The world was in the light tremors of the morning, the time when the birds sleep quietly and breath still hangs in the air. A girl with waxen blond hair and small plump lips and a pale face turned pink by the frost stood silently against the abandoned cottage. She was tall for a young woman. Her hands were tucked into deer hide pants and she leaned coolly against the wooden wall, as if she had not a care in the world. Her breath came slowly, invisibly, showing the most basic signs of meticulous control. In the half-light she was just another shadow.
One with enough patience for such things might have watched the girl quietly for a while. They would then see that she did not move at all, not an inch, for well over an hour. A bird could nest in her hair or a badger climb her limbs and see no difference from the trees nearby. It was in this way that she saw him before he saw her.
The man was quiet and well-trained, but he was trained in the way that all soldiers are trained. They could know all there was to know about tracking and sneaking and killing in silence, but they had never spent their days in the forest hunting for that night's dinner. Hiding from humans is the most simple act in the world if one can hide from nature. A soldier, privileged and haughty, no matter how well trained, would never stand in one stance for an hour. Their impatience was their downfall.
She found him when he stepped on a leaf. It made the lightest of crinkles and could have been just another wild animal to the untrained ear, but hers was as trained as they come. His dark brown hair was cut short. He was tall and muscular, as most soldiers were, but even from a distance she could tell he was different. There was an air about him of confidence and importance. He was no ordinary foot soldier, and she was flattered by skill of the man. The more skilled he was, the more important she must be to them.
With the hint of a smile traced on her lips, she moved quietly behind a nearby tree and listened. Another muffled sound told her that he was moving in the opposite direction, deeper into the forest. This seemed strange to her, but she turned to follow his trail. The tip of a sword met her throat and she paused, stunned like swine in a trap. She raised her green eyes to look squarely in the face of the soldier.
He grinned now. It seemed welcoming but also childlike and it made her chest surge with anger at the thought of being mocked. Just as she considered her escape, he shook his head, still smiling widely.
"Where are you going? Stick around and talk with me for a moment. I think I deserve that," he said with a laugh.
"I think you deserve nothing," the girl replied shortly.
"I just defied the most elusive woman in the empire. Can I not speak with her quickly?"
"Do you think I have never been caught before?" she retorted.
The man laughed at this and pulled his sword away before dropping it to the ground. As much as he infuriated her, she could not help but be struck by this gesture. With a sigh she dropped to the ground, legs folding neatly beneath her body. He continued to grin and sat down gently across from her.
"You weren't that difficult to fool," he said with a wink.
"Did you ask to speak with me so that you could boast more comfortably?"
"No. I apologize. You have to leave the empire, now. They sent me to capture you, but when I fail, every army in Altar will be dispatched to bring back your head," he said quietly, no hint of a smile left on his face.
"So, I'm that important to him?" she asked.
"You're important to us all," he said simply.
"I know, but I have never understood why," she admitted, saddened now by the sudden realization of her danger and the idea of leaving Altar behind.
"Sometimes the gods do not tell us the truth until we are ready to hear it."
"Is that why you are here then, because of the gods?" she questioned.
He failed to meet her eyes and she knew he would not answer the question. "Quickly," he said. "We must get to the horses. I tied them deep in the forest."
And it was then that she stood to follow her attacker. She followed him into the woods and towards her destiny, which she knew was of utmost importance though she knew nothing else. It was because of this same destiny that a thousand leagues away the world's most powerful king sat atop the throne of Altar and screamed into the vaulted ceilings of his palace.
"He will betray me," he yelled and spat. "She will get away. Tell me where I can find her."
"Sorry, my Greatness," said the grizzled priest, his pale blue eyes shining in the slats of morning light. "The gods will not say."