Heathric Felahóf never wanted to be a thief, but his cousin’s scheme is the only option to keep the town’s children from being taken as slaves to cover the year’s taxes. So a few men slip over the border into the neighboring kingdom, steal a flock of sheep, and escape before the magically gifted Rangers learn of them. The second time, they’re not so lucky, and trouble follows the bandits home.
Adal Sperling has given up on finding a lover who truly wants him. One of the Rangers charged with protecting his people, he pursues the sheep thieves over the border and stumbles across Heathric, a gentle shepherd who only wants to take care of his family. But opposite sides of border incursions is a rough way to fall in love, and the laws of Adal’s kingdom are clear: the border must remain closed to Heathric’s people.
THE MEADOW, sheep, and herding dogs looked familiar enough to Heathric, but the shepherds spoke the wrong language. He and his cousins crouched behind a knot of birches, waiting for Dunstan and Scéot to flank the field and shoot the dogs. Mother Love only knew what would happen then; folk on this side of the border hills were all kir-mages, it was said. Their saints made them, even if they were born without the gift.
One of the dogs leaped up from the tall grass, ears cocked toward the trees at the edge of the meadow. Heathric’s breath caught. The dog faced away from him, though. It had to be one of the two woodsmen. The elder shepherd noticed his dog and stood up too. His son, red-haired like him, called a question.
An arrow hissed. The dog cried out and fell. Heathric winced, squeezing his eyes shut. The second dog barked once and squealed in pain. It stabbed through Heathric’s ears and pricked tears to his eyes.
“Come on!” Athard cuffed Heathric as he rushed past. Athard whistled to his own dog, and a bark answered from the forest behind them.
Heathric took a breath to steady himself. It had to be done, or the strangers’ dogs would attack their own. He whistled the order to come and heard Clymp tearing through the ferns toward him.
Lunging to his feet, Heathric charged into the meadow with his shepherd’s staff in both hands. Wails from the dying dog hit his ears, along with men’s shouts. The sheep baaed and dithered under all the noise, some of them frightened enough to bolt toward the tree line. Heathric whistled a flanking command to Clymp and called the sheep together.
They didn’t know Suevi words, though, and he was a stranger. A gray and white mop of a dog burst from the forest and the sheep shied in unison toward Heathric. He spread his arms, with the staff held out long, to turn them back to the main flock. They veered away, crashing into their flock-mates in confusion.
Behind them, Dunstan raised his bow as a club and struck the shepherd down. Heathric saw his cousin’s rage, clear as day, and felt it hot and prickly as a sunburn across his skin.
L. Blankenship started writing animal stories as a kid and it’s just gotten completely out of hand since then. Now she’s out publishing her gritty fantasy and hard science fiction adventures. L. grew up in New Hampshire but currently lives near Washington, DC.