127. In the Kingdom of Frogs

The Guardian’s soldiers do not rest again in a day, and stop only briefly during the night to rest their horses.

In the early afternoon of the next day, they come to the borders of a vast forest. Frithil gives its name as the Gray Forest, and points out that it will take two days at the very least to traverse, assuming that the soldiers will make for the Road of Crowns that runs through the Gray Forest further north, and then at last through mild and open country to Lake Amm Borod and Fora Tanni.

Stellia’s heart grows heavy as they follow the horsemen on the muddy trail that leads into the woods. Though the cloudy skies of Hestia seemed to her never to grow altogether bright, they were yet preferable to the endless dusk in which they ride beneath the trees. Far too soon the wan light begins to fail, and what few birds brightened the forest gloom with their calls fall silent. In their stead, legions of frogs and toads begin an all-pervasive choir, and though their songs are not quite so lighthearted and melodious, they make up for it with sheer enthusiasm. Stellia feels her spirits lifting in spite of herself.

But while nightfall unexpectedly dispels the forest’s silence, it also brings with it utter darkness, for the moon is hidden behind clouds. Only when the soldiers light torches can the three companions resume their pursuit. The Guardian’s horsemen travel on for several hours before at last they make halt in a clearing by a wooded hillock. Among the trees at its top, an overgrown rock or standing stone of strangely regular shape is outlined by the light of their fires.

“It’s the ancient shrine that stood of old by the Road of Crowns, before it was moved north,” Frithil explains. “For travelers coming from Southern Hestia, the shrine still marks a place to rest, though the old road has long been swallowed by the swampy ground.”

“I wish we too could find such a spot to make camp,” Nevynne sighs. “This forest is awfully soggy, and we cannot light a fire. They’d spy it at once in this pitch-black night, and would no doubt investigate to see who else is with them on this lonely road.”

After a day of riding through the damp and clammy forest, this is not the kind of news Stellia is glad to hear. “Surely if we make our camp far enough away—”

“No,” Nevynne says. “We’d have to move to such a distance that we’d be unable to see when they depart. We cannot afford to fall behind.”

“Indeed not,” Frithil says. “It’s all I can do to keep up with them. These men are used to riding long, hard hours. I’ve grown soft in the years of my life at the Sundrance, I’m afraid.”

“At least you’ve not grown fat like so many of your brothers in the Faith,” Nevynne says. “Though it might keep you warmer on a night like this.”

They trudge miserably through the night, careful not to lose sight of the soldiers’ fires, leading the horses in search of a place dry enough to sleep. More than once they step into unseen pools of water, until not one of them has a dry foot left. At last they chance upon two boulders surrounded by tall grass in the midst of a small group of trees. Both of the stones are wider than they are tall, and roughly even on top; one is a pace wide at the most, the other three. One of the trees—Nevynne declares it a larch, though in the darkness it’s hard to be sure—grows between them. Many years ago, it likely sprang up as a sapling in some crack, and at last split the rock in two as it grew.

“A hard bed,” Nevynne says. “But dry at least.”

Frithil stretches out on the smaller of the boulders. Hard bed or not, the friar falls asleep in minutes, wrapped in the great woolen cloak. Soon he is snoring loudly. Stellia and Nevynne on the other hand, though they are very weary, cannot at once find sleep, and sit up for a bit on the wider of the two boulders. All around them in the night, the choir of croaking and chirping continues its ceaseless ebb and swell. In the distance, the fires in the soldiers’ camp are visible as speckles of flickering light.

“I’ve never heard such a din.” Nevynne rummages around in the satchel of provisions the shadow left for them with the horses. “We must have strayed into the kingdom of all frogs, toads, and newts.”

Though they have rationed the food carefully, not much is left, most of it dry oatcakes. Nevynne hands one to Stellia, and together they nibble quietly on their meagre dinner for a while.

“I wonder who he is,” Nevynne says. “Or who he once was. The Shadow we encountered.”

“It bothers you, that he knew your name.”

“Many in Baramond would have heard my name, or that of my house. But he knew who I was. He knew me.”

“At least he is not an enemy,” Stellia says. “There is comfort in that.”

“Is there?”

“I would think so. Who knows, perhaps he was once a friend to your family.”

“That’s what worries me,” Nevynne says.

“It worries you that you might still have old friends who wish to help you?”

“No. It worries me that anyone who knew me or my family would still know how to find me. Especially someone that can’t be killed.”

“I know you fear betrayal,” Stellia says. “But surely not everyone has turned on your family.”

Nevynne crunches on the last piece of her oatcake. “One is all it takes.”

NEXT: Nevynne’s Tale: A Dream Destroyed

 

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