44. Forest Night

Nightfall comes suddenly, and reveals new problems.

Stellia has food, and she has her horse, and her coat to keep her warm, but she has nowhere to spend the night. Nowhere decent, anyway. She’s never traveled farther north than Godossas, and in spite of all her reading, she doesn’t know what lies beyond the village. If there are other villages, she isn’t near any of them. As far as she can see ahead on the road—which is not far at all, as it’s begun to wind through ever more hilly land—there’s nothing here but pine trees and rocks. But even if she came to a village, she could hardly ride up to the inn, a girl of seventeen summers, traveling alone by horse, and ask for lodging, not without arousing suspicion, especially since by now, news of her escape may have traveled farther than she has. Everyone she encounters might have heard of the fugitive girl riding a piebald mare.

The pine trees that line the road are taller here, and the shadows underneath their boughs deeper, making her feel small and forlorn. She hears owls hooting, and distant calls of ravens, but other than that, the road is eerily quiet. Phylia trots around the next bend in the road, and although the sky is still orange, with only the brightest stars already winking down at them through the tree tops, they plunge into deep shadow. Rocks rise high on either side, crowned by trees. It’s an uneasy stretch of road, where anything could launch itself at her from above. The way Tylvanor did, earlier that day.

Didn’t Tylvanor say something about wolves?

She hasn’t heard any yet, nor, come to think of it, has she ever heard them, not in Phoros, nor in Godossas. But then she is in the wild now, who knows how far from any human dwellings.

Nor may wolves be the only thing to fear, out in the woods.

She’s read plenty of stories, about the white-eyed women called kathkani, who jump onto travelers’ backs at dusk and drink their blood, about moonfoxes who lure people into their lairs by speaking to them in seductive voices, only to suck their eyes out of their skulls and leave them blinded in the wilderness, and about the gnarled folk who hunt in packs and eat human flesh. If the stories are to be believed, any number of fearsome beings haunt desolate places like this, waiting to prey on travelers.

She never believed any of it, of course.

But it’s harder to scoff at those tales, now that she’s riding all alone through these darkening woods, far from any place she knows.

She draws her coat more closely about her shoulders and turns up her collar against the evening wind. It is only a soft breeze, but the way it stirs the hairs on her nape feels too much like the breath of something invisible following her on the road.

Where is she going to sleep?

She has not slept the night before, and aside from the brief visit at her uncle’s house, the morning was anything but restful. It would be a lot easier, and somewhat less frightening, to camp in the forest if she had the means to light a fire. If only she had been able to bring a flint!

Best to find a suitable spot for the night before darkness falls.


NEXT: Terrors in the Dark


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