Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Nineteen: The Point of an Arrow
As Midwest towns go, Myrick is sizable enough, but it’s no big city. It’s actually kind of small, and really safe. In all my life, I’ve never so much as had my milk money stolen. I’ve never been physically bullied, never been a victim of a violent crime. And now, for the second time in as many days, I’m being threatened by a complete stranger. And this time, I can’t even see my assailant.
I may be a professional, ready to pivot. But this is fucking ridiculous.
When the commanding voice rings out across the clearing, all of my organs coalesce into one cosmically dense knot in the center of my body, cutting off my ability to do anything other than look desperately into the forest.
But there’s nothing in the murky dawn that surrounds us, nothing at all beyond the outlines of trees, overlapping on and against each other into infinity.
Clustered together as we are, we are entirely unprepared for an attack. Like complete morons, we’d pretty much just assumed we were on our own out here and acted accordingly—and anything we might use for a weapon is now out of reach, since we’d cleared away any conveniently sized logs for either the shelters or the fire and Nate’s tiny excuse for a knife isn’t going to be much help.
Then I remember that tingling sensation on the back of my neck—that feeling of being watched—and I realize with a sudden chill that anyone observing us for longer than a few minutes would have known all of that.
I’m closest to Duc, and my feet are suddenly backpedaling toward him without any instruction from me. When I bump up against him, he grips my hand. I squeeze back, hard, trying to ignore the fact that both our hands our shaking.
But when Nate moves to position himself between us and the direction the voice had come from, it rings out again in the clearing, even more forcefully than before:
Out of the shadows of the forest, a prick of light appears in the thick foliage—the unmistakable glint of sunlight on metal.
Slowly, so smoothly I’m sure I must be imagining it, the light begins to move.
Someone is standing in the shadow of a large tree in the dim light of morning, and aiming some sort of bowed weapon at us. And moving steadily closer.
I can do nothing but stare, horrified, at the sleek figure as it moves out of the forest, solidifying out of the night.
A flash of movement to my right makes me jump, and the point of what I am now certain is an arrow moves from me to Nate in a swift but controlled motion as he draws to another stop. Whoever our shadowed assailant is—or are, it finally occurs to me to worry—they’re good.
“Final warning,” comes that voice again, and over a now recognizably feminine tone, I hear a creak. And although I’ve never heard that particular creak before, I am somehow certain it means her bow has reached maximum tension, and all she has to do to impale at least one of us is let go.
Nate holds his palms out in front of him, motionless. His demeanor is cautious, though calm. But calm isn’t what I’m feeling.
And it isn’t even fear, not really. With everything that’s happened in my recent past, fear has become somehow difficult to maintain. As if my neurons have decided that firing in a continuous red alert just isn’t worth the bother.
And I mean, they have a point: when your whole world has disappeared and everywhere you look is uncharted territory and you’re going to have to deal with what’s in front of you whether you like it or not, what’s the use of being afraid?
Now that the fear is gone, now that the shock is gone, there’s another feeling bubbling up in its place.
I’m fucking angry.
“What have you done with our friends?” I demand, because it suddenly clicks into place for me that she must know something. I pull my hand from Duc’s and step toward the voice, jagged nails biting into my palms of my hands as they become tight fists.
“Addie . . .” Duc’s low voice is a warning.
“Where’d you take them?” My voice isn’t high and tight, like I might have expected, but it does waver a bit. I take another step.
“What have you done with Tristan?”
“That is far enough,” comes the calm response, and the tip of the arrow glints again as the figure slides from the shadow of the tree and into the early hints of daylight.
I stop moving, but I don’t drop the defiant look on my face. And there’s something else, too, now that the fear is gone, or at least not debilitating—a clearer look at the situation, at my own reactions and responses. It’s like I’m an airplane that’s finally left the thickest section of cloud cover, and I can start to make out how all the different roads below connect.
I wonder if this is how Tristan felt when he saw the pattern back at No Dragons Press—the pattern that ended up bringing us here.
“You speak of friends,” the voice continues, “but it is not yet clear to me that you ken this word.”
A woman now reveals herself, slipping out of the forest from between two trees. The angle of her arms does not change, but her posture looks somehow fluid. She retains her position even as she steps forward, her entire body coiled in kinetic energy, gliding across the ground like a dancer and stopping when she clears the line of trees by several feet. It’s as if there could be nothing so natural for her to do with her arms than to hold them like this. Mine would be shaking like a leaf after about ten seconds. Probably more like four.
Then, a smooth string of musical language emerges from her mouth, atonal but complex, beautiful. She tilts her head and looks at us, her expression questioning.
I can’t help it: I gape at her.
It’s not just the language, its haunting tones. Everything about the woman speaks of a history, a people, a culture that none of us have ever known before. She’s wearing some sort of knobbly hood or hat, I can’t tell which, and her forearms are covered with braces or gauntlets of faded brown leather. Her clothing is a sort of vest or tunic and matching pants, which look to be made of the same suede material, and the shoulders and arms underneath are a shade or two darker and gleam with taut muscle. Darker brown markings cover her bare left arm in an intricate pattern, while more worn leather covers her opposite shoulder to the elbow.
The sound of more creaking snaps me out my open-mouthed assessment of the woman and my eyes are pulled like a magnet toward the jagged arrowhead pointing at me. “Tell me your purpose,” she says in a way that is not a suggestion. Her threatening stance is emphasized by the utter lack of threat in her tone, and by the muscles of her forearms, knotted and corded under her skin. I am transfixed.
“You will answer now,” the woman adds when none of us do. “Where have you come from and what is your purpose?”
Her voice is that same liquid calm, her eyes glittering with danger.
The last time I’d been threatened—had that really only been yesterday?—I’d been jumpy, edging on panic. Now, whether it’s the experience, the early hour, the lack of coffee, or the total sum of events that have brought the three of us to be held at the point of a blade by the most physically formidable woman I’ve ever seen, all I can do is watch in dread and fascination as she decides our fate.
“We don’t know where they are,” Duc says, and when her eyes flick to him, he puts his hands out in front of him in a placating gesture, mirroring Nate. “And they are our friends.” The tone in his voice breaks my heart just a little bit.
He moves forward in slow, deliberate steps until he’s standing next to me. She makes no move to stop him, though her eyes remain hard and she doesn’t relax the tension on the weapon. “We don’t know what happened to them,” he continues. “We’re lost. We don’t know where anything is, we only know where we were headed.”
This is starting to feel like a lot of information to tell a complete and very lethal stranger, and when I meet Nate’s eyes, he seems to share my worry.
“And where is that?” she asks.
Duc looks at me, expectantly.
Numbly, I turn away from Nate and point in the direction Tristan had. She’s the one with the weapon.
After what can only be described as a “pregnant pause,” I hear a second creak as the woman relieves some of the tension on the bow, tilting it down from heart-level to knee-level. She is apparently satisfied that we aren’t going to rush her—not that she couldn’t easily evade us even if we all rushed her at once.
“You should not have remained here,” she says then, looking to Nate as if he’s our leader. “That was foolish.”
My cheeks flush. Some bright idea.
“We didn’t realize there would be danger,” Nate said calmly.
She lifts one eyebrow in what is, apparently, a universal gesture of skepticism. I would laugh at this discovery if I wasn’t focusing quite so hard on not screaming. “Some future time, I will ask you to to explain how you have lived so long in the world without assuming danger.”
“Will that time also occur at the point of an arrow?” he asks, calm as ever.
Holy shit, Nate. I hold my breath, waiting for the woman to shoot him in the kneecap.
But despite Nate’s best efforts to get us killed, our visitor chuckles in the exact low, husky chuckle I would expect her to have—the kind that hints of something more, something secret—and removes the arrow from its notch.
Three audible exhales ring out, one of them mine, as she twists to tuck arrow and bow away somewhere. The pile of knots on her head, I see now, are really coils of hair, gathered into a tight nest on the top of her skull.
“Not without necessity,” she assures us, answering Nate’s question at last, and if there isn’t outright amusement in her voice, there is at least something that puts me a little more at ease. Her weapon now secured at her side and her arrow tucked inside a fold of leather at her back, she settles her steady gaze on each of us in turn.
She is, without a doubt, the most beautiful human being I’ve ever seen. Her features are alternately broad and angular, made more emphatic by the horizontal shadows of the morning shafts of light, giving her an expression that is both shrewd and stoic. The dark markings down the length of her left arm are intricately beautiful; the subtle contrast with her skin tone gives the design an organic look, as if she’d sprouted it all on her own, through the power of her own will.
Having recently encountered the full force of that will, I can almost believe it.
She considers us at length with steely eyes, then nods. Without a single apology for scaring us half to death. “You tell the truth.”
Then, she says something I can hardly believe. “I believe that your friends have been taken.”
This time, three audible gasps, then silence while that sinks in.
We look around at each other, Nate and Duc looking as lost and confused as I feel.
“Who?” Duc says, his voice plaintive. “Why? Who took them?”
Without thinking, I slide my hand back into his. Taken? I can’t shut out the vivid image of three huge fuck-off guns.
For a while, the woman doesn’t speak. Then she steps toward the rest of us, apparently ready to trust us in closer proximity now, and I try not to stare at her intricately patterned arm as she approaches. I can’t help but admire her frankness, the forthright way she crossed that line between doubt and trust, between stranger and . . . acquaintance, if not yet companion.
Though I have no doubt that she could arm herself again faster than any one of us could lift a finger against her.
“I do not know why,” she admits.
“I don’t understand,” Nate says. “Where would they have been taken?”
The woman lifts an elegant eyebrow. Then she turns and points in the same direction I had.
In the exact direction Tristan felt compelled to move toward, back when he could still feel the pull. Back when he was still here.
Duc, Nate, and I exchange glances. Is it possible that for some reason, our lost friends had been kidnapped and brought to the very place we’d been headed?
Then, I have a sudden thought. “How do you know?” I ask the newcomer. “Can you feel it?” I try to keep the note of hope out of my voice. Is she somehow like Tristan? Does the portal pull her too?
But my hopes are dashed by the odd look she gives me. “I can see,” she explains with exaggerated patience, as if explaining this to someone as stupid as me is a chore well beneath her. It probably is. I look away.
“Do they ever escape?” Duc asks. “Has anyone ever come back?”
This is a much better question, but the woman doesn’t answer it. She doesn’t have to; the haunted look that flickers across her face before her tightly neutral expression returns is answer enough.
“Have you seen them? Do you know who they are?” I ask, looking hard at the woman, as if I can extract the solution just by peering at her hard enough. “The people who do the taking?”
The woman shakes her head. “No. They are very . . . talented. They are never seen, at least not by those left behind.”
After a silence, Nate clears his throat and asks the only question that really matters: “Are they killed?”
The woman’s face tightens even more, and shakes her head slowly. “I do not know. But none who are taken are ever seen, and no one has ever attempted a rescue.” She says this bitterly, but it barely registers past the wave of coldness flooding me. Never seen again?
But before any of us can articulate anything more, she moves closer.
“I will bring you there,” she announces. “I will take you to the place your stolen ones have been brought, and we will do this. We will take them back together.”
This sounds excellent to me. But she doesn’t move, and I get the feeling this conversation isn’t quite over.
Her eyes rake over each of us in turn, and eventually, she gives a slow nod. She lifts her head high, the effect making her look noble and frightening and courageous and strong all at once. “But you must help me.”
Six eyebrows, two of them mine, rise higher.
“They have also taken my sister.” Her teeth gleam in the morning sun now filtering through the trees. “You must help me take her back.”