We began again. I wished I had a sleeping draught for Yasri. The fear that she might choose to fuss pressed deeply in my chest. I also wished I had expertise on medicine… her cough had not dissipated even after the smoke had.
Alahn grew reserved, never singing, even in a whisper. Enoah seemed to grow a grey pallor, although he acted as calm as ever. Even Yasri squirmed more, sensing our discomfort.
I walked far ahead of the others, just close enough that they could see me. I had to scout out possible guards.
We passed three more guards that day. After the fourth had passed, I bit my lip.
“There should not be this many this far from the Heolig,” I muttered. “Not unless we are closer than I thought.”
“Perhaps our timing is just lucky,” Alahn suggested, in such a way that by lucky meant very much the opposite.
“Do not tempt Tynged,” Enoah warned. “Fate is not to be trifled with. Particularly not in her domain.”
“The Sycamores care not for jinxes, old man,” I whispered. “Come. Quickly.” There was always the fear that we might be near the end of a guard’s pacing route and he might turn quickly.
What to do for the night was a problem.
When I had made this journey on my own, traveling the Heolig took three days at a near run the full expedition. Each rest was a distance enough from the Heolig that I was not near a guard camp. I could climb a tree and rest in a high limb.
But Alahn and Enoah could not climb the trees, much less sleep in them, even if I took Yasri myself. To prove a place fit for sleep on the ground you would have to watch it for near an hour to completely ensure it was not on a guard’s pacing route.
Having to kill a guard once on your destination’s side of the Heolig was no great loss… you could run quickly and the guards would not venture too deeply in the Sycamores. But while still on your side would be disastrous. Word spread quickly near the Heolig. Every guard in that district would be hunting for you. You would be executed as a Rebellious Outcast, unworthy of your second chance at life. Or if you could outrun the guards you would not be able to take that path for many days. Another setback would be infuriating. And I wanted to reach a stronghold for Yasri’s cough soon.
I reached a thickly wooded area. The brush had to be very nearly climbed, and the foliage was dense. The guards, deluded by old wive’s tales of the Tylwyth Teg, avoided the abundantly verdant areas. I waded in, then motioned for the others to follow. For a while we stayed, breath bated for the sound of a guard. But none passed and we burrowed into the vegetation.
It was not my most comfortable night. A root dug into my calf like a cramp, and grass and twigs prickled at every bare inch of skin. I pulled my cowl far over my face, pitying Enoah and Alahn. I longed for the cold air pressing at my every side, save where I curled against a tree. I did not want to be here, pressed close to other foul-smelling humans and with brush pressing in at every side. But it was far better than the alternative of a puncture wound and facing execution.
After far too long, I slipped into dreams.
“You’re going to go fast. Wicked fast, you hear? But quiet. Don’t let a guard hear you, at least till you’re far enough on the other side,” The man whispered as the two made their way through the woods. The girl no longer had a quick smile, and the once bright eyes were hidden beneath a green hood. “Don’t kill anyone ‘til you’ve made it a fair ways in. Undetected is the best way. You want to avoid sleeping as much as possible. Good way to get snuck up on. Watch for near an hour to make sure you’re not on a pacing route.”
The girl nodded, a lock of dark hair spilling out of the cowl.
The man turned, placing a hand on both of the girl’s shoulders. “I haven’t been to you what I should have been,” he said. It was the first twinge of remorse the girl had heard in nearly six years. “But I don’t regret it because I can’t. Blood will water the Sycamores. May what I’ve taught you keep it from being your own.”
The girl looked into the man’s eyes. What little remorse he had deepened when he saw the stones they had become. Coldness. What have I made? He wondered. What have I made of the girl I saved?
“It will not be my own,” She said ominously. Then she vanished into the Sycamores.
I woke to a clink.
Tynged, no, I thought. They shifted pacing routes overnight.
I heard the sliding of metal plates against metal rings. A ripple of a silken sash. Footsteps, heavy in the grass.
My eyes snapped open. I didn’t dare move otherwise. When I hunted, it was the motion of the animal that attracted my eye, not the animal itself.
There was a stillness for a moment, and then the man revolved and walked past once more. As he went North, towards the city, I saw the glint of his armor. When he had passed, I let out a small breath that caused the leaves before me to stir. Behind me I heard to other mouths do the same.
Flushing, I realized I had likely been the last to wake. With gritted teeth, I stood.
“We must go quickly,” I said, voice slurred with sleep. “This area will be clear for a bit longer.”
I put on my quiver and bow as Alahn and Enoah gathered their few things. Once Yasri was safely within Alahn’s arms, I moved quickly ahead.
We had panic in our steps. Our eyes and ears directed us towards sights and sounds that were not there, and we paused more often than the day before. We passed fewer guards to be near the Heolig, but the fear was nearly tangible. It was evident in the way that Enoah’s hands and arms shook whenever we paused, and the way that Alahn grew a habit of pressing Yasri so close to his chest when he thought he saw or heard something that she would give a whimper.
“Crest,” Enoah asked, a shaking hand on my shoulder. “What are the chances that we could fool them into thinking we were merchants?”
His fear was so compelling that he found even the most ludicrous ideas convincing.
“None, I’m afraid,” I said, sympathy twisting my tongue to kindness. “We look and smell like Outcasts. To be so far from the Heolig is suspicious, and to even be on the Heolig you must have a permit from the King.”
Enoah bowed his head, in disappointment, perhaps, or humiliation.
Alahn placed a free hand on Enoah’s in compassion.
And we moved forward.
The second night was even less comfortable. The forest was thinning, and there were no thick patches of vegetation to hide in. Instead, we all crouched near a few bushes.
“I’m glad you have us used to sleeping in turns, Crest,” Alahn whispered softly. “Or else one of us might fall asleep at the worst time tonight.”
I pressed a hand to his. A gesture I had never used, but it felt right. Encouragement, I suppose, for a time of all-consuming dread.
No one slept that night.
There were no interruptions, no awaking in the morning. Only an agreement that we had tried too long to sleep. Again we rose and persisted in the long walk.
That day we spotted many guards. We were pure tension. Many times I looked at Enoah and Alahn, while we waited for a guard to pass, and watched them close their eyes and simply pray for deliverance.
This cannot be my fate, I thought every time I spotted the silvery armor. It is not my tynged to water the Sycamores, to die at the hands of these up-right fish beasts. To die for these three Outcasts was never a tynged Bhar had groomed me for.
To add to the already taut situation, Yasri was growing ill. Her coughing grew worse, much to our constant alarm, and she had gained a fever as moreover. Her pale skin grew red and her eyes dim.
“When we reach the Stronghold,” I whispered. “They cannot refuse a sick infant. They have healers.” Enoah took this to heart and refused to be afraid any longer.
“Bidio Mai Tynged yn digwydd,” He would whisper. May Fate’s bidding happen.
I would then scowl at him. “If Tynged’s bidding be that we should die, then Tynged-“ Alahn put a hand on my shoulder before I gave one of Bhar’s lewd suggestions as to what Tynged could do.
On we moved. Forever into the thinning trees, past the Heolig’s defenses. There were more sentinels than I recalled, larger camps than I had believed for us to bypass. We almost became numbed to the constant fear. Enoah no longer noticed his shaking, and Alahn commented that the feeling of the dread in the pit of his stomach was almost deadened. We were desensitized to fear of guards, if not used to it. With a guard almost always in sight one had to dampen the panic.
Our fear for Yasri, however, strengthened. Over the next two days her coughing grew worse. Her fever rose steadily.
Perhaps Enoah refused to allow himself to fear Tynged’s will, but Alahn and I were apprehensive of the worse.
Finally, we reached the Heolig.
The sentries were far closer than deep in the woods. In this section of the journey across, you needed a little hap, a little luck.
“When a large cart comes past,” I whispered. “Run out into the road. I’ll show you how. Duck under the cart and wait there, hidden between the middle wheels. You must be strong, Enoah. Grasp onto the bottom and let it carry you a ways till the next check point. Even if the guards here thought they saw something, they could not inform the next check-point in time to do something that quickly. It would give you precious time for when you are not certain if you’ll need it. When the guard in charge is focused on checking credentials, run out. Be certain both guards on the other side are walking away from one another.”
“I cannot hold on that long,” Enoah said calmly.
I gritted my teeth.
“Then here. We’ll wait until the timing is right and I’ll send you first. Duck behind the cart, then keep going to the other side. Walk a ways into the woods. Alahn will go next, then me. Then stay where you are, but avoid the guards. I’ll come further North and collect both of you.”
“Who should take Yasri?” Alahn asked.
“Me,” I said instantly. “I’ve done this before, and she can wrap up in my cowl. And I have weaponry.”
“I feel like I did once in the city,” Alahn said. “I had to put on a skit with my sisters. I had stage fright… I could hardly move when it was my cue.”
I did not understand how speaking pre-prepared lines compared to running for your life, but Enoah nodded in understanding.
Enoah’s chance came soon.
“Go,” I hissed, giving an shove on his back. Bent over, he darted up the bank onto the road, ducked behind the cart for a split moment, then went on to the other side. He quickly vanished into the woods.
Alahn and I let out breaths we did not know we had been holding.
“You’ve grown to care for us,” Alahn remarked.
I did not acknowledge the comment.
Alahn’s turn came quickly as well. He ran up the bank and rolled under the cart. When it trundled off, Alahn was no longer lying on the ground.
Yasri and I were alone.
After checking for sentinels, I looked down into her red little face.
“Be strong, Yasri,” I whispered. “The Healers will know what to do with you.” She gave a few weak coughs in reply.
My cart was very slow in coming. I grew anxious. How long would Alahn or Enoah wait for me before presuming me dead or detained? And if one of us set off the guards, they would do a sweep of the entire surrounding area for any more Outcasts. The more my mind whirled about the thoughts, the more frightened I became. So much could go wrong with such ease.
“If you are there, Tynged,” I whispered, my face pressed against the trunk of a Sycamore as I crouched, eyes on the dimming road. “May your will coincide with ours. I doubt one can win fate’s favor, and if one could it would not be me, but perhaps you could tweak a few destinies for us.”
I instantly felt foolish for speaking to Tynged. Impractical. Useless. Everything Bhar had taught against.
“Tynged?” Bhar sneered. “You believe in a Fate? A she-deity? Then you are as foolish as the Elites from whence you came, girl.”
“But Jattar believes in Tynged.“
“Jattar is an idiot,” Bhar said firmly. “I have no use for things that are not practical. Tynged is as foolish a tale as the Tylwyth Teg.”
A cart’s six wheels rumbled over the Heolig as the sun began to set.
“Here is our time, Yasri,” I whispered. The guards turned away from one another and marched into their own directions. I ran onto the Heolig and rolled under the cart.
But this cart did not have six wheels.
Nor was its underbelly a lattice of wood-work. It had four wheels, and thick boards made up the bottom with only a bare axle rotating between the two wheels left. There was nothing to grasp onto. I rolled my head to the side. Two guards were walking back towards one another. How many seconds before they would meet, turn again and be far enough away that they would not hear me? I laid flat beneath the cart, chest heaving.
Yasri gave a pathetic cough.
The guard got in an argument with the driver.
Tynged, no! My eyes flew wide. They would attract every guard near.
Indeed, the guards behind the cart ran from their posts up to assist the guard interrogating the driver. They surrounded the cart, crossbows and pikes drawn.
I closed my eyes. Stay silent, Yasri!
The driver screamed.
I smelled smoke.
They had set the cart alight.