41. Ambush

The guilt Stellia feels after lying to her uncle and cousin is made greater by the large knapsack filled with rolls and bread she was given on her departure, meant to be shared with her parents and of course Till.

Again she feels like a thief to her own kin, for taking these things for herself—first her father’s mare, now her uncle’s bread. Compared to the worth of the horse, the bread and rolls may be a small matter, Uncle Ezriyon bakes them by the score each day. But as tokens of her deception they weigh heavily, no matter how often she tells herself that it is all for a good cause.

Still, she will be glad to have them on the journey ahead, even if she must eat them in shame.

She leaves Godossas by the South road, as she would on her way back home. In order to ride north, she needs to double back, but she cannot ride through the village lest she be seen. As soon as the last house has disappeared behind a bend in the road, she turns Phylia into the forest. The horse is reluctant at first, she is used to staying on proper roads, and no doubt father has never ridden her through woods or open fields. But eventually, the mare trots along confidently underneath the tall pines that surround Godossas, her hoofbeats muffled by the needles carpeting the ground.

The land is more densely covered with forest here. Riding through the woods reminds Stellia unpleasantly of her travels in the Thorns. But the sun shines overhead, casting golden patches of light onto the forest floor, and the trees are alive with birdsong. In such a bright, pleasant place, it seems that brigands and scoundrels exist only in bad dreams and frightening stories. But no doubt the woods in the Thorns appear no less carefree and bright on days like this. Stellia is eager to regain the open road.

It does not take her long to circle around Godossas, the roofs and chimneys of which she can see here and there through the trees. Once she is certain that she has long passed the village, Stellia steers Phylia back toward the road, which she knows must lie to their right.

The trees are thicker here, and can’t see the road yet. For a moment, she worries that she may have gotten lost. The forest is full of other noises besides birds singing: all sorts of eerie crackings and creakings, and the sighs of the wind in the leaves.
Stellia is no longer so relieved to have left Godossas behind. Suddenly, she feels quite alone and forsaken.

Where is the road? It has to be right ahead.

Every which way she turns, the woods look the same. She brings Phylia to a halt to have a look around.

There! Something rustles in the trees.

It is nothing, of course. Only the wind, or a squirrel, what else?

Stellia looks up, and her heart stops.

A shadow plunges toward her and pulls her with it, out of the saddle, toward the ground.

She lands face down in the pine needles, the breath is knocked out of her.

She’s going to suffocate!

A weight is on her back, she still can’t breathe freely. Phylia trots off, startled, snorting her indignation.

Stellia struggles against the weight that holds her down—she has to come free, and make sure Phylia does not run away, stranding her in the woods.

But the weight doesn’t budge.

Something cold touches her neck, and a voice hisses at her to be still, unless she would like her throat to be cut.

NEXT: Tylvanor

 

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