117. Despair

With brisk strides, Frithil leads Stellia and Nevynne through the forest.

Soon they can no longer see the Sundrance’s spike-crowned wall when they look back. It is as though the trees have closed rank behind them. Stellia is glad that the friar has come with them. He seems to be no great fighter like Garroth, but she knows better than many her age that knowledge can be more useful than blades. Without Frithil, Nevynne and she could never find the way forward.

In spite of their swift march across the forest floor, Stellia is not getting any warmer. On the contrary, she has broken a cold sweat. Before long, she will be freezing inside her damp shirt. The others seem to be faring no better. Several times Nevynne and Frithil shiver violently.

“Once we gain the road,” Nevynne says, “how long to the nearest town or village?”

“The town of Heathensfall is about a day’s ride from here,” Frithil replies. “Some of its outlying farmsteads a little less than that.” As he speaks, his breath issues into the chilly night air in ragged bursts of steam. “How long it will take to reach it on foot, I cannot say.”

Nevynne quickens her pace. “We must get there before morning.”

“Before morning?” Frithil wheezes. “Why is that?”

“If the soldiers leave at daybreak as you say, we’ll need horses and supplies by then, or we’ll never catch up with them.”

“You intend to steal those things? In Heathensfall?”

“Unless you have a better plan. Or gold to buy them.”

“You spoke of the Sundrance’s farms and apiaries during breakfast,” Stellia says. “Would they not be near here?”

Frithil shakes his head. “Pigs, goats, and bees are all you’d find there. What horses we possess are stabled in the Sundrance itself.”

“Then Heathensfall it is,” Nevynne says. “Unless your objections to stealing forbid you from joining us, friar.”

“I do not relish the thought,” Frithil says. “But our purpose justifies it, for our need to aid the Prince may be greater than we know.”

“And what does that mean?”

“We’ll speak of it later,” Frithil says. “For the moment, if you don’t mind, I need to save my breath for the road.”

“Just as well.” Nevynne moves faster still.

They rush downhill through the forest, ever downhill, lashed on by an icy wind coming out of the mountains behind them. Their hurried footfalls are accompanied by the whisperings of branches high above, and the occasional haunting call of an owl. Once, Stellia thinks she hears a menacing howl from far away. Perhaps it is only the wind.

“There!” Frithil cries out. They stand on a moss-covered outcropping of rock that thrusts out of the forest floor like a broken bone through flesh. “Down there. The road.”

Stellia sinks to her knees on the mossy stone, her lungs aflame as she catches her breath. Far below, behind the black trunks of the trees, silvered by the faint moonlight, she sees a dim gray band winding its way through the woods.

“Let us rest here a moment,” Frithil says. “Then we’ll make our descent. At least it will be easier traveling on the road. It is well maintained.”

Nevynne stands next to him, hands on her knees, breathing hard. Her short hair clings wetly to her forehead. She nods, but can manage no words.

Now that they have stopped moving, Stellia is once again keenly aware of the chill of the forest air and the cold sweat drenching her clothes. Sweat and cold, that’s a sure recipe for fevers. Nevertheless, rest they must. They sit like this for a time, surrounded by the furtive sighs and rustles of the forest night, waiting for their breath to come more easily.

A new sound travels through the trees. It is faint at first, but there can be no doubt that it is coming from the road below, and getting louder, coming nearer.

Horses. A great number of them.

A light bobs past the tree trunks that line the dim ribbon of the road. Then another, and another, floating swiftly through the night, dancing along like fireflies, but faster, more purposefully. Soon a procession of flames lights up the road with reddish flickers.

Riders, riders with torches, traveling at speed through the darkness!

“The Guardian’s soldiers,” Frithil mutters. “They are riding out now, in the middle of the night.”

Stellia stumbles to the very tip of the jutting rock, craning her neck to see if she can spot Sedwin—Prince Ansil, that is—but the horsemen are mere shadows in the unsteady light of the flames, all garbed the same to her eyes, and she cannot discern their faces.

“No,” she breathes into the cold. “It cannot be.”

“Their haste is greater than I thought,” Frithil says. “The Guardian must want the Prince brought to her at once.”

Nevynne hisses a stream of curses through clenched teeth.

A bitter flood of anger and despair wells up in Stellia’s chest. I will drown in this, she thinks, I’ll go under and never again come up, if I do not fight it with all my strength. But it is a hard struggle. The Guardian has Till, and now Prince Ansil is being delivered into her grasp as well, while she and her companions are left shivering in the dark—helpless, powerless. Defeated.

As swiftly as they appeared, the riders pass. The last of their torches dim in the tree-lined distance, embers dying in a boundless night. Stellia stares into the darkness where they have disappeared.

“This can’t be the end. We go to Heathensfall.”

“Heathensfall?” Nevynne asks. “You heard what Frithil said. It’s a day away, and that’s on horseback.”

“Then we better start walking.”

“If we return to the Sundrance—” Frithil begins.

“We’ll be captured,” Stellia says. “Even if we could reach our horses, how are we to get them out? The gate is no doubt watched.”

Frithil sighs. “It must be, after what happened today.”

“So point us toward Heathensfall, friar.” Nevynne shrugs. “Time will be against us, but not so much as if we do nothing.”

“We’ll catch up with them somehow,” Stellia says. “We must.”

She turns to walk away from their rocky perch—and freezes in place, a scream stifled on her lips.

NEXT: The Shadow

 

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