Stellia goes numb. She hears it too: the thudding of hooves on damp earth. In this wild place, her first thought is of a threat.
“What do we do?”
“Try to remain unseen.”
Tylvanor dashes out of the cave and scoops up armfuls of wet leaves from the ground. He drops them on the fire, and the flames go out, plunging the cave into darkness. Smoke still curls up thickly from between the leaves.
“They may just be passing through the woods.”
“We are far from the main trail,” Tylvanor says. “They are looking for shelter, like we were.”
“Then perhaps they are just travelers, like us.”
“Perhaps. Or they are searching for you, or they are highwaymen, or worse. Better to find out before we meet them than after.”
He pulls Stellia with him into the cave, where Phylia and the dapple stallion wait calmly. Tylvanor takes the horses’ reins and walks them into the darkness. The animals balk at first, but then follow slowly.
“Deeper inside?” Stellia doesn’t enjoy the prospect at all. “We don’t know what’s in there!”
“Most likely nothing.” Tylvanor cautiously picks his way over the uneven ground. “But out there, most certainly someone.”
The sound of hoofbeats is much closer. Whoever is approaching is clearly heading for the cave. Stellia no longer hesitates. She follows Tylvanor and the horses before they vanish into the blackness ahead of her.
Fortunately, the darkness is not as absolute as it appeared earlier. As her eyes grow used to the dark, Stellia is able to discern vague shapes of rocks and the hindquarters of the horses. When she looks back, she only sees a small strip of blue where the entrance must be. Have they rounded a bend? The air is stuffy, and now the stink of bat droppings is almost overpowered by the pungent smell of goat urine. Apparently, some shepherd has indeed sheltered his flock in the cave not too long ago.
Stellia feels her way along the wall. As far as she can tell, she is circumnavigating a jut of rock.
For a moment, panic threatens to seize her: what if they are approaching an unseen precipice, and fall to their death, or to grave injury, which will no doubt amount to the same in this forsaken place? She stops and listens. The sound of the rain, raucous near the cave entrance, has grown muffled and distant, and she no longer hears hoofbeats, either.
The softer footfalls of Tylvanor and the horses in front of her have ceased as well. Have they already plummeted into some chasm so deep that no sound of their fall has reached her? Surely Tylvanor would have cried out, if that had happened. Just as she feels that she can go neither back nor forward, someone touches her shoulder. She almost screams. It’s Tylvanor, of course.
“Far enough,” he whispers. “Pray that the horses don’t give us away.”
They crouch behind the rock and peer toward the cave entrance.
Stellia curses herself for letting Tylvanor decide what to do. What a foolish idea it was, to retreat into the cave! Had they made a run for it, they could have escaped into the forest.
Now they’re trapped.
A horse snorts outside. Another neighs in response. Then, footsteps echo through the cave, and a male voice.
“Odd. I thought I saw light, as of a fire.”
“I saw it too,” a second man says. “And I smell smoke. There. Someone must have just doused it.”
Stellia nearly laughs out loud for joy. She knows those voices!
The two men who have entered the cave are Sedwin and Garroth.
NEXT: The Road of Crowns