As Solena peered ahead, a grove of fruit trees shimmered across her vision. She wiped her eyes, certain that hunger and the growing warmth of the valley had weakened her mind. She stripped off her cloak to cool herself and when she looked again the fruit trees were still there, heavy with plums. So she stumbled forward and plucked off one of the ripe globes.The flesh was tart and sweet, and the juice was so refreshing, soothing her dry throat and making her want another and another. From experience she knew too many would make her sick, so she stuffed more ripe plums into her sack for later. She packed her cloak as well, for it was too warm to wear it. As she was looking for a stream to slake her thirst more fully, she felt a hand clamp over her shoulder.“Tref!”Solena jumped at the voice, so close to her ear, and spun around. A flutter of panic went through her as she saw a tall young man before her. He had hair the color of the snow on the mountaintops and blue eyes as pale as a winter sky. Across his chest, he wore a plate of golden armor engraved with a fierce falcon, its wings outstretched and deadly talons raised.An Odenian soldier.Solena tasted the bitterness of fear on her tongue.“Tref,” he repeated and rattled off a string of harsh words she didn’t understand.“I—oh, the fruit.” Guessing at the cause of his displeasure, Solena quickly dug through her sack. Despite her trembling, she quickly found the plums near the top and tumbled them toward him, surrendering her precious cache. He caught them in his quickly outstretched hands...surprisingly elegant-looking hands with long fingers. His eyes widened with obvious surprise, and more than a trace of alarm. He suddenly looked younger in that moment, closer to her age. Or perhaps she imagined it, for his expression was now masked, as if he’d dropped a visor over his eyes. “I didn’t know it was forbidden,” she said. “My apologies for—” She abruptly stopped the flow of her words when she saw no light of understanding in his eyes. “And you don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?”The soldier simply tossed the ripened globes of fruit under a tree and dragged her across the grove.“You’re leaving them?” Solena cast a longing glance over her shoulder at the abandoned plums. One piece of fruit wasn’t enough to give her the strength to escape. “Where are you taking me?”He merely scowled and pulled her along. She quickly shouldered her sack and spear. As they bounced against her back, she hoped he wouldn’t notice and toss them aside too. When they came to a river that cut through the rocky depths of the valley, Solena motioned for him to stop, but he shook his head.“Please.” She dragged her heels and sipped noisily from one cupped hand.He hesitated. After a moment, he gave a gusty sigh and led her to the water, but kept hold of her arm as she drank. When she’d had her fill, Solena came to her feet and winced as his fingers dug into her arm.“You’re hurting me.” She wanted to wrench away from her captor and run for the trees, but his grip was too strong.The soldier frowned at the marks he’d made on her skin and, with a quickly muttered word, grasped her hand instead.“Well, you should be sorry.” Solena raised her chin, determined not to show her fear.Her captor merely squared his jaw and resumed his march. Solena tripped along the rocky bank beside him, trying to match his long strides.
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