Dyriel ran down the dirt path, lungs heaving as she pushed herself ever deeper into the forest. Each step took her further from home, from her family, from the comforting strength of Glenhaven Castle. She’d been running for – how long? The first rays of sunlight had begun creeping through the branches around her, so it must be at least an hour now. Her throat burned, and sweat glued her long black hair to her skin, but she dared not slow down.
She was on a mission.
No signs of pursuit so far. Her governess wouldn’t be awake yet, and everyone else would be too busy with the war effort to pay her absence any mind. She guessed she had half a day, at least, before they’d finish hunting the castle grounds and send out a search party.
And when that happened…
Her stomach turned. Her father, the duke, had fallen under such a grim mood lately. She didn’t know what he would do.
Dyriel ran faster.
These thoughts so distracted her that she didn’t see the golem till she had almost run into it. She cursed, jumping back.
She had never seen a golem in real life before, though she’d heard the stories. The creature was vaguely man-shaped, but twice as tall as any man she’d ever met. It was a massive, moving statue, its flesh and armor alike made of rough gray granite. It was unarmed – as if it needed a weapon – and it watched her with strange, inhuman eyes as big as apples.
For the space of three long, ragged breaths, Dyriel and the granite giant merely looked at each other, still and silent. Then, in a voice like an avalanche, the golem spoke.
“You do not belong in the forest.”
“I’ve as much right to be here as anyone,” she managed, more bravely than she felt. She glanced around quickly, weighing her options. Turning back was useless; there were no other paths. Outrunning the golem would be impossible, as she’d heard from the stories: its massive bulk belied the speed in those six-foot strides.
“The duke’s authority does not carry here. The tree peoples have honored the pact for over a century. If the duke seeks to spread his war to their borders, we will teach him otherwise.” But even as he said this, the giant frowned, as if doubting whether a lone girl in the forest could be a harbinger of war.
“My father – ” she began.
“You do not belong in the forest,” it said again. “You must turn back now, or else you must die.”