Sh'ra sat high in the tree she had just climbed. She swore at her foolishness. She had thought she could trust Shin with her plan. She should should have known better. At least, he hadn't believed her about the lodestone. That would have been complete disaster. Now, there was still a chance. She just had to figure out how to reach it. She thought again of the cave that held it, retracing the steps to it in her mind. It was not far now.
“Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?” Her father had asked her as she sat on her mother's lap. He knelt in front of her, looking into her eyes.
"Yes father, I am sure." She had said, in the most confident tone her nine year old voice could muster.
“How did you find it, Shi?” Her mother interjected.
She told them the story, the one she had come up with, that she had wandered into the cave for protection from the storm. The lie was easily told, more believable than the truth. The stone was there, through a cleft in the rock at the back of cave. That part had been true, if not quite so simple.
“You know what this means, K’vel. No one has found a stone in five hundred years.” Her mother had said, speaking excitedly over her head to her father.
“Yes,” He had replied, as he stood. He strode to the fire, hands clasped behind his back. “We will need a champion we can trust, but we have some time. It is still ten years before the next Trials.”
Neither of them imagined that champion would be her. A lot had changed in ten years.
In her mind, she had pictured her victory a thousand times. Every night for the past year, she emerged from the cave triumphant. They paraded her through the streets of the city. Father beamed his big smile, wrapping her in his arms. Her family was finally restored to its rightful place. But without a bow, was it still possible?
She pulled the broken bow from her pack, careful to avoid the splintered ends. It was beyond resurrection. She removed the string. Perhaps she could find wood to make another. Unlikely.
She had been so certain of her plan. She had not even bothered to come up with an alternative. She tried to think but her mind kept being drawn back to the lodestone and the cave. She had never been good at contingencies.
“Sh’ra, listen to me.” He father had said the night before the Trials began. “If you fail…No, listen. If you fail to reach the lodestone, for whatever reason, do not continue in the competition. Your plan is a good one. It will get you to the final trial, but you must end it quickly after that.”
“Father, the competitors cannot attack each other. That rule has been in place for a hundred years. I might still be able to win.”
“I know the rules, girl. You don’t know what it’s like out there. Even the best men get strange and you will be their first target. The longer it goes on, the more likely some type of… accident will happen. Promise me, Shi. Promise me you will come back to us. It will be okay. We will be okay. As long as you come back, we will be okay.”
He had bet the entire future of their house on her, on this chance for redemption. They would not be okay. She had tried to reassure him, but he had insisted. Finally, she had given in. She had promised to leave if she could not reach the stone. The possibility that it was time to make good on that promise sat in her gut like a boulder. Could she walk away when she was so close?
A shuffling noise snapped her out of her internal wrestling. It was the sound of wind rustling leaves, but the air was still. A form stalked through the brush below.
"Sh'ra," he whispered harshly. "Sh'ra!"
Reflexively, she almost answered. But if she could not trust Shin, she could not trust any of them. The stalker stood up and turned. It was Teth. From where he stood, if he looked up, he would see her through a bare spot in the branches. She willed him not to look up. He did not obey. Their eyes met for instant, his alight with triumph. He drew a finger across his throat, threateningly. Then an arrowhead sprouted from his chest. Confusion fell over his features. He took a step to his right, drawing his knife, seeking out his attacker. He took another step. His legs crumpled landing him hard on his knees. His right hand grasped the wooden shaft protruding from his rib cage while he held himself up with his left. He strained, trying to regain his feet, but his strength failed. He slumped onto his side, his shirt soaked red.
A bewildered cry escaped her before she was able to catch it. Her eyes fixated on his body, while her mind scrambled to process what they saw.
A man she did not recognize strode from the undergrowth, scanning the trees. Again, she prayed to not be noticed. He stopped with his eyes directly on her. He knocked another arrow. She gaped as the he drew back and prepared to loose. The thrum of the string leaving his fingers propelled her muscles into action. Letting her sack fall to the ground, she launched herself toward another branch.
The arrow grazed her ear as it thudded into the tree. He had anticipated her movement, firing for where he thought she would be. Fear took her completely. He drew the bow again, his face emotionless. He released, but his body jerked to his right during the motion. She followed the arrow as it flew wide to her left, before turning her gaze back to the man. Only, it wasn't the man anymore. It was Shin, slashing his dagger downward at a form struggling beneath him. He raised a blood soaked dagger and stabbed down a second time. The form beneath him stilled.
"Who was he?" Sh'ra asked.
She stood next to him as they examined the body. Shin bent down and raised one of the hands, drawing her attention to the index finger. The nail was filed to a point.
"Why would one of the air clan want me dead?"
Shin considered her, appearing confused at how to respond.
"Oh, right. He didn't want me."
"He wanted Teth. You were just an unfortunate witness."
Of course, they wanted Teth. Why had she thought it had been her? She felt deflated. Thinking someone had been sent to assassinate her had given her a sense of importance. For a moment, she had felt the rush of it. She had felt invincible having survived. Now, knowing she was not the intended target but just happened to be there, threatened to crush her. Seeing the look on her face, Shin put a hand on her shoulder, somehow knowing her thoughts.
"If they knew you as I do Sh'ra, you would have been their target."
She brushed the hand off, shaking her head. She refused to be some fool girl who needed comforting because an assassin had not been sent to kill. If they did not see her as a threat, so much the better. She reached down, grabbing the assassin's bow and quiver.
"What are you doing?"
"Regaining the advantage."
"Sh'ra, don't! You are going to get yourself killed!"
But she was already running.