45. Terrors in the Dark

Stellia turns Phylia into the trees.

Daylight is rapidly fading, here under the eaves of the tall, silent pines. The same noises she heard all day long are suddenly filled with menace: the creaking of tree trunks in the breeze, small animals rustling about in the underbrush, the sound of a pinecone falling to the ground.

She rides just far enough into the trees so that she can still see the road as a faint gray band through the tree trunks. If she needs to make a sudden escape, she wants to be able to gain it quickly, as Phylia will travel more swiftly on even ground. Besides, she has not forgotten how she got lost outside of Godossas and was unable to find the road again before Tylvanor ambushed her.

She shakes her head when she thinks of the young scoundrel. How does he manage to get by, all alone in the world? A roving outcast, he called himself. Almost Stellia finds herself wishing for his company. He must know a thing or two about surviving in the wilds. By now he has likely gone to sleep on a bed of pine needles somewhere, or, who knows, up in a tree in the fork between two stout branches. In spite of her initial anger, Stellia finds herself unable to hate or even resent him. The more she thinks about her encounter with the boy, the more she feels sorry—

Stellia screams.

A few paces in front of her, a huge shadow rears up in the dark.

A cluster of terrifying shapes rises from the forest floor—giant spiders, coiling serpents, the gnarled limbs of a whole tangle of twisted monsters are reaching for her!

She exhales a puff of breath and curses her own foolishness.

Roots.

The snarl of menacing forms is nothing but the roots of a massive tree, felled by some fierce storm or its own great age. Stellia shudders, shaking off the chill of fear, and climbs out of the saddle. A strong smell of earth and mushrooms rises from the pit left gaping in the earth where the tree stood. Her skin crawls at the thought of the worms, toads, and salamanders she imagines dwelling there, to say nothing of spiders. She leads Phylia away from the dark pit. She ties the reins to one of the fallen tree’s remaining branches and climbs onto the trunk.

It’s not exactly shelter, but there is comfort in the feeling of the strong, solid wood underneath her, and the branches provide at least some concealment. Phylia nuzzles her gently with her velvety nose. Stellia strokes the mare’s cheeks.

“What have I gotten you into, Phylia?”

She sits like this, arms around her knees, shivering in spite of her heavy coat. Despair settles upon her along with the gathering darkness.

She snaps suddenly out of near sleep, almost losing her balance and falling off the tree trunk. Phylia snorts and nervously tramples the ground.

Something is near.

Stellia’s muscles are stiff; the cold has penetrated deeply into her clothes.

How long has she been dozing?

By now, the forest night is moonless, and pitch-black.

All is silent again, save for the whispering of the night wind in the treetops. Phylia calms down and stands still.

“What did you hear?” Stellia asks.

The mare snorts softly in response.

From the shadows between the trees comes an echoing snort.

“Your horse has keener ears than you,” someone says.

Stellia jumps from her perch.

Untie the reins!

She must untie Phylia’s reins from the branch, vault into the saddle, and ride for her life! But she can’t even see the knot in the darkness. Her numb fingers might as well try to pull apart an iron chain. She whimpers in fear.

Death! That’s all she can expect now.

“Calm down,” the voice says. Actually, it sounds familiar.

A large silhouette coalesces from the surrounding darkness. A horse, and a rider. His face is a milky patch in the dark.

Relief washes over Stellia, dizzying in its suddenness. She wants to shout the intruder’s name out loud.

But all she can manage is a breathless whisper.

NEXT: The Shard

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