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Brenna split off and ran in the direction of the river. She guessed, by the quivering oval patches of pewter gray that broke through the uppermost layer of tree branches, there was perhaps an hour or two of daylight left in the outer world. The inner world of the forest would have far less, but she was not worried. Having seen the gully, she knew where she was, knew the location of the river, knew where to intersect the hidden tract the villagers of Amboise used when they wanted to take their wares to Blois without paying a toll. She also knew of a place on the river where great fat salmon swam into the shallow pools to feed in the quiet water. If she could skewer a plump, succulent salmon, she knew it would win a resounding round of praise from her father. He particularly loved the fish poached in wine, smothered in onions and thyme, washed down with a flagon of his prized pierrefitte.
There was no need to exercise more caution than she normally would in the greenwood. No need to play the fool either, and for that she kept her ears tuned to the sound of the wind in the upper boughs, the angry squabbling of squirrels and hare in the knee-deep ferns, the chatter of birds overhead who, like old women on a fence, stopped their gossiping long enough to mark Brenna's passage, then resumed their bickering as if nothing had interrupted. Gil had taught her the forest was full of alarms if one took the time to become familiar with them. The crunch of a leaf, the snap of a twig, the sound of furry feet scrambling away were all indications of an unexpected presence.
She ran with an easy, loping gait, her bow slung over her shoulders and the long cable of her braid thumping between her shoulders on each step. Her breath was starting to take on a ghostly quality in the cooling air and the fine hairs that had sprung free around her neck and temples were curling against the thin sheen of moisture that slicked her skin.
She had no desire to work up another chilling sweat, and while she loped along, she unfastened the laces of her leather jerkin, letting the sides hang open so the air passed freely through the looser weave of her shirt. Force of habit made her glide to a halt every few hundred yards to listen to the forest. Once she thought she heard the echo of a church bell, a tiny, tinny sound far off in the distance. There was a monastery farther up the river, and the monks were meticulous if not downright fanatical about gathering their flock to prayer. It was likely the vespers bell, which would be bringing the mendicants off the herds and out of the gardens after a hard day's work.
Another familiar sound brought her head tilting to one side. She was within bowshot of the river, two hundred yards more or less, and could not only hear the chatter of the water passing over the rocky shoreline, she could smell the deeper, damper musk in the air.
Moving slower now, stealthier through the tangle of saplings and gorse, Brenna listened for any alarms her presence might make. Deer, hare, and other small creatures would be sidling down to the embankment for their evening drinks. If she startled them off too suddenly, any fish in the pools would heed the warning and swim into the middle of the river. In her favor, it was also the time of day when colonies of blackbirds and swallows were resuming to their rookeries in the forest, and they were making enough noise to cover anything short of a shout.
Another hundred yards and she could see the River Loire through the thinning trees. It moved leisurely toward the sea, a hundred fifty miles to the west, like a wide ribbon of molten silver. The tops of the trees on the opposite bank were burnished bronze by the settling sun, and high above, the purpled bellies of wind-dragged clouds wore crowns of pink and gold and amber. Dusk would not be far behind, all grays and blues and darkest blacks.
Creeping closer to the bank, she used a fallen tree to cloak her movements as she emerged from the edge of the forest and slipped down onto the wide, shingled shoreline. The bank here was flat, not very wide--there were perhaps ten feet between the ledge of jutting roots and the silky rush of water. This particular pool was tucked into an elbow of rocks, shadowed by the huge oaks and pines that crowded the shore, the trapped water so still and dark it looked like spilled ink. And whether it was because the closeness of the trees had exaggerated every squeak and snap, or because she simply felt overly exposed standing under an open sky after so many hours of moving from shadow to shadow, the sudden unearthly silence brought her to a frozen standstill.
A cool shiver rippled down her spine as she recalled a story once told of a pool in England, cursed for a thousand years to languish in utter silence despite being in the heart of a greenwood teeming with creatures of every size and description.
But that was England and this was France and she certainly did not believe in faeries or magic spells. She believed in what she saw, and in this case it was only the shadows pressed hard against the water, black on black. It was likely the rocks and few sparse trees on the narrow promontory that were buffering the sounds from the wind and the water beyond. As for curses and ill-fated lovers...
Brenna squeezed her eyes tightly shut and opened them again quickly but this was no trick of the failing light. It was not an elf and certainly not a tragic prince agonizing over a lost love. It was a half-naked satyr bent down on one knee by the waters edge, a gleaming, bejeweled dagger clutched in his right hand, raised to strike.