95. To The Sundrance

The reckless flight through dark trees and shadowy gorges seems like a fever dream.

Several times, Stellia asks Garroth if he cannot administer the strange herbs to all of them, no matter the danger. He only repeats his warnings of the night before. Sedwin alone partakes of the green powder, mixed with what wine they have left. If it gives him strength, it is to ride only, and not to speak. Eyes bloodshot, jaws clenched, he spurs his horse. The others are hard pressed to keep up with him.

They ride like this until nightfall, with only a few short rests to let the horses regain some of their strength. During one of these stops, Garroth cleans Sedwin and Nevynne’s injuries with boiling vinegar once more. Sedwin clenches his jaws so hard that he spits out blood when Garroth is done, but no sound issues from his throat. Nevynne refuses the leather strap, but she screams, and Garroth complains that every assassin and brigand for miles around must have heard her.

In her exhaustion, Stellia fails to notice for some time that the landscape is changing. When she suddenly realizes it, she is baffled. To the left, towering mountains stretch to the misty horizon, while the country to their right is open grassland as far as she can see, with here and there a wooded stretch, and a line of forest ever visible in the distance.

“Hestia?” She hasn’t the breath left to gasp more than the one word.

Garroth nods, and grimly presses on.

Sedwin looks pale, his eyes so red they are the color of ripe raspberries. Nevynne has not spoken since they stopped to clean their wounds. She is struggling to keep her eyes open, and close to falling out of the saddle. Reluctantly, Garroth lets Nevynne have a small amount of his witch’s tonic. She groans at the taste, and then more when the liquid takes effect. After that, she straightens up, cold sweat on her brow. Her fingers are rigid and white on the reins, as though some outside force had seized her hands in its grip. She does not ask for another dose when the potion’s effects wear off.

The horses, too, are near the end of their strength, and covered in a foam of cold sweat.

“Not far now,” Garroth bellows into the wind.

Stellia dares not ask how far they still have to go. Every minute seems long as an hour. Night has come, nearly as cold as it was in the Pass of Talvain, They are riding uphill again, through brooding forests of fir and spruce. Once, they pass a great ruin of walls and battlements crumbling on a craggy slope, half buried under a thick growth of creeping vines.

“A garrison,” Garroth explains. “Long ago, when the region was less safe, the Emperor had soldiers stationed here at all times to protect the Sundrance.”

A short while later, he touches Stellia’s shoulder and points ahead. “We’re almost there.”

Behind black treetops and branches, Stellia spots a tiny ingot of gold. Not the coldly glittering silver of a star, but a fire, or a lantern. Against the inky blue of the sky, the outlines of a tower emerge from the night, then another beside it.

“The Sundrance,” Garroth rasps.

They spur the horses for a final plunge up the steep mountain road.

NEXT: Succor

 

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