The ideas and setting all belong to Clare B. Dunkle

Chapter 1

Hope clutched her cloak tighter around her body to ward off the cold and pulled her hood lower over her face as it began to rain. She shivered and stared, mesmerized, into the fire, thankful for the thick branches overhead that prevented most of the rain from reaching the forest floor. She wondered grumpily how daft one had to be to choose a career that required one to spend copious amounts of time outdoors and in the cold. Especially in the rain. She grinned and told herself that the obvious solution was to move south to a warmer climate. A much warmer climate.

Hope had spent nearly her entire life out of doors, often in campsites or the back of their old wagon. She had often been fleeing from one place to the next with her family. "The life of a gypsy," her mother would always say. "On the run towards the next adventure." The group often worked as a traveling show, and sang and performed whenever they were fortunate to stumble into a small village. In the bigger cities they performed jobs of a more dubious nature.

One of her companions shifted in his bedroll. She looked around their meager campsite set in a small clearing overlooking a lake. Lately, it had seemed that they had been on the run as often as not. Very few villages or towns were willing, or could afford, to pay a traveling players group. Instead, Hope's family was forced to find other means of surviving. Currently, they were avoiding some local lordling that had been offended when a few jewels mysteriously disappeared during a musical performance.

The lights of a village twinkled across the lake and Hope sighed. She would have given anything to sleep in a warm bed with real food. Her five companions were sprawled around the campfire and their horses were picketed in a line. If only she wasn't so cold. She tried to think of warm, sunny climates. Preferably with beautiful beaches and plenty of food. Hope began to nod off.

Her head snapped up as she heard a branch break. The nape of her neck prickled, as she stared into the woods outside the perimeter of light that shown from the campfire. There was nothing. She readjusted her hand position on the longbow resting on her lap and stood up.

Marak Whitewings eyed the camp from just outside the reach of the firelight. He chuckled as the woman on watch vainly attempted to stay awake and see through the darkness. She stood up and shook back her hood. Lovely, long red hair tumbled out to surround her beautiful -although very dirty, he noted- features. Arched eyebrows framed hazel eyes and long eyelashes, and a smattering of freckles emphasized her strong nose. The deep circles under her eyes told Marak that she was absolutely exhausted and she wavered on her feet as she stood up to begin pacing around the campfire. Hungry too, he decided.

The goblin king contemplated this campsite. Clearly, the group was running from something, and all of the sleeping forms had a weapon within reach, even the small childlike form had a bow and a quiver nearby.

He returned his attention the woman walking the perimeter of the campsite.

Before he could decide whether or not to take any actions, his sensitive ears picked up a disturbance in the surrounding woods. Marak tilted his head as he heard the sound of several men on horses with dogs approaching, and dropped back. From the behavior of the woman on watch, he was fairly certain that the search party was looking for this suspicious group of travelers. He urged his horse to drop back, and waited to see what would come from this encounter.

What seemed like minutes later- would morning ever arrive?- Hope jumped to her feet as she heard horses in the forests around their camp. She swiftly and quietly shook her companions awake. They woke up silently and she motioned for them to quickly saddle their horses and mount.

The sound of braying dogs approached. Hope groaned- she hated dogs- and jumped onto her own steed, Pegasus, pulling little Isabel up behind her. Her young sister was barely awake, but she knew what was happening and kept silent as she clung to her sister.

Suddenly there was yelling drew closer around them and dogs and horsemen burst into the clearing bearing lighted torches. Luckily it was a very unorganized group of searchers, and they left many gaps in their ranks. Her family, practiced at escaping from searchers, scattered in every direction. Pegasus reared and turned on his hind feet to run through a gap in the attackers. She felt something ram into her shoulder, nearly knocking her out of the saddle, and did her best to cling to the saddle with an arrow lodged in her body. She gritted her teeth and urged her horse faster.

She heard the sound of a chase behind her, and twisted to the side to move her younger sister in front of her in the saddle.

"Fly, Pegasus," Hope whispered. After a few minutes of pursuit through the woods, Pegasus flew through an opening in the trees ahead, only to come to a dead end surrounded by cliffs.

"No." She gasped through clenched teeth, and looked down at the arrow sprouting out of her shoulder. There was a surprising amount of blood soaking her shirtfront. Pain overwhelmed her, but not the pain from the arrow wound. Hope had always assumed that being shot would hurt much, much more. Instead, the young woman felt the pain of guilt and remorse for the young girl who sat silently in front of her.

"Isabel," she mumbled, "I'm so sorry," and fainted as she heard another horse gallop into the clearing.