Darrak did his best to ignore the pangs of hunger ravaging his stomach as his horse, Mistrea, carried him further into the depths of Marlock Forest. He glanced at Andillrian sitting proudly atop Nylorienta and shivered at the thought of what would have become of the members of the small company without her guidance. If it hadn’t been for her impressive skills at concealing their trail, the enemy would have caught them long ago. Darrak still had a difficult time believing she’d managed to lose their pursuers.
Upon reaching the border of the forest at sunset the previous evening, they’d dismounted and led the horses on foot. Andillrian guided them well into the night, making certain they stayed clear of the forest paths. Though they walked for many hours, their progress was slow and tedious. They’d stopped and waited every half hour for Andillrian to cover their tracks, carefully erasing every minute sign of their passing.
Wanting to give Andillrian all the time she needed to perform her duties, Ipzaag had cast a spell over the company, which allowed them to blend into their surroundings. If by some chance the enemy was able to pick out part of their trail, the spell would draw the unwanted attention away from them. By misleading the pursuers into thinking the party had traveled in the direction opposite of where they actually had, the traitors would be hopelessly led away from their quarry.
The small company had continued in this manner until well after midnight when Andillrian, satisfied that the enemy had been unable to pick up their trail, finally allowed them to make camp for the night. There had been little talk as they wearily saw to the horses and ate a cold dinner of hard biscuits and salted pork. Ipzaag insisted on taking first watch, and the others gratefully accepted the offer.
The night had passed without incident. Andillrian woke the others just before dawn the following morning. Despite the fact that there was no sign of their pursuers, she insisted that they continue as they had the previous night. After a quick and unfulfilling breakfast, they once again set off on foot; frequently pausing to allow the young guardswoman to disguise their tracks.
It wasn’t until they stopped for food and water at mid-day that Andillrian felt it was safe for them to continue on horseback. She hadn’t uncovered any signs of their pursuers and felt certain that her and Ipzaag’s combined efforts had been successful in deceiving the enemy. Grateful at the news, and eager to continue their journey in a less tedious manner, the others had hastily finished their meals and prepared to set off once again into the caliginous depths of the forest.
Now, Darrak was rudely lurched from his thoughts as his stomach once again growled in angry protest. He sighed heavily with weariness. The light peeking through the treetops had already begun to fade. An eerie violet mist penetrated the forest floor, engulfing their moving forms in a ghostly cocoon.
Andillrian wouldn’t allow them to make camp until well after dark, and he marveled at her seemingly boundless supply of energy. Even Ipzaag and Anarra were beginning to show signs of their weariness. He prayed they’d all be able to muster the strength needed to continue at Andillrian’s unrelenting pace.
She was doing what was required to see them all safely into the borders of Krémarra. She knew nothing of his ancestry, or the reason he was being hunted, and she hadn’t asked. She’d accepted the situation along with the dangers it presented and swore to protect him with her life.
He and the others owed her more than they’d ever be able to repay. The least he could do was push his weariness aside and manage what was expected of him. Determined not to let his companions down, Darrak raced into the night with newly found vigor.
* * *
Anarra barely noticed Darrak smile at her as he guided Mistrea past her, settling in behind Andillrian. She was still trying to come to terms with the news of Dragonath’s past and had spent the afternoon silently mulling over her and Ipzaag’s conversation from the previous day. Parts of her vision, which had caused the tiny party to flee Mystandia, were now much clearer.
She understood the Térlanán family’s reasoning to keep the knowledge of Haeleena’s survival to themselves. But it was obvious that keeping the secret within their immediate family hadn’t been enough to keep the royal bloodline safe. Mionee knew of Darrak’s heritage. It was the reason she’d repeatedly referred to him as sire and why she’d assigned that man to arrange his capture. The princess was intent on preventing Darrak from accepting his rightful title and reclaiming the throne under the Keera bloodline.
What Anarra still couldn’t figure out was what Mionee intended to do with Darrak. Her vision had showed the princess incessantly questioning the young heir, obviously trying to obtain information. Unfortunately, she couldn’t decipher what Mionee would do once the questioning was complete.
Would she kill Darrak after obtaining the information she sought? Once she discovered he was a Chosen, would she use his talents to her advantage and turn him against the palace? Perhaps she intended to allow Darrak to claim rule of Mystandia while using her power to manipulate him. Then she could dispose of him at any time and claim the throne for herself.
The dozens of questions and scenarios rushing through Anarra’s mind ceased when a campfire materialized only a few paces before her. She gasped at the abruptness of its appearance and was about to bring her horse to a halt when she realized she was experiencing a vision.
With a quick spell, she commanded the stallion to follow the others and turned her attention to the events unfolding before her eyes. She watched intently as she and the others appeared, huddling close to a campfire and eating in total, uncompanionable silence. The campsite was consumed by an aloof stillness save for the rich orange leaves rustling in the wind and the occasional hoot of an owl.
Without warning, the fire died away, leaving only soft orange embers glowing in the night. Sitting noiselessly in the shadows, Ipzaag intently searched the surrounding forest. His body stiffened. He called out to the others as he frantically jumped to his feet. The fifteen guards who had been hunting them barreled into the campsite, their swords drawn.
Completely horrified, Anarra watched while the four members of the company valiantly fought the enemy. Andillrian’s sword cut down the attackers swiftly and effortlessly. Darrak clumsily swung his sword at his foes, focusing mainly on staying alive and healing his companions. Ipzaag’s staff and sword worked diligently at keeping the attackers at bay, and Anarra was stunned to see bursts of fire shoot from the palms of her hands.
Just as Andillrian was about to strike down the last of the enemy, her friends turned in exhausted disbelief as a compilation of shouts and battle cries replaced the screams of the dying men. The small campsite became flooded with total chaos as another wave of men rushed into battle from the east.
Gradually Anarra, Andillrian, and Ipzaag were defeated. The men’s cries of victory filled the air as they carried an injured and unconscious Darrak into the night, and the gruesome scene vanished before her eyes.
Sensing her uneasiness, Anarra’s spotted charcoal and white stallion, Oihane, easily galloped past both Darrak and Ipzaag. The horse almost succeeded in passing Nylorienta before Anarra regained control and coaxed him down to a pace that matched the others’.
Darrak rode up to meet Anarra. “What’s wrong?”
Anarra’s eyes met his. The intensity of her gaze sent chills down Darrak’s back.
“Be on your guard,” she warned before riding to the front of the group and motioning for everyone to stop.
“What is it?” Ipzaag asked once the party was together. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ll be attacked before we can pass the northern borders of the forest,” Anarra hastily explained. “We have more to worry about than the fifteen men Andillrian spotted yesterday. There’ll be another group of about thirty men that will attack us from the east. Darrak is the only one who survives.”
She turned her attention to the young heir sitting uneasily atop Mistrea, tears filling the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry Darrak,” she whispered. “We fail our pledges and promises of your protection. You’re captured.”
“When will they attack?” he asked quietly. “How much time do we have?”
“The attack will come during the night while Ipzaag is on watch. We don’t make camp in a glade or clearing. Instead, we find shelter near the base of some sort of large rock wall or mountain. A tiny trickle of water cascaded down the rock, and there was a small grassy area where the horses could graze.
“The camp was completely surrounded by huge pine trees unlike any I’ve ever seen. The trunks were completely white, yet the needles were a rich golden orange color that practically glowed in the moonlight. The branches were attached high on the trunks, and the long stems drooped low, almost touching the ground. They provided us with excellent coverage and protection from the elements.”
She looked helplessly at the others, letting the image vanish from her mind. “As for how far it is from our current location, I don’t know. I’ve never before ventured this far into Marlock Forest.”
“There’s a mountain chain that lies at the northern border of the forest along with a second group of mountains located further to the east,” Ipzaag explained. “The place you just described is situated at the base of the western mountains.”
“Aye,” Andillrian confirmed. “It’s adjacent to the only path leading through the mountains. If we continue at our current speed, we’ll arrive there by early tomorrow evening.”
Ipzaag nodded. “In order to get to the Dürath River, we’ll be faced with two options. Our first choice is to travel through the valley between the two mountains. This will provide us with a quick journey but no coverage. Alternatively, we can follow the path over the western mountains. There we’ll have excellent protection, but the terrain will greatly hinder our pace.”
“Go through the valley,” Darrak suggested. “We have a far enough lead that we can make it to the river safely. Our enemy will need to stop and rest its horses while we won’t.”
“No,” Andillrian said, shaking her head. “We must go through the mountains. Despite all of the precautions we’ve taken, the enemy is not only able to pick up our trail, but is also able to travel at an alarming speed. We will have a better chance of survival if we have the protection of the mountain to aid us in our fight.”
Ipzaag raised his eyebrows, and his crystal blue eyes could be seen glittering in the moonlight. “I see now why we stopped to make camp. We were obviously unable to agree on which path to travel. We must choose a path now and choose it quickly. If we are indecisive this night, tomorrow will be the last dawn we shall see.”
“The men who attack from the east must be the guards who have been stationed at the Nürai watchtower near the southeastern border of the forest,” Andillrian explained. “Even though they are coming from an entirely different direction, they’re able to coordinate their attack with the smaller group and converge upon us simultaneously.
“These aren’t guardsmen who are relying on their instincts and tracking skills. The two groups are able to correspond with one other over great distances and hunt us with frightening speed and accuracy. I can’t wield méno, but I’d be extremely naïve if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that these men are using it in their hunt. They won’t hesitate to use it against us.
“This battle, wherever it occurs, will be more than a test of strength, skill, and stamina. We are but four against forty-five. Even if the enemy didn’t have the aid of magic, it would be a difficult victory. The fact that Darrak and Anarra have no combat experience only weakens our chance of success. Any advantage we can obtain, no matter how slim, will make the difference between life and death.”
Silence fell over the small company. Everyone sat motionlessly on their horses. No one wanted to be the first to speak. Precious minutes slowly ticked away before Darrak finally broke the deafening silence.
“The valley would be a massacre,” he said softly. “At least the mountains will provide us with some protection.”
“I agree,” said Anarra. “We’ll have better security and may be able to use parts of the terrain to our advantage.”
“The mountains it is then,” Ipzaag said quietly.
“The mountains,” Andillrian agreed with a nod. She turned Nylorienta to the north and disappeared into the violet mist, her companions following close behind.