The horses from Baramond are tall and sleek, powerful coursers bred to cover long distances with great swiftness before tiring. All three of them are stallions, black as pitch, so chosen no doubt by their original owners the better to conceal their presence on dark roads.
Stellia marvels at their strength and speed, and though it pains her to think of Phylia left behind in the Sundrance’s stables, she cannot deny that the mare could never have carried her so fast, or for so many hours without resting. And is it not best, in truth, for the gentle beast to remain in a warm stall under the care of the friars, rather than face an uncertain fate together with her rider? Perhaps one day, somehow, Stellia will find a way to reclaim her.
Phylia’s fate is not the only thing that weighs on Stellia’s mind as she rides alongside her companions. The bloody end met by the horses’ previous owners clings like a pall to the animals. This is even more true of the clothes she and her friends now wear. In the packs borne by the horses, they found two thick coats and a long woolen cloak, along with two pairs of leather gloves, and also a satchel of small oatcakes. There was a crossbow, as well, and a supply of quarrels, but none of them are proficient with such a weapon, Nevynne having trained only with a bow. The coats were much stained with blood, and at first Stellia and Nevynne were disinclined to wear them, but the comfort and protection they provide against the freezing night wind soon helped overcome their reluctance. The cloak alone was free of such grisly traces, but excessively large, and too cumbersome for anyone but Frithil to wear. Perhaps it belonged to their nameless benefactor himself. In Stellia’s mind, the threads of his grievous fate are laced into its weft, unsullied by blood though it may be, making it a palpable link to some terrible secret.
After many hours of riding, Nevynne calls for a halt in a grove of wild apple trees on the crest of a hill. Stellia picks one of the small green fruits that grow in clusters on the branches. They are hard and sour, but refreshing, and she gathers a supply of them while Nevynne studies the landscape below. They have left the wooded foothills of the Heavens’ Teeth behind, and are in fairly open country. The sky is dark, with here and there a star twinkling through an opening in the clouds. But near the wooded horizon, far away from the mountains that lie to their left, some of the gray is beginning to turn to silver.
“There.” Nevynne points at something ahead of them, some distance from the pale ribbon of the road that winds through hill after hill, passing here and there through copses of trees. Stellia squints into the gloom, unsure what Nevynne is pointing toward. Then she sees it. Far in the distance, several needlepoints of light cluster near a sizeable grove. They are not moving.
“They’ve made camp,” Frithil says.
“How long do you think they will stay there?” Stellia asks.
“Not long,” Nevynne says. “Since they left the Sundrance at night, they must be in a hurry. I don’t think they’ll rest longer than absolutely necessary for riders and horses to keep their strength.”
Frithil nods. “Indeed. Which means we, too, may take some rest.”
“I would feel more deserving of it if we passed them first,” Nevynne says. “Let’s ride around the soldiers, and find a spot overlooking the road further ahead. That way we can see from afar when they break camp.”
“Pass them?” Stellia asks. “Is that not dangerous? Won’t they have guards, or scouts watching the road?”
“We don’t need to take the road,” Frithil says. “We’re in mild country. The horses we now ride are used to far worse, I’m sure. We’ll give the camp a wide berth. Besides, these lands are safe. The soldiers won’t post lookouts, only some sentinels right near their encampment.”
“Then couldn’t we sneak inside,” Nevynne says, “and free the Prince?”
“I admire your courage, My Lady. But that would be madness. If there is one thing they are guarding well, it will be the tent that houses him.”
“So instead, we will try to reach the Prince right in the Guardian’s stronghold?” Nevynne chuckles. “That sounds like greater madness still, to me.”
“The Forbidden Isle is a big place,” Frithil says. “We’ll have better hopes of moving secretly there than in a small camp filled with soldiers.”
“Will the Guardian not be surrounded by them, once the Prince is delivered to her?”
“The Forbidden Isle is no fortress, but a sanctuary, a sacred place. Soldiers in great number are stationed in the city of Fora Tanni on the shores of Lake Amm Borod, ready to defend against any threat. But as far as I know, there is no garrison on the island.”
“The Guardian is not concerned about assassins? She should be, in these days.”
“I doubt that she is utterly without defenses,” Frithil says. “We must be wary, in seeking our way to her.”
“I’m wary enough of her,” Nevynne says. “Which reminds me. As we left the Sundrance, you said a curious thing. Our need to aid the Prince might be more pressing than we know, or something to the same effect. I think it’s time you explained what you meant by it.”
Frithil takes a deep breath, and nods. “Let us find a campsite of our own, as you suggested. Then I will tell you what I know.”
NEXT: The Prince’s Oath