“Are you sure, then?” Mathias asked her. “I know this is the life I’ve led you to, lass.” He shifted his crutch, the wood slanting beside the ghost of his right leg. “Are you sure it’s the life you want?”
Scarlet finished buckling the saddlebags. She turned and took in his weathered face, the cottage and garrison wall behind him. Now or never. She looked down and smiled.
“Of course not,” she said. “But unless the world changed last night, and the Wardens will accept a woman, it’s the life I have. The life you gave me, captain.” And because it was time, her sight blurring with tears, she added, “Father.”
He nodded rapidly, lips trembling within his graying beard. “They’ll accept you,” he said, his voice choked. “You have the skills. Beyond mine at your age. Let you ride with them, hunt with—”
She clenched her jaw. How many nights had they spoken of her future? She had to end this. Now or never.
“Tolerate,” she said darkly. “Not accept. Always a follower, riding last in the wedge. Never captain or commander. And might I choose a husband one day? Come to stay here or in another garrison as wife, as a mother? Today? Tomorrow? I might. But is that why you raised me as you did? Is that why you found me by the rivers?”
“The gods know why I found you,” he said, closing his eyes for a long moment. “And how else should a leather-skinned rider raise a girl? You wouldn’t stay with any goodwife once you could run, let alone ride. When you were …”
She glanced away and let him remember, lifting her eyes to the East. Somewhere, leagues away beneath a massing froth of sunshot gray clouds, flowed the mighty Godriver and its countless branches.
Once before she’d touched its waters. Little before it — a blue and white spire, a caged raven, hooded faces — but she remembered that night, the swift loping flight of the darklings, the tangled hair of the one who bore her on its shoulder, scratching her face, reeking of rotten flowers. The furious chittering of their voices, then the pounding of hooves. Falling, wet to the waist, her garments cold and clinging and so heavy as to trap her legs. Then being lifted in the hands of the man before her, when his body was younger and whole.
The Wardens spread word of finding her, but no one laid claim. The half-cloak she wore was dark red linen, and Mathias called her Scarlet. So far from the allied cities, in the sweeping plains and hill countries patrolled by the Wardens, she hardly needed a surname. If anyone asked, it would be Rivers.
She stepped forward and touched Mathias’s arm. He swallowed and she kissed his cheek.
“I’m ready,” she told him.
“I know.” He slipped a folded square of parchment from his belt and pressed it into her palm. “The Ninth Southern Garrison, in the Shattered Hills. Give this to Captain Venedict, and he’ll tell you of the first one.”
She secured the parchment in a belt pouch and grinned. It was not never. It was now.
“I’ll send word when I arrive,” she said. “And when the first one’s done.”
Mathias nodded. “You’d better, lass. Ride with the gods.”
She placed her boot in the stirrup and rose easily onto Shade’s saddle. She adjusted her cloak and scabbard and, before taking the reins, looked into Mathias’s eyes and offered a sharp salute.
“I love you,” she said and shook the reins.
Shade leapt forward. The garrison shrank behind them, and she turned him to the South. A brisk spring wind blew from the West, and she faced it for a moment, just discerning the outline of Doss, the nearest allied city, and like oddly bloated birds, two of the new airships floating above its spires.
Like an arrow, the world raced on. She intended to ride the point. Five legends, treasures, or haunts. Five known to the Wardens but either outside the purview of their mission or allied lands. With all else, these were Mathias’s gift to her, to say nothing of the paths to which they might lead. Freedom. Honor. And, if the gods wished, a hint as to her origin.
She nudged the stallion with her boots, and the grasses below her blurred as if she were flying.