A breeze tickled her cheek, carrying the scents of fresh rain and campfire. Nahlia blinked up at a domed ceiling of tightly woven straw. Jars and pottery lined the surrounding walls. A pair of thin blue curtains hung over the open window, beams of evening sunlight spilling in through the gaps.
Voices echoed outside the strange hut—men and women working, and children playing. A village? Were there villages in the Mistwood? Nahlia hadn't heard of any. Then again, most people didn't venture this deep into the forest.
Her head swam, and her stomach twisted as she moved. Nahlia lifted her fur blanket and glimpsed several linen bandages covering her lower chest. There were smaller strips around her arm and forehead as well. She tried to sit up, but a female voice stopped her.
"Easy there, lass!" The woman appeared in the hut's entrance. "Ye were just shot!"
Nahlia slumped back in the bed, stunned. The woman was shorter than her by several feet. Her skin was as green as summer grass, her dark hair pulled back in a bundle of braids, adorned with feathers and beads.
Who are you? Nahlia tried to speak, but the words caught in her throat. Instead, she broke into a fit of coughs that made her ribs scream.
"Here." The green-skinned woman picked up a flask from the nightstand, unscrewing the cap. "Small sips."
The water tasted better than water had ever tasted. It flooded her mouth, banishing the dryness in her throat.
"Easy now," the woman warned. "Not too fast."
Nahlia lowered the container to her chest, breathing deeply from the effort. Finally, she found her voice, "Thank you."
The woman nodded, placing a hand on her forehead. "So, how do ye feel?"
"Better than before."
"Well, yer fever's gone. That's a good sign."
Nahlia remained silent, trying not to stare too intently. The woman's blue eyes were soft and wide as a child's, though her demeanor implied she was older than Nahlia by several decades. "You're a crelan, aren't you?"
"Aye," she said with a curt nod. "And ye're a human by the looks of it."
Nahlia bit her lip. Way to offend the person who just saved your life. She knew little about this race—just that people shunned them for their strange appearance and short statures. That was why they lived secluded like this.
"How 'bout we do names instead?" she suggested. "I'm Merith."
She forced out a smile. "I'm Nahlia."
"Well Nahlia, I'd say ye're lucky to be alive. Spent half of yesterday fishing that bullet out and stitching ye back up. But I'll say one thing for you humans—ye're tough as iron. Never seen anyone recover from a wound like that."
"Yesterday?" Nahlia asked, eyes widening. "How long was I out?"
Merith shrugged, hands on hips. "I'd say ... a day and a half now. We gave ye some fadeflower for the pain. Might've had something to do with ye sleeping so long."
You need to keep moving, her instincts whispered. The Templars will be right behind you. Nahlia opened her mouth to say as much, but Merith was already out the door, murmuring something about food.
She returned a few moments later carrying a steaming tray. Nahlia sat up straighter, eyeing the small feast on her lap—a loaf of flatbread, an apple, and a turkey breast. Her mouth watered with the smell of it.
"Go on," Merith told her. "Eat up. Ye need it after all the blood ye lost."
"Of course." Nahlia took a bite of the bread. "I wouldn't want to impose on you any more than I have."
"It's no imposition, Nahlia. Ye're in no condition to go off on..."
Merith trailed off as a crelan man appeared in the doorway. Thick of waist and shoulder, he had darker skin—more like tree bark than grass. His hair was cut short, and a heavy beard covered his face.
"Lyrin," she said. "I told ye to wait for—"
"We don't have time," the man named Lyrin replied. His voice was deep and heavily accented. "They're only a few miles away now."
"Who?" Nahlia asked.
"Templars. They've been searching the forest since yesterday." He turned to Nahlia then, fixing her with a stone-withering gaze. "Are they here for you?"
Nahlia tensed. While she knew it was coming, the revelation hit her like cold water running through her marrow. She slumped her head and gave the slightest nod.
"So ye're an Aeon." Merith's voice came out barely above a whisper.
"I'm sorry," Nahlia stammered. "I didn't mean to hide it from you. I was going to leave as soon as I could."
"It's alright," Merith told her. "Ye did nothing wrong, lass."
"There were less than a dozen," Liryn put in. "We'll take care of it."
"What?" Her eyes flicked up to regard the crelan man, but he'd already left. She turned to Merith instead, "What's going to happen?"
"Don't ye worry, lass. We're no friends of the Templars either."
Of course, she realized, they know what it's like to be hunted. But could they stand up against the might of the Templar Order?
A quarter hour passed before she heard them approach on horseback, their hoofs drumming on the soft earth. Merith stood to look outside, and Nahlia leaned to peek out the window. She counted nine Templars in total, their dark clothes billowing in the evening wind.
The surrounding village was built amongst a clearing of massive rocks. Other houses loomed above them in the trees, accessed by ropes and ladders.
Most crelan kept a safe distance, but Liryn approached the Templars with a dozen other men behind him. They all had the look of warriors; spears in hand, bare arms roped with muscle.
"You in charge here?" the Templar officer demanded. He was younger than Saul Mason and his other officers, clean shaven with blond hair.
"Aye." Lyrin gave a curt nod. "Suppose I am."
"We're hunting an Aeon fugitive," the Templar officer said, seeming to address the village in general. "She was last seen in the river, ten miles upstream." He turned back to Lyrin. "Have you seen anything?"
"Nope," he said with a shrug. "Never seen an Aeon out here."
His men nodded behind him, murmuring words of agreement.
"Is that so?" The Templar's voice became almost too quiet to hear.
The Templar pivoted his head, taking in every possible haven. Nahlia moved away from the window, her heart thumping faster as if it might rip its way out.
"I'm sure you're telling the truth," he told Liryn. "But the fugitive could be hiding among you without your knowledge. We'll need to take a look around. For your own safety."
"Won't be necessary," Liryn said. "We can defend ourselves just fine here." He fingered a blade at his belt if as to make his point. More crelan men gathered around while the women rushed the children away, retreating to the shelter of their homes.
"I'm afraid I must insist." The officer reached inside his cloak, and his men drew their swords.
"So do I," Liryn replied, and a forest of blades and spears rose all at once throughout the village.
Nahlia glimpsed a flash of fear in the Templar's eyes as he sized them up. Turn around... Please just turn around.
The Templar hid his fear with amusement. He cocked his pistol, pointing it at Liryn. "You really want to die for an Aeon, cully?"
"Your Republic has no authority here," Liryn shot back. "So why don't you take your pretty horse and make your way back home?"
Inside the hut, Nahlia held her breath as a thousand scenarios flicked through her mind. The crelans underestimated their enemy. They might win this fight, but there would be no end to the Templar's reinforcements.
Could she run? Sneak out while they fought? But no ... she had done that before; she had left people behind and regretted it. Uncle Locke had died defending her, and her father had been captured. She couldn't let this village share their fate, not on her behalf.
Nahlia grabbed a wooden support beam and pulled herself to her feet.
"What are ye doing?" Merith whispered.
The wave that swept over her was sickening. The world spun around her, the ground swaying. She would have fallen if Merith hadn't caught her.
"I have to stop this," Nahlia said with as much conviction as she could manage, "I won't let them die for me."
"Nahlia, don't. Liryn's handling this."
"It won't make a difference," she told her. "I've seen the lengths they'll go to."
"My husband knows what he's getting into."
"Your husband is going to die," Nahlia retorted. "The Templars will burn your village and kill everyone in it."
Merith's mouth snapped shut, and Nahlia softened her gaze. "But I can stop this. I can save them."
"Alright," she finally said. "I'll go with you."
No one even noticed when she stumbled outside the hut at Merith's side. The Templars and crelan were all too occupied with one another.
"Last chance." The officer told Lyrin. "Hand over the Aeon, and no one needs to die."
"Stop!" Nahlia called out before either man could strike.
A silence fell over the village as everyone turned to face her. Autumn leaves cracked beneath her bare feet as she shuffled down the stone staircase. The crelan men parted to let her through, and her enemies stood before her, dark silhouettes against the setting sun.
She took a deep breath and spoke again, "I'm the Aeon you're looking for."
Another silence followed as they continued to stare, seemingly in disbelief. She must have been quite the sight with her bruised face, torn clothing, and exposed bandages.
"Surprised?" Nahlia asked. "Expecting someone else? A witch? A monster? I'm flesh and blood, just like you."
The Templar's expression softened as he dismounted his horse. His gaze didn't have the same malice as the ones in the Moonstone, and he almost seemed reluctant as he turned his weapon on her.
"I'm sorry you got caught up in this," the Templar said. "I don't want to do this."
"Then let me go," Nahlia pleaded. "I swear to you, I only want peace. I don't want to hurt anyone."
"I believe you," he said. "But we have orders."
A breeze sighed through the clearing, causing the nearby lanterns to sway as dusk fell. Nahlia's strength finally left her and she collapsed to her knees in the dirt. When the Templars stepped forward, no one moved to stop them.
She thought of her father then, and how she would never get the chance to save him, or even see him again.
I'm sorry, she thought. I tried.