Isobel couldn’t move. Nothing bound her, nothing held her down, but she could not convince her limbs to lift, a soft indolence encasing her as securely as if she were swaddled like an infant.
The voice was insistent, the shape of it poking, prodding. “I am awake,” she tried to tell it, then realized that she was not. She was dreaming, and the whisper needed her to wake.
Her eyes opened, the stickiness on her eyelashes evidence that she had been asleep for several hours. The belly-rounded sliver of the moon was sinking, the stars beginning to fade, and she estimated, groggily, that it was a few hours before sunrise. The coalstone glimmered faintly within its circle of rocks, and she could hear Uvnee shifting, but that was a peaceful, sleepy shift; whatever had woken Isobel had not disturbed the mare, or roused her to defense.
What had woken her?
Gut feeling made Isobel turn her head away from the coalstone, scanning the dark air next to her for the shadow of a serpent, its tongue flickering secrets, a native stepping quietly through the night, a demon lurking, intent on mischief. But there was nothing there save grass and her rifle. Nothing came visiting, tonight.
You must go.
Her bedroll was packed away and the coalstone cooled before Isobel realized she had been directed to do so. She paused, listening. An owl called twice in the darkness, and she waited, her breath bated, for a third call. But it was silent.
If an owl called three times in the night, it meant medicine was being worked. Two calls, it merely hunted unsuspecting mice. Beyond that, there was only an echoing silence, the night creatures stilling, the dawn birds not yet singing.
An empty space in the world, though which other voices might be heard.
It did not feel the same as the pull that had drawn her to the buffalo. That had been a feeling, a pressure. This was… like the boss, when he used a particular tone, but nothing at all of that warm, familiar-as-coffee voice. There was nothing human in it at all.
She finished breaking her simple camp in a matter of minutes, waking Uvnee and replacing her blanket and saddle with a soft apology. “We’ll make up breakfast later,” she said as she mounted. “We need to be on our way now.”
The sigil in her palm remained cool within her skin, the black lines invisible in the darkness, and yet she knew the way she knew things now that the whisper was a summons she could not refuse.
“Boss?” She knew he couldn’t hear her. The devil might have long ears, but there were none that long, to cover the breadth of the Territory: she was months from home, and he had more to do than listen for her.
Uvnee snorted, her warm breath almost visible in the chill air, and turned her head as though to nip at Isobel’s skirt, as though asking why she’d been woken and saddled, if they weren’t going to go anywhere. Isobel patted the mare’s neck with the hand not holding the reins, reassured by the solid warmth of muscle and flesh. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
She buttoned her jacket and tucked the fabric of her skirts under her legs, then gave the mare the signal to move forward, both of them keeping their eyes on the grass in front of them: traveling in the dark was always dangerous, and the grass could hide any of a dozen threats, from gopher holes to snakes, to ground suddenly wet and slippery from a hidden creek.
The stock of her gun, a new acquisition in La Ramėe, rubbed against her leg, but its presence gave her little comfort. Gabriel was the sureshot, of the two of them. She could hit things most times out of ten, but not always, and she’d never yet had to shoot at a thing that went on two legs.
Only a fool would be riding before dawn, alone, driven by a whisper in the dark. But her life was not her own. She kept riding, north and west of where she’d planned to go, further away from the campsite where Gabriel was waiting…
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