She shook her head, pushed the thought away. No. No further. No more.
She lay curled within a hollow tree, engulfed in the dark, endless woods. And they were endless. The last two days and nights had proven that. Her dress, once fine, hung torn around her, the skin beneath no longer soft or white. Her bare feet throbbed, cried out for soothing oils. She'd half-forgotten what it was to breathe.
Catch your breath and run, fool girl, or it's all for nothing.
A moment's rest. That was all. Not much to ask for. They were miles behind her, had to be. She'd not seen the men's torches since they'd first appeared, not heard the call of man nor Wolf ¾
She heard it now.
It was a horrid cry. Rage, hunger, thirst, all twisted together like the scream of a broken horn. It came for her, thundered in her ears, in her heart, turned her legs to jelly.
Then to steel.
She ran, ran faster than ever. Down the embankment, over the rocks, through the branches that swiped at her tangled hair. She heard them all now. The men's shouts, their crashes, the roar of the Wolves beside them. Beside her.
There was one to her left, not ten strides away, its fangs and massive hide barely hidden behind the trees, beneath the night. Faster.
She ran to the right. It didn't follow. No time to wonder why.
She half-tumbled into a gully, crashing hard on her shoulder against a rocky slope. She forced herself up, kept running, kept hurting. Hadn't breathed since God-knew-when.
"Ha!" a man laughed from above as he flew into a bladed tackle. She ducked beneath him, left him skittering on the rocks, kept running.
Faster. Faster. Never mind where.
Another wall of trees massed before her. She turned her blue eyes from the jagged branches and charged. She barely felt the scratches. She would later. If there was a later.
Another Wolf. This one to her right. Curving toward her. Herding her. That was clear even now, clear as the sky that spread out ahead as she left the trees behind.
She almost left the ground behind with them.
A cliff. They'd brought her straight to it, and now she skidded to a halt atop the tapering summit of a red stone wall, gazing down at the sea of trees and the crimson sky beyond.
She turned. Four, five men emerged from the treeline, walling her off from solid ground. Others followed; pig-men, fat as taxmen and half as fair, armed and adorned with their tribal leather. And the Wolves, walking upright now, nearly tall enough for two men and broad enough for three. Unclothed, but covered in shining fur ¾ one of them gold, the other black ¾ they flashed their many fangs in triumph.
As the chase fell silent, her pursuers slowly catching their breath, she doubled over to catch her own, slipping to one knee. Her lungs burned. Her eyes watered, then closed. Her ears slammed like barrel-drums. Somewhere beyond the pain and the fear, a constant roar hummed in the air. Not one of theirs; no, she half-realized, her precipice stood above a waterfall.
It was a pleasant sound. Almost a song, really.
The pounding in her ears began to ease. Her lungs forgave her, or at least extended a reprieve.
The men allowed her no further rest. She heard a step, and opened an eye to see one of them, uglier and taller than the others, stride out from his fellows, a half-toothless grin on his face.
The last of her will brought her upright. He took another step.
"Shoulda known legs like yours'd give us a chase," he said in a lowborn slur. The others laughed. His eyes roamed the rip across the bosom of her dress. "Well, we've got a moment till the Star arrives." He reached for his belt. "Why not make the best of it?"
The fire in her lungs flowed straight to her heart. "No."
She turned sideways and snapped up her fists. Her heart's flame swelled, shot up her arm, and burst from her hand in a bright red flash.
The flame seared the air as it punched the man's chest, launching him backward and scattering the others. As he rolled and screamed, the rest leveled spears and advanced. Slowly. She'd scared them. She'd do more than scare them.
Could she? Was there enough flame inside her to burn them all down? The men, the pigs, the Wolves? They parted around their burning comrade, ignored him as he flailed at their feet. She flinched in spite of herself. Could she ever have done such violence, channeled such power before? Even if she'd wanted to?
Whatever she wanted, they came for her now, spears bristling together in twos and threes. Her heart again called for the fire.
"Kill me!" she cried. "Come and kill me, and burn for it! Burn for your-"
He spoke with no one voice, but an ever-changing choir. Beneath his hooded robes of red and white, a mask of shadows cloaked his face. His long red glove reached toward the sky, as if his voice carried to the stars.
His men, and the beasts among them, retreated at once, save the one on the ground. As that one rolled, cried out from within his fiery cloak, the Crowning Star knelt down beside him, blew out a cool, soft breath, and bid the flames begone.
She saw the scorched man's black skin, quivering features ¾ and she saw the gloved hand pass over them, render them anew.
Even miracles couldn't make him any less ugly, she thought with an out-of-turn smile.
As the healed man kissed the Crowning Star's glove and scampered behind the others, the Star set foot on the precipice, robes flowing in the wind as he faced her. Out of habit, she tried to stare through his shadows, capture a glimpse of his face. She saw nothing but the swirling darkness.
"Your love sends word, My Lady," said the Star's many voices. "He awaits you."
"Lies," she hissed. If they hadn't killed Jarden yet, they would.
"Serpents lie." The Star dismissed the accusation with a wave.
"Stars burn." She flicked out her hand. Somehow, the fire came forth again ¾ quite before she'd finished calling for it ¾ and it lashed out blazing at his robes.
Then died away, without so much as singing a thread.
"Strong indeed I have made you," he said. "And stronger still you will become. Look there." He pointed over her shoulder.
Against her better judgment, she turned her head to the coming sunrise.
"Today's dawn," his voices sang. As she turned back toward him, he extended an open, gloved palm. "Take my hand, and bring tomorrow's! Banish the clouds from the sky! You, with your love alongside ¾ you shall be as mother and father to a world of joy!"
He believed it; there was no question of that. Did she? Did she almost?
"And still you doubt," said the Star's many voices, shifting into a minor key. "As do all children born to such glorious fates."
She backed away. Toward the edge.
"My Lady, you cannot leave us," he said. "There is work undone ¾ and the fire is not all that burns inside you. You know this." His fingers curled. "You feel it even now."
It was her stomach that burned this time. She lurched forward, choking down a sudden burst of bile and gritting her teeth. "What did you do to me?"
"The work of fate," he answered. "The work of…God." Somewhere in his choir, she was sure she heard a laugh. "Will you not return, My Lady? May I not heal you? Save you? From…well," he bowed his head, "it will be death, I'm afraid."
The edge was at her heels now. An updraft swirled around her, cool and calm. The waterfall still sang.
"Death?" She made her choice. "Why wait?"
And she threw herself backward. Into the dawn. Into the air. Into the roar and the spray of the water, and away from the fading night sky and its crowning star.