The sun vanished over the curve of the edge of the earth. The fire grew. Guards laughed, tugging items out of the cart.
Tynged was with me.
Had the bottom been latticed they would have seen me instantly. Had they not all been gathered around the cart, they wouldn’t have seen me run. Had they not set the cart afire, the driver would not be screaming over Yasri’s coughs.
I dashed between pairs of boots, no one noticing over their own greedy amusement. I darted into the woods, pressing myself against a tree whenever a guard wandered near the Heolig to see what the turmoil was over.
I ran into the woods. All guards were distracted, and I had to reach Enoah quickly.
I heard the hiss of the ‘s’. My knees bent as I slid to a stop, turning to face the direction of the sound. Looking haggard and worried was Enoah, sitting partially in a bush.
“You did not come from the South,” Enoah commented.
“No,” I said without explanation. “We must go there now. Alahn might do something…”
“Boy-like,” Enoah agreed. Yasri coughed.
“We have lost a full day of travel,” I said grimly. “We cannot lose any more time. We must distance ourselves in the case that the chaos behind us causes a guard sweep.” Internally, I cursed the guards. I cursed the Heolig, the king, the High King Drim. My father. Everyone who blamed the Outcasts and threw them out.
Hearing the words from someone else’s mouth seemed to make the fear all the more solid. I did not answer, but instead took off at a run.
Enoah came behind me, making more noise than I liked. The small disturbance at the Heolig would not rouse to many guards. I slowed my pace, and we went along much more quietly.
After nearly an hour travel’s south, we were both weary to the bone. Alahn could be in a fairly large radius and never see or hear us. I did not know how much further south the next check point had been. In the dark he would never be found. We were too close to the Heolig to be comfortable apart… the defenses were still thick, the guards generously posted. Finally, I turned to Enoah.
I did not say a word. He read my face, made open to express my feelings by fear and fatigue. He nodded.
We walked further West, not because the guards would truly be further apart but it at least felt so. We chose a medium-sized clump of shrubbery and curled up, side by side, Yasri between us.
What happened on the Heolig seemed to be Tynged, I thought, or perhaps prayed. But if you are truly on our side, should you exist, you will have to help us more. There cannot be a fate with Enoah and Yasri but not Alahn.
I fell asleep to the thought of traveling to the Stronghold without the constant ring of ballads in my ear, sung by a gentle voice from a rugged boy.
* * * * *
Enoah woke me. I had been in a deeper sleep than I had obtained since Bhar had grown harsher.
“We must find Alahn,” Enoah said gently. Yasri was coughing beside me. He gathered her up.
“No,” I said. “Stay here. It must be safe, if we have not been found. I can search for him more efficiently alone.”
Enoah hesitated. He had waited long for us yesterday, and I could tell he was dubious to try it again. But he nodded.
I pulled my hood back over my face and crept silently out of the bushes.
The effects of so many days of fear and little sleep chose to take their toll now. My hands shook, and I labored to keep my eyes open. Every limb felt lifeless. It was near impossible to move at all, much less stealthily. All I wanted to do was continue my slumber. Instead of slyly gliding through the woods, searching for Alahn, I was stumbling forward, dull-eyed and barely awake.
A hand snatched at my arm.
Horrified, I drew an arrow with my free arm, slashing it upward. There was a stifled cry as the arrow made a slicing sound.
“Crest!” Alahn snatched at my other hand, blood dripping from a neat slash in his cheek. “You look like death itself.”
I dropped my arrow, gripped Alahn’s fore-arms. I pressed my fore-head to his. For the first time since Alahn had left me on the other side of the Heolig, I felt secure. Able to function.
Since when had I become so dependent on these Outcasts, rather than them dependent on me?
“Where’s Enoah? Why did you not meet me last night?” Alahn demanded, pulling away.
“My cart was set on fire. The driver lost his credentials, or had gotten away with forged ones till then. I met Enoah first.”
“Where is he?!”
“Further North. Come.” I scooped up my arrow and turned, starting the walk again. I felt less leaden this time, now that I had Alahn and knew where Enoah and Yasri were. We will be four again soon, I told myself.
When had I gone from only trying to prevent unnecessary blood-shed to needing these three to be alive, together, with me?
I’m getting attached, I thought in wonder. Bhar did that. He cursed it ever after.
The man struck her, the blow missing her cheek and instead landing on her throat. She gasped, clutching at it.
“BLOODY INFERNO,” He screamed at her. “I didn’t have anyone. Didn’t care for anyone! ‘Til I met a robin and found you in the woods.”
The girl cowered, watching him with dark eyes.
“I shed blood, my own and others. But then YOU! You came and I didn’t want to kill anyone! What if they cared for someone like I did you?! So I cared for others!” He ranted, kicking aside a chair and hurling a lamp to the floor. It shattered, glass shards flying on the floor. “AND THEN THEY KILLED TREY.”
He kicked savagely at the girl, and she cried out.
“YOU MADE ME FORGET!” He yelled. “YOU MADE ME FORGET THAT EVERYONE. DIES.”
I moved ahead, eyes scanning wearily for guards. We had so far to go today. I could barely move as it was. But wehad to go, and we had go carefully and quickly. Now more than ever. we had to get out. The further we could get from the Heolig the better, and the sooner I could sleep.
“You found him,” Enoah said, sounding almost cheerful. The tone grated on my ears, turning my stomach.
“I found her,” Alahn corrected. “She did give me a lovely welcome gift.” He smiled crookedly, touching his cheek. I glanced at the bloody arrow still in my hand.
“We can’t stop. Not for an instant.” I said colorlessly. Instantly I turned West. We had to go a little South to reach The Stronghold, but I wasn’t going to waste any time getting away from Heolig. And I didn’t want to dwell any longer on how relieved I was that all four of us were together.
We walked. Slowly. Painstakingly slowly. To make a mistake now would be excruciating. No one spoke. No one did anything but put one foot in front of the other, listen for clinking and search for flashes of silvery armor. Nothing else was needed. Nothing else mattered. I even forgot to be afraid. I was too tired. Too worried about other things. The guards were normal. Avoiding them was normal. When had we ever not, it seemed.
Yasri’s coughs grew more insistent. Her fever made her give off enough heat that holding her kept my hands from growing numb, as they usually would.
The light dimmed. We fell asleep instantly in a cradle of bushes.
We woke to clinking hours later.
The guard passed.
We got up stiffly and walked on.
Enoah stumbled. Alahn helped him up. We walked.
I fell asleep while we paused for mere moments at a stream. Alahn woke me and we staggered forward.
No one thought.
Yasri’s coughs faded, as though she hadn’t even the strength for that.
When I heard the creak of a bow, my feeble mind paused. Slowly, I looked at my bow. It was not in my hands.
“Crest?” A voice asked.
“Bhar?” The words stumbled out of my mouth, dull-witted and drunken. I looked up into the tree, a shadow of a crouching human obscured by fierce light behind them. The rays of sunlight swam and I collapsed, unconscious, on the forest floor, my arrows spilling out of the quiver and Alahn stumbling forward in an attempt to catch me.