The road descends amidst tall trees.
The snow has stopped, but the wind, on this bleak cold morning, is sharper than it was the night before. Talvain with its huddled houses, flocks of shaggy goats, and its huge inscribed dolmen, is only a turn in the road away from being a memory. The light is still faint, and judging by the clouds that cover the sky, there will not be much more of it today.
Stellia shivers; their room at the inn was cold in the morning, and getting up before sunrise made it worse. She slips out of Phylia’s saddle and walks, to get the blood flowing. The mare seems indifferent to the cold. Will they ever feel the warm sunlight of Phoros again, where an overcast day with drizzle was the worst weather in all of creation?
Sedwin and Garroth ride a few yards ahead, while Nevynne walks next to Stellia, leading her dapple gray stallion by its bridle. She still looks boyish enough with her tousled short hair. But her face is clean, and she is dressed in a new tunic and jerkin, pants of dyed goatskin, thick leather boots, and a hooded cloak made of heavy wool. Sedwin spent generously on her attire, perhaps to make amends for Garroth’s rude treatment of the young noblewoman. He even tried to accommodate Nevynne’s demand that everything be some shade of dark green in color. Boots and belt were not to be had in anything but chestnut brown, but Nevynne was content enough with that.
“I’ll be hard to spot in these,” she explained, “among trees and undergrowth.”
In these snow-covered woods, however, greens and browns provide little concealment, and she looks uneasily from one tree trunk to another as though she expects an ambush at any moment. Pines and firs crowd the narrow road on both sides, like a menacing throng deciding whether they should waylay the passers-by or not. The calls of ravens echo through the frosty air.
“I’ve never come this way before,” Nevynne says. “What a harsh land this is.”
“Sedwin says it will get warmer, once we’re into Hestia, and farther from the Heavens’ Teeth. But it will rain a lot there.”
“Splendid,” Nevynne sighs. “First we freeze, then we drown.”
“I have a feeling the weather will be the least of our worries.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Of course I am,” Stellia says. “Aren’t you?”
“Of what? Getting hurt? Dying?”
“Sedwin said there would be danger.”
Nevynne shrugs. “What of it? Over the past six years, I often wished for death to release me from my grief and despair. Why should I be afraid of it now, when I have hope, and a cause worth fighting for?”
“Don’t you want to see Prince Ansil take his throne, and bring Ingharad to justice?”
“I do,” Nevynne says. “But I also know that things cannot always be the way we want them to be. If all who fight for what is just and good step away from the battle the moment it threatens to claim their lives, people like Ingharad will soon rule this world.”
Stellia can’t decide what unsettles her more: that Nevynne could sound so selfless, or that she can speak so readily of giving up her life. “I don’t think that’s what your father had in mind for you.”
“Much has happened that he never had in mind for me,” Nevynne says. “That’s the way of the world.”
“Will you promise me one thing, at least?”
“And what’s that?”
“Don’t die unless you absolutely must.”
Nevynne gives her a curious look. She shakes her head, and her lips curl into a crooked smile. “It’s not as if I’m keen on getting myself killed, you know.”
“I’m relieved to hear that.”
They continue in silence on their way underneath the snow-laden firs. “I’ve something to ask you,” Stellia says after a while. “About last night.”
“What if you hadn’t found the letter, or you had instead found clear evidence that Sedwin and Garroth were in no way connected to the Prince. Would you have left us, and gone your own way, to look for him elsewhere?”
“You mean, would I have left you?”
“Yes,” Stellia says. “I suppose I do mean that.”
Nevynne purses her lips. “That’s simple. I would have decided that where you are going is as good a place as any to continue my search.”
Stellia suppresses a smile. “That makes sense.”
“Of course it does.” Nevynne nods toward Sedwin and Garroth. “We better catch up with them.”
They climb back into their saddles and spur the horses to a gentle trot. Up in the firs, the ravens still bicker and croak. Apparently, they’re following the four riders, perhaps hoping that there’s some food in it for them before the end.
Stellia and Nevynne have half caught up with the men, when Sedwin doubles back and rides alongside them. “Be on your guard,” he tells them, never taking his eyes off the trees. Garroth, too, keeps glancing up the wooded slope to his left.
“What is wrong?”
“We’re being followed,” Sedwin says. “Ever since Talvain.”
“Followed?” Stellia scans the shadows under the fir boughs. Nothing. “By whom? Why?”
“I don’t know. But I will bring up the rear, from now on. Be ready to seek cover. Those ravens are on about something, and it is not us.”
“I knew their calls meant nothing good.”
“On the contrary. They may well have given us a warning. Here.” He presses a scabbard into Stellia’s hand.
Stellia takes the dagger and awkwardly tucks it into her belt. “What am I to do with that?”
“Nothing, hopefully.” Again, Sedwin searches the trees with his eyes. “Whoever it is, they’re on our left.”
“You think it is the Guardian’s soldiers?” Nevynne asks.
“The spearmen of Hestia are no furtive stalkers. They would have shown themselves by now, and confronted us openly.”
“Then who could be tracking us?”
“Spies, perhaps, meaning only to watch, and report back.”
A rush of beating wings erupts in the trees.
Garroth wheels around. “Sedwin!”
Something hisses through the chilly air. A familiar, horrifying sound.
NEXT: A Battle in the Snow