Okayyyyyy. I dunno if I will have any time later tonight to post. So I’ll do it now. =P I will not be able to get more up until Sunday…since I’m leaving my computer here. …I hope this chapter leaves off in a good place…*cough* I don’t remember. O_O =P
Oooh. this one’s long. Lucky you. ; )
Despair Masked In Shadow
The early dampness under the trees lingered long into the morning. It collected as dew on my cloak, drenching the hem and soaking through to the edge of my skirt. The underbrush, thinner near the cabin we had left behind, began to grow more dense again, grabbing at my dress and reaching up to entangle my dangling wrists. The horse, never faltering in its slow, steady step, did not seem to notice, although I saw the raspberry canes cling trailing to its thick coat. I envied it its sturdy, untiring gait. The raspberry canes left trailing red lines down my arms and around my ankles where their thin barbs penetrated through the cloth of my dress. Finally, frustrated and exhausted by the task of clearing a way through the steadily thickening brush, I halted. Netya, nearly asleep on the horse’s back behind Thalon, shook the drowse out of her eyes and sighed softly. “How far have we come?”
“I don’t know. A ways,” I replied, leaning against a tree and letting the horse dip its head to snatch the leaves from the young saplings nearby. Thalon, supported in Netya’s arms, moaned faintly, his hands hanging limp and dead by his sides. I pushed myself up from where I leaned, taking the halter of the horse again. “We should go on. We can’t afford to stop.”
“No, wait,” Netya protested, “Not yet. Let me walk. You need rest, Alasse. We can trade places. I’ll go in front. I can find a way.”
I began to protest, but saw the determination in her eyes. “Alright,” I said faintly. I reached up, supporting Thalon as Netya slipped off the horse’s back. Putting my foot in the cleft of a small branch on a sapling, I mounted in her place behind Thalon. As I did so, my hand brushed against his, and I gasped. “He’s cold. Netya, we have to hurry,” I said, the urgency renewed in my heart. She nodded and grasped the halter, tugging the horse forward again.
As we traveled on unspeaking, I could feel Thalon fading. The sun rose higher, mounting the sky to its summit. As the warmth from its bright rays grew, the warmth of Thalon’s body seemed to lessen. I knew if we did not reach help by nightfall, it would be too late.
“Alasse?” Netya spoke from before me suddenly, halting.
“Yes?” I replied, looking down into her upturned face.
“What about Pethnor?”
I shook my head. “I know. We haven’t seen any trace of him or his men since we came to the cabin two days ago. He must not know yet that Thalon was found, and wounded. Or perhaps…perhaps the Castle Guard has been called out, and he needs all his men to fight. I don’t suppose either of those is very comforting…but I hope it is the latter. I hope the Captain of the Guard…I hope Thalon’s father is fighting. Do you think they’re worried?”
Netya smiled at me suddenly. “Oh Alasse. You know our mothers. They must be beside themselves. Thinking we fell in the moat, or got lost in the town, or something silly like that. Oh, if only they knew. If only they knew we were miles into the dreaded forest, running for our lives and closer to the catastrophe of Pethnor than they have ever even dreamed of. I’d like to see their faces if they knew…” She trailed off.
“I’m glad they don’t know,” I said softly. “Mama is silly sometimes…and so frustrating, with her talks of being a lady. But all the same…all the same, I do miss her so, Netya. Just think, right now the castle is shining in the noonday sun, banners rippling like feathers in the wind. Can’t you see the sun spiking off the armor of the Castle Guard? Like pinpricks of silver on the grey wall. One at each tower, and two on the walls between.”
Netya nodded, joining in. “Yes. And the grass like waves against the moat. Remember we can see the people on the road all the way from the eves of the forest? They were always busy with nothing, weren’t they? Like Mother. Always doing, always going, but never accomplishing, never arriving. Part of an endless song. Like us.”
“Like us. Yes. Our song will be exciting when it’s finished, won’t it? Who would have guessed, two daughters of the court lost in the forest with Pethnor free and in pursuit. Or well, hopefully not in pursuit. But still. It sounds grand, doesn’t it?”
Netya giggled. “Oh, quite grand. Not the way I’d like to die, but I guess we might as well go out in style.”
I laughed aloud. “It’s almost like back in our glade at home,” I said, caught in the memory. “I left the practice swords on the grass. With Thalon’s cloak. Wait…Netya. I left them there. Anyone could find them. What if the Castle Guard was sent out? They might find them. Or the Rangers, returning back to the castle to guard the inner edges of the woods, like Thalon said. They might find his cloak and the swords. Do you think…they might figure out where we are? Do you think they’d look for us? I know if Thalon’s father saw the swords and the cloak…He would realize what happened. Wouldn’t he? Oh Netya, maybe they’ll find us yet!”
She smiled, hope new-kindled in her eyes. “Maybe they will. But…but it might be too late. We have to keep going. I don’t know where to…but we have to find help soon. Thalon won’t last much longer,” she said, the hope quenching itself in reality.
I nodded in concern. “Yes. He’s gone cold, Netya…we need to find help.”
We continued on again, stopping only for a few minutes at irregular intervals to change places, or to eat from the bag of food we brought from the cabin. The sun began to sink, with no sign of any help. The hope, the bright memories and optimism, from earlier in the day began to fade from our minds. Thalon had long since ceased to moan in his unconscious sleep, and his head hung limp against Netya’s shoulder where she now rode behind him. The trees above us thinned out again, their branches creating a spider-web tracery of lace against the darkening sky. I walked slowly, tired defeat weighing heavy on my shoulders. I could not bear to think of Thalon; I could not bear to think of Netya sitting behind me, could not bear to imagine her expression. I looked down, letting the patterns of the ferns against the leaves fill my mind. The different shades of green, dulled by the lack of light, crept behind my eyes lodging in my head until they were all that remained. I did not see, I did not think…and I did not feel.
It was not until Netya shouted my name that I realized she was speaking. Startled, I looked guiltily up. “What is it?”
“Alasse, didn’t you hear me? Look!” She pointed into the trees to my right. I looked, but could see nothing. My gaze traveled slowly up the trunks of the trees to the branches. Then, I realized what Netya was pointing out. I gasped. Smoke.
The horse whinnied in surprise as I grabbed its halter again, pulling its head towards the dim smudge of smoke against the deep blue of the evening sky. The briars seemed to hold us back even more desperately than before, twining their thick, clinging fingers into my cloak and pulling at my hands as I recklessly tried to brush them away. The sight of the smoke against the sky filled us with courage again, and the horse seemed to sense our renewed excitement, stepping high over the bracken.
It seemed to take years before I pulled free at last from the grasping underbrush and broke free into the small space around the cabin. The windows were dark, as they had been in the first cabin, but I brushed it off as unimportant. There was no stable, so I tied the horse to a tree, leaving enough slack in the line for it to duck its head to the sparse grass that grew in the clearing. Netya fell rather than dismounted from the horse’s back as Thalon’s weight pulled off balance. I broke his fall, the dead weight of his nearly lifeless body catching me off guard. I set him on the ground, letting his head lay gently back against the tree. Then I stood up, looking in fearful anticipation at Netya. Turning, she walked to the door of the cabin. She raised her hand, hesitating for just a moment before knocking softly against the rough wood.
There was silence. No sound of movement, no sign of life. The door stood immobile before us. I walked to where Netya stood in desperate anticipation, and reached out, grasping the handle. I lifted the latch and pushed my weight against the door, but it would not move. Locked. Glancing at me, hope unwilling to die so soon in her eyes, Netya turned back to Thalon, gently easing the chain on which his silver key hung from around his neck. As her trembling fingers touched him, he cried out, gasping, and struggled to push her away. I jumped to her side, not sure if I should take encouragement or dread and fear from his renewed movement. Thalon’s skin was burning again when I touched him. Carefully, I helped Netya undo the small clasp on the chain. We slid it from around Thalon’s neck and went quickly back to the door. He tossed again in a feverish dream, his face contorted with pain. I had to force myself not to let me tears of fear and dying hope, biting my lip and looking away.
Netya inserted the small key into the lock. Before she turned it, she looked back at me. “Maybe they just left for a while…whoever’s here. They have to come back…if there’s smoke, they have a fire lit. They must come back.”
I did not dare to hope.
Netya turned the key, pushing the door open. Without looking inside, she came back to help me with Thalon. We half carried, half dragged him into the cabin and settled him once more on one of the beds, leaving the horse tied to the tree outside. Once we were inside, we shut the door behind us, locking it again. I let the bolt fall in place as well, further closing us in. The heavy door, so barricaded, comforted me. I turned back to survey the room, hoping against hope to see evidence of someone else still staying here. In the evening darkness, a dying fire in the hearth lit the cabin, smoking up the chimney and creating the signal of hope Netya had seen as we walked. Besides the soft flicker of the flames, however, there was no sign of life. The room looked identical to that of the cabin we had stayed in before, save that it seemed to be even smaller. I shook my head as the bare emptiness of the room sunk into my mind. There was no one here. Perhaps there had been, but if so, we had missed them by barely a few hours. We were too late.
As I let the enormity of the situation wash over me, I saw the consequences flashing before my eyes. There was no help. Thalon would die, likely within hours. Netya and I would be alone. Without Thalon, we had no hope of ever finding our way back. The forest must end somewhere, but on our own, we did not have the knowledge or the strength to find the edge. There was also Pethnor to consider. By now, his men must be assembled in the forest, striving to overcome the Castle Guard. I figured we were behind the line of battle, cut off from the castle by first Pethnor, then our own Guard, and the war that must be waging between them. I walked in a daze to the hearth, sitting down slowly on the hard stone. The exhaustion, tension, and suppressed emotion of the past two days washed over me, but I was beyond the point of tears, beyond the point of really caring anymore. I felt despair sinking in my heart, and I welcomed the freedom from feeling it brought.
I looked up as Netya sat beside me. Her face, unlike mine, was wet with tears. “Alasse, they must come back!” she said, voice breaking with emotion. “They must. No one…no one would leave a fire like this. If it were to spark, or something were to happen, the entire cabin could burn down. They must have only left for a moment. Only for a little while. They must be back.”
I shook my head. “I can’t believe it, Netya. Look around. There is no sign of anyone having been here save the fire. If someone was here, they would have left other traces behind. No one would pack up every sign of their presence and put each piece of furniture exactly in place if they were only going to leave for a moment. Look,” I opened one of the chests, “Not even anything in these is out of place. The blankets are all perfectly folded, none of the food has been taken, nothing. There can’t be anyone coming back. Look how low the fire is. It has not been tended in hours, probably since early this morning. The flames are nearly gone. All that’s left are coals. If someone were here and going to come back, they would have built the fire up so it wouldn’t go out. There’s no one here, Netya. We’re alone. Lost. Hopeless. No one is coming back.”
Netya looked at me in wonder. “Alasse, what is this? What are you saying? We can’t give up, not now. We’ve come so far.”
“So far,” I said bluntly. “So far. Yes, so far in the wrong direction. We’re lost, Netya, Thalon is dying, and we can’t get home! You’re only hurting yourself by denying it. You know what will happen.”
Netya stood up, her arms folded across her chest, and stared down at me. “Yes. I know what’s going to happen. I know. I know what it will be like. But I don’t care. I’m not giving up yet, Alasse. I’m not going to just sit here passively and watch while Thalon dies! I’m not going to sit here passively until Pethnor finds us and takes us. I won’t give up, not yet. Alasse, please. Thalon needs your help. I need your help,” she said voice pleading. “Don’t give up. Don’t give up.”
I shook my head. “I haven’t given up. I’m just being realistic. You can’t deny reality forever, Netya, much as I wish we could. I’d give everything to go back to the first day in the glade and do it differently. I’d give everything to go back to the moment…the moment by the ridge, when we saw Pethnor’s man. If only I could. If only we could, Netya! We could be home now. But we can’t. There’s no way to change the past. No way to go back. I don’t think we’ll have to worry very much about going forward, now, either. This is the end. Our song…it’s ending. There’s nothing we can do anymore, Netya. Nothing.”
“No! There is something we can do yet. I will not just…let our song end. I will keep singing it, even after everything is gone, Alasse. It cannot end unless we let it. Our song will always last as long as we are willing to sing it. This is not the end. I am still singing, Alasse. Please…please sing with me. You’re strong, Alasse…I need your strength. I can’t sing by myself. Please…”
I looked up. Tears glistened as they fell from Netya’s eyes, leaving burning trails down her pale, exhausted cheeks. I knew I should hear her. I knew I should listen to what she said. I knew she was right. But I could not. I could not believe. The tears that surged in my heart would not fall from my eyes. “I can’t do it. I…I can’t, Netya,” I whispered in agony. “I can’t do it. I can’t watch him die.”
Netya sat down beside me again and spoke gently. “Then don’t. Maybe we can still save him, Alasse. Maybe he’ll be ok.”
“Maybe. How great are the chances? I can’t, Netya…I can’t.”
She took my cold hand, squeezing it between hers. She spoke softly. “Yes you can.”
I shook my head again. “No.”
“Yes.” She smiled at me through the tears on her face. “Come on. Maybe you can’t do it alone. But you aren’t alone. I’ll help you, if you will help me. Together. We’ll be ok.”
I still shook my head, but stood slowly and walked to Thalon’s bedside again. Netya jumped up, a tired smile on her face. “See? We’ll be ok. Now…what do you think we should do? I don’t know…He’s hot again.” She looked uncertainly towards the hearth. “Maybe we should build the fire up again.”
I sighed. “Yes. It would give us something to do, anyway.”
Netya nodded, and knelt down before the hearth. A few logs were stacked neatly beside the fireplace, and I handed her the smallest one. She propped it over the glowing coals and blew, setting them sparkling into flame. As the log slowly took fire, she placed more on top, pushing them down into the hot embers. Sitting back, she sighed. “Now what? I wish I knew how to help Thalon…” She looked up at me.
I shrugged my shoulders. “There’s nothing we can do. And if there was, we wouldn’t know how to begin. He’s likely too far gone by now…even if we knew what to do. He’s barely still alive. Netya…I think…he’ll be gone in the morning.”
“Oh Alasse…” Netya trailed off into silence, and I looked at her. Her face had gone deathly white, and she stood stock still, staring out the small window by the table. Without turning her gaze away from the window, she reached for me, gripping my arm with fingers like a vise. “No. No. Oh, please…No…”
I followed her line of sight. For a few moments I saw nothing but the trees outside the window in the darkness. Their shadows were long and thick, concealing any life. They hid the underbrush from my searching gaze. Then suddenly, I realized what Netya saw. Under the trees far away, one of the shadows moved. It slipped forward, from one tree to the next, coming towards the cabin. I gasped, and froze. Then, moving carefully so as to keep out of sight, I slipped to the window, swinging the inside shutter closed slowly and pushing the latch in place. Then, turning, I stared in horror at Netya. She looked, terrified, back at me.
Moving in the shadows under the trees, I had seen a man, dressed all in black with a dark mask covering his face.