We never knew when they would come. For nearly a year they had been attacking our city’s walls sporadically. Sometimes a month would pass before the next assault. Sometimes it would be as little as a week. The only thing we could be sure of was that when it happened, the attack would be at night. Even the time of night was never consistent. Sometimes they would appear just after dusk before the last wisps of sunlight had completely faded from the sky, and other times it would only be a few hours before dawn when they would finally come charging out of the blackness of the shadows. They would spring out of the darkest places in the northern forest and fight fiercely until the first rays of the sun kissed the tree tops, and then disappear into the fading shadows of the sunrise like smoke. The battlefield that separated the northern woods from the city was now saturated with blood, but no matter how many battles we won or how many of their men we killed, they always came back strong.
The first battle seemed like it had happened ages ago. Victorious, we had believed we’d crushed our strange new foe and celebrated our success with a lavish ball and nights of dancing. Surely they wouldn’t dare attack again after such a sound defeat, but they did. They returned again and again. Though we were winning every battle, I feared we were ultimately losing the war. True, we lost very few warriors in a single battle, but battle after battle those few warriors began to add up, and our forces were beginning to suffer. People were afraid to travel beyond the protective walls of the city for fear they would meet the enemy in the deep shadows of the woods.
With no one willing to risk travel, we could not contact our allies and request assistance. It had been too long since a friend had come out of the northern woods. For all we knew all our allies had fallen to the same strange enemy. We were tired and were wearing thin, which may have been the Dark Army’s plot all along. We had foolishly fallen for it, believing that each victory would surely be the last, but month after month our hope was failing. How were we going to win this war? After all this time, we still knew nothing about our enemy, except they attacked at night with seemingly limitless strength and numbers. Even their leader was elusive. He rode through the battlefield covered in black armor. A faceless shadow who cut our fiercest men down as though they were simply novices.
These thoughts troubled me as I stood in the tower scanning the edge of the forest for the faintest flicker of movement. I could feel Dark Leader’s magic out there somewhere. What was his source of power? I shifted my weight from leg to leg nervously, fingering the hilt of my sword. I glanced over at Arden. His brows were furrowed in a slight scowl and the corners of his mouth were just barely turned down into a frown as he stared out at the woods. He looked as though he was made of stone, trying to give an appearance of cold hard confidence, but he couldn’t fool me. One hand rested on the castle wall and the other held a white knuckled grip on his sword. I knew he was as worried as I. He didn’t have to be here. It wasn’t his night to be on watch. Why was he here?
I should have been watching the woods, but my eyes were drawn to him. I found my gaze lingering over his long black hair and strong jaw before finally resting on his broad shoulders. I could see his muscles straining against his shirt. He must have sensed my eyes on him because he turned to look at me. Embarrassed, I quickly turned away. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach, and I was sure my face was flushed. I was thankful no one could see me blush in the darkness. What was wrong with me? I should have been concentrating on the watch. Why was I so distracted by Arden? Certainly he was an attractive man, but that was all. I didn’t have any other feelings for him. I couldn’t, could I?
My hand went to feel the cool smoothness of the charm I always wore around my neck. I looked down at the bright green stone. It had been my mother’s once. My sister, Katrina, had given it to me and said that the charm had magical properties that protected the bearer from harm. My father laughed at the idea, but as I held the charm in my hand, I could feel something inside it. I couldn’t be sure, but sometimes I thought I saw it glow. Of course I’d never told anyone. They wouldn’t believe me anyway. Maybe it was magic, maybe it wasn’t, but with the city in the middle of a war, I could use all the protection I could find.
I strained my eyes looking toward the eastern horizon. The stars were still twinkling brightly in the sky, but I could feel the approach of dawn deep down in my bones. The night was nearly over, and sunrise could not come quickly enough. Just a few more hours and the city would be safe for another day. It had been over a week since the last attack. When would the next attack come? Would it be tonight? Tomorrow? I could never be sure.