The next afternoon, our shadows were long against the dying grass, spread out over the ground like one of my blankets. It was a strange shape, but one that was ours.
Which is why it was so disturbing suddenly to find another, unfamiliar shadow trailing ours.
At first I thought North had slowed, but the shadow was moving too quickly. It skimmed in and out of the grass, like one of Henry’s little brothers in a game of go-seek-find. By the time I had enough sense to point it out, North had seen it, too.
“A neat little hedge trick,” he said, seeing my startled look. “But it can’t do anything to hurt you.” He threw a stone, which struck the shadow and passed through it. The shadow scattered, falling apart into small pieces before pooling together again on the ground. It disappeared back into the blades of grass and did not reemerge, even after North threw another rock.
“Where did it go?” I asked. “What
happened to it?”
“It’s a messenger shade,” North said. “It’s going back to Arcadia to tell him we’re coming.”
“Then we should go after it,” I said. “If he knows we’re coming – “
“Syd, I want him to know,” North said, taking my bag and putting it on his own shoulders. “I want him to know this little game is about to end. Come on.” He pressed a hand to my back and urged me forward.
“How is it even possible?” I began, when we were a good distance away. “How can he play with shadows like that?”
North gave me a wry smile. “The next time I come across a den of hedge witches, I’ll be sure to inquire for you.”
A few days later, we were at the foot of a mountain path when he finally said the words I had been begging Astraea for. “I think I can twist the rest of the way.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Well, it’s worth a try,” he said, putting an arm around my shoulder. “If I miss and we plummet to our deaths, you can blame me.”
We were falling once again. I clutched North’s chest, hating the way it felt – as though my heart had sunk to the bottom of my stomach. Even the warm, tingling sensation that ran from my head to my toes couldn’t quell my discomfort.
My feet hit the ground – Wood, I thought, thank Astraea – with a dull thud. When my eyes finally came into focus, I saw an old woman. She sat next to a small fire in a hearth, tapping her fingers in an impatient rhythm. North cleared his throat behind me. The woman merely clucked her tongue in disapproval, rising from her chair like a queen.
“You’re later than I expected,” she said. “Do you have anything to say to your patroness?” This woman was russet and deep wrinkles. Her skin was dark, well worn like soft leather.
My father once told me that you could tell the rank of a woman by the tone of her skin. Fine ladies never had to work outside and were therefore milky pale. However, despite being as translucent as a ghost, I was not included in this category; I was pink skin and freckles all over.
“Why, yes, I do.” North gave an exaggerated bow. “You are looking absolutely lovely this evening, Lady Aphra.”
“You have a patroness?” I whispered through clenched teeth.
“Oh, did I not mention that?” North let out a low, nervous laugh.
“No,” I said, my hands tightening into fists. “Actually, you didn’t.”
Lady Aphra took a step closer to him. “I’m glad my letter found you.”
His face darkened. “I came as fast as I could.”
“I believe you,” she said. “The wolf’s been quiet for the past few nights.