The slope they are traversing has grown gentler.
As far as Stellia can see, which is not far at all, they are entirely surrounded by trees. The dense growth is unbroken by the outcroppings of rock that lined their trail earlier.
“It looks like we reached some sort of wooded highland,” she says.
“We must be nearing the crest of the ridge we’ve been climbing,” Tylvanor says. “No doubt a more level passage lies ahead that will take us into some valley, and so on all the way to Talvain.”
“That’s encouraging. But you said Talvain is a week away. We need shelter now.”
The wind has picked up quite a bit, and although the rain hasn’t grown heavier just yet, a steady drizzle drips down from the trees. Stellia’s clothes are beginning to feel damp and clammy on her skin. It is growing dark, too, save for the occasional bolt of lightning.
Dark, and very cold.
Tylvanor’s voice cuts through the sounds of dripping rain and branches swaying in the wind. “Over there.”
Between two mighty firs on their right, a narrow path winds its way into the gloom under the trees. It is scarcely more than a deer trail. Had Tylvanor not pointed it out, Stellia would never have noticed it.
“It might lead to some sort of shelter,” Tylvanor says.
“What makes you think that?”
“The goat herders in Baramond often build huts in these mountains, in case they get caught in bad weather with their animals.”
“We’re in the middle of a forest.” Stellia does not like the look of the trail at all. “What goat herder would lead their flock here? I’ve seen nothing resembling pastureland since we rode into these foothills.”
“We should at least have a look. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Stellia hesitates. The rain is fast getting heavier. As for the worst that could happen, she’d rather not think about that. Reluctantly, she follows Tylvanor into the trees.
After a few yards of riding through the darkness underneath the firs, the trail grows wider. A short distance ahead beckons a patch of light, or at least of slightly less oppressive gloom. They emerge into a small clearing with just enough room for the horses to stand side by side. In front of them a sheer cliff, flecked with pale patches of lichen and moss, rises toward the roiling sky. Rivulets of rain stream down the weathered stone. A crack runs down the rock from a height of some ten yards, as though a giant had split open the stone with a blow from his axe. Near the bottom, the crack widens into an opening broad enough to admit a horse.
“Didn’t I say it?” Tylvanor sounds rather pleased with himself. “Shelter.”
As wet and increasingly miserable as she is, Stellia feels no great desire to enter the yawning maw before her. “What if a bear lives in there?”
Tylvanor climbs out of his saddle and peers into the cave. He doesn’t appear terribly eager to enter it, either. “We won’t go in all the way. Just enough to stay out of the rain.”
“You mean for us to sleep here?”
“Dusk is still a few hours away. If no bear has mauled us by the time it gets dark, chances are it’ll be safe at night, as well.”
“That’s anything but certain.”
“We’ve little choice, the way I see it. If we ride on, we’re like to catch death in this rain.”
Tylvanor sets foot into the cave entrance—how much like a mouth it seems!—and picks up a stick from among the leaves and branches the wind has amassed near the opening.
“Dry enough to burn. We might be able to build a fire.”
He hefts the stick with a confident smile.
Over-confident, Stellia thinks. But she is quite ready to be proven wrong.
NEXT: The Stillborn Queen