream, though, would lead him out. A longer route, but he would end up at the same place when he finished. Everything would be fine.
Except it wasn’t.
When he came up out of the wood, when he got to the gate, the three of them were there, waiting for him.
Morlis, Vincor, Oro.
He didn’t understand why they hated him so. Geni said it was because they were jealous of him, because he was smart and they weren’t, but Xander doubted that. Saren said they were jealous, too, though not because of his brains, but rather because of the fact that he had made friends with Geni and they hadn’t. That was probably closer to the truth, Xander thought, but the real reason they tormented him, he’d decided, was that he was an easy target. He was alone. Always alone. An orphan, with no family—no brothers, no cousins, no father, no uncle or grandfather even—to protect him.
“Well, if it isn’t the skeleton boy.” The biggest of the three youths, the one standing in the middle, took a step forward. Morlis had been a bully for as long as Xander had known him. Had always been big for his age, too. Big, and stupid. He was wearing a stable boy’s uniform: tan trousers and jerkin, worn black leather boots. Xander could smell him from where he stood. Morlis had been working in those clothes all day, no doubt. He’d probably work in them tomorrow, too. Probably he’d die in them as well. Xander almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“What do you want?”
A second boy stepped forward as Xander spoke.
Vincor. He was smaller than Morlis—a year younger than him, too. Fifteen, Xander’s own age. The two of them had been friends for a few days, when Xander had first gone to work for Saren. Now . . .
“You hear that, Mor?” Vincor said. “Skelly acts like he don’t know what we want. You know what we want, skelly. We want to know what you been doin’ in the wood.”
“None of your business.”
“So you say.” That was the third boy speaking. Oro. He was the oldest of the three—and by far the most dangerous. Not as big as Morlis, maybe not even as smart as Vincor, but nastier than the two of them combined. “I say different.”
“Let me pass,” Xander said.
Oro shook his head. Over his shoulder, in the fading light, Xander saw the walls of the Keep, and the outlines of the South Gate. Safety. It seemed a long way off.