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Shaun’s heart beat wildly in her chest and she found it hard to keep her breathing steady. She could hear the creatures crashing through the woods toward her, their strange high-pitched wheezing getting louder and louder, ever closer. Her palms sweated so profusely that it forced her to grip her sword in both hands, afraid she may otherwise drop it. She did not know what the creatures were or where they came from. She had never heard of such things. Perhaps they were demons summoned by the Mordwellians.
One of the creatures burst through the brush in front of Shaun. She let loose an involuntary scream, but recovered and lashed out at it. When she got a better look at it in front of her, though, she stumbled back in horror at the white, otherworldly glow to its eyes. It bared its teeth at her, all of them tapered into points and covered in a dark substance that looked like blood. The creatures had eaten that man.
Her momentary hesitation was all the creature needed to gain the upper hand. It slammed into her. Shaun rolled and twisted away before it could get a good grip on her. It lunged at her again. She skipped backward and swung out with her sword. The tip of it connected and cut a deep gash in the creature’s neck. Blood spurted from the wound, but it did not slow the creature.
Shaun twisted aside as it dove at her a third time. She delivered a sweeping blow to the back of its leg. The injured leg crumpled under it, but the creature reached out to grab Shaun from where it collapsed. Shaun sidestepped out of its reach.
She quickly decided not to wait around for the creature’s companions and ran off in the direction Thomas went. She soon broke out of the woods into a clearing near the river’s steep edge. She slowed to a walk, unsure where to go next. Shaun glanced around for a sign of which way Thomas, but the moonlight did not reveal any tracks or other clues to her. She walked up a short, rocky incline. Another Mordwellian exploded out of the tree line to her left and tackled her.
Shaun managed to wedge her sword between them before she fell onto her back with the creature on top of her, the flat of her sword pressed against the creature’s throat, holding its head back. Her blade bit into her left hand as she gripped it, trying to keep the creature at bay.
Its white eyes stared blankly down at Shaun and it struggled against her sword, gnashing its teeth angrily. Fingers dug into her ribs, stopped only by her mail shirt. She groaned at the pressure. The creature pressed down harder on her and wheezed out a sound like laughter.
Her injured arm complained about the creature’s weight pressing down on it. Sweat coated her forehead as she tried desperately to hold the creature back and its cold, fetid breath threatened to choke her. Her arms started to shake with exertion. She was going to lose this battle.
WEAKENED by injury and fatigued to the breaking point, Shaun’s arms gave out. Her heart thumped painfully in her chest when the creature came crashing down atop her with a high-pitched squeal of triumph. Shaun cried out and clamped her eyes shut. She twisted her head away, desperate to keep the creature from eating her face first.
But the sensation of it tearing into flesh never came.
Something thumped into the creature. Its body spasmed once and then went limp, its head landing on hers. Shaun gasped and opened her eyes. She could see nothing around its head and the dark blood that ran down onto her face.
Shaun cursed and struggled out from under the body. The creature did not move. The dagger she saw sticking out of the back of its head told her why. Thomas grabbed her, startling her.
“Are you alright?”
Shaun evaded the question, her heart still racing. “Where did you come from?”
Thomas pointed at a place farther up the rocky incline. She could not see what he pointed at and he did not elaborate. He helped her to her feet.
“Follow me before the rest of those creatures find us.”
Shaun did not argue. She followed Thomas to a gap he pointed out in the rocky embankment. He told her a cave sat underneath it. He glanced back at the woods to make sure nothing was trying to sneak up on them and then helped her down into the opening. When she landed below, she did so in near pitch darkness. The moonlight from above was briefly cut off when Thomas followed her down.
Hands from somewhere in the dank darkness grabbed Shaun. She shrank back from them, raising her sword with a shaking hand. Sara whispered her name, and Shaun relaxed. She dropped her sword point again.
“Sara?” she called into the dark.
“Yes. Wait a moment, and your eyes will adjust.”
As Sara said, Shaun’s eyes finally adjusted and she realized it was not pitch black in the cave after all. There was just enough light to see by from the moon above and a dim light on the far side of the small cave. She picked out Sara’s shape beside her and Myra on the far end of the cave. She had what looked like the lightstone from the academy library in her hands. Her handkerchief muted its glow.
The cave’s floor sloped toward a shallow pool of rainwater not far from the cave entrance. A few short stalactites hung from the cave’s ceiling like teeth. A shudder traveled up Shaun’s spine.
“The water should be from last night’s rain, so pretty fresh still, if you’re thirsty,” Thomas told her as he passed her.
Shaun only nodded in response. A sudden wave of dizziness and bone deep fatigue passed over her. She swayed for a moment and then sheathed her sword before she dropped it. Sara laid a hand on her injured arm to steady her. Shaun jerked her arm away as pain stabbed at it.
She mumbled an apology.
“It’s alright. Sit down,” Sara said, worry plain in her tone.
Shaun unbuckled her sword belt and sat down next to the pool of water, setting her sword beside her. Sara got the lightstone from Myra and set it down nearby, then she knelt next to Shaun. She gently took hold of the arm with the ruined bracer, examining it.
“We need to get this off so that I can see how bad it is.”
Her eyes were unreadable to Shaun when their eyes met, but she saw no anger in them now. Something else she did not understand was there, but it gave her a strange sensation inside, a quickening in her chest. Suddenly self-conscious, Shaun dropped her gaze.
“I can do it,” Shaun told her.
She reached for the leather straps, but her hands shook so badly that it became hard for her to get hold of the straps. She took a deep breath and tried to steady them. Sara stopped her.
“Let me. You do not have to do everything.”
Her face set itself in a way that made Shaun think she had somehow angered Sara again. Shaun whispered, “Please don’t be angry.”
Sara’s expression turned to one of surprise. Sara bowed her head and shook it. “I am not. I—.” She paused and then said, “Let us just worry about treating your wounds now.”
When Sara looked at her again, it was with a forced smile. She was hiding something, but Shaun said nothing, too tired to fight anymore.
Sara unbuckled the ruined bracer and eased it away from Shaun’s injured flesh. The removal of the bracer reopened the wound. When the air touched it, pain stabbed through her arm, made all the worse by her fatigue. She sucked in air through her teeth, trying not to cry out. A cold sweat and a sensation like she was going to throw up hit Shaun. Sara said something to her, a worried edge to her voice, but for a moment, she sounded so far away that Shaun could not understand her. She pulled her knees up her chest and rested her forehead on them.
“I’m sorry. I’m alright. Keep going.”
“You are injured and exhausted,” Thomas said, suddenly next to her again. His hand touched her shoulder. “Don’t apologize, and don’t be embarrassed if you need to be sick. My father told me he regularly threw up after battles in his first years of his service.”
Shaun closed her eyes against the throbbing fire in her arm and in her head and said nothing. Sara rinsed the wound with cool water. The coolness felt good against the fire, but then it felt like Sara rubbed the wound with broken glass when she ran her hands over it to clean away the blood and debris. Shaun pressed her forehead hard into her knees and gritted her teeth.
Sara then pressed a cloth to the wound to dry it and bandaged Shaun’s arm. When Shaun felt it was safe for her to raise her head again, she looked at the bandages and saw they were strips of cloth torn from the bottom of Sara’s dress. Thomas helped Shaun stand and walk to the other side of the cave.
Once she had settled on the floor with her back against the cave wall, she asked him, “How did you find this place?”
He chuckled and replied, “I found it when exploring around the river as a boy. I used to come here all the time. It was just lucky we were close by and could hide here from those creatures. We can rest until morning, and no one should find us.”
“You saved me tonight. Thank you.”
“You would do the same for me,” was Thomas’s quiet response. “Rest now.” Thomas left her to attend to Myra again.
Sara settled next to her with wet clothes in hand. Shaun reached up and untied the leather cord binding her hair. It fell loose. She ran her hand through it, pulling dead leaves out of in, and her rested her head against the cave wall. She realized she must look awful to Sara, covered in blood and dirt as she was. She apologized.
“I must look terrifying right now.”
Sara said nothing, but ran her delicate fingertips across Shaun’s forehead and down the side of her face, smoothing away her hair. Sara’s touch felt tender and eased her discomfort. She could see the concern in Sara’s eyes.
She set to cleaning the dirt and blood from Shaun’s face, commenting, “I wish I had my mending kit. The cut above your eye could use a stitch or two, as could the wound on your arm.”
Shaun marveled at the change in Sara. She displayed surprising amounts of strength in the face of such horrors—a strength that Shaun never suspected Sara possessed. She realized that maybe Sara was right. Maybe she did not understand Sara anymore after all.
“You have changed,” Shaun said to Sara when she finished tending to the last of Shaun’s wounds.
Shaun glanced over at Thomas and Myra. Both appeared to be asleep now. She nodded.
“You seem stronger now. When we were little, you always needed me to protect you from something. Muddy frogs at the pond, lightning storms—”
“Bullies like Darcy?” She looked down at her hands.
Shaun frowned. “I never meant to hurt you. Please believe that.”
“I do. I was just so angry, I couldn’t think. I thought you wanted to get back at me for what happened between us.”
“I was angry too.” She sighed. “But I never set out to hurt you.”
Shaun wished this conversation could have happened at a better time, in a better place. Sara took Shaun’s uninjured hand in hers.
“If I could do it over again—”
“I know,” Shaun said.
“I missed you.” Sara smiled at her. A genuine smile. “Jak is nice enough, but he is not you.”
Relief washed over Shaun at those words. “I missed you, too. Darcy is quite insufferable to be around. I have never met a more self-interested person. Except perhaps her father.”
Sara giggled and then frowned. “I hope she made it to safety. I do not wish her harm or capture by Mordwell.”
A shudder passed through her. She resettled herself against the wall next to Shaun and pulled Shaun’s arm around her so that she could put her head against Shaun’s shoulder.
“Why do you think the Mordwellian’s broke the treaty now, after so long? What happened to the House of Mackritae?”
Shaun shook her head. “I do not know.”
The accord between Mordwell and Riverend had never been perfect. They tested its bounds more and more often in the recent years, but for the most part, the treaty kept the peace in the region.
Sara whispered, “Tell me everything will be alright again soon. I know nothing will be the same as it was, but tell me everything will be alright again.”
Shaun told Sara what she wanted to hear, even as she wondered if it would ever be true. No matter how hard she tried, she could not shake her fear that the worst was still to come. For Sara, however, she lied. If only for tonight, Shaun wanted Sara to find some peace.
SOMETHING brushed Shaun’s arm and woke her from a dark dream. She felt an unfamiliar hard surface underneath her. Her eyes shot open, not knowing where she was, and only dim light and shadows greeted her. She shot upright, and her hand searched for a weapon. Her sword was nowhere in reach.
“It’s here. Relax,” a voice said, Thomas’s.
Her eyes started to adjust to the darkness again. Thomas knelt next to her and handed her sword to her. She took it from him and laid it next to her. Her eyes scanned the cave. She rubbed at her eyes. They felt gritty. Slowly, she remembered where they were and how they got there.
Pale daylight streamed down into the cave from the hole above. She located Sara next to Myra, talking with her. Thomas handed her a small flask.
“Where did this come from?”
Thomas smiled slightly. “As I said, I used to come here all the time. I seem to have left this behind the last time I was here. It’s just water in there.”
“Fortuitous,” Shaun said, a wry smile on her lips. She tipped the flask back, drinking deeply to let the cool water soothe her dry throat.
“It tastes fresh.” She handed the flask back.
“I filled it from the river not long ago,” he said.
“You went alone?”
“Not for long,” Thomas assured her. “We needed to know what was waiting for us outside anyhow.”
Shaun frowned. “I should have gone with you.”
“We could not both go. One of us needed to stay here, and you needed the sleep. You were very restless last night,” Thomas replied.
She sighed. It was done now. No sense in arguing about it more. “Even so, you should have awoken me sooner.”
“Exhausted, you do us no good, Sara especially.”
Shaun looked around him at Sara. Myra and Sara still talked alone. Sara seemed to be comforting Myra again. She understood Myra’s sorrow. She did not know what had become of her parents either. She turned her attention back to Thomas.
“What do you make of all that has happened? What were those creatures that chased us? Have you ever heard of such a thing as them?”
Thomas shook his head. “My father was stationed near Ris for a time, near the Golden Peaks. He said he witnessed many strange things, but he never mentioned anything like those creatures. I only know that I hope we encounter no more of them.”
Shaun felt a tremor pass through her, but shook it off. “Perhaps they belong to new rulers of Mordwell, whoever they are.”
“It certainly seems from what that sorcerer said that something has changed in Mordwell. That makes sense. Why go from covert assassinations and abductions, the odd skirmish near an outpost, to laying siege to Riverend? My grandfather told always said that the House of Mackritae were more duplicitous than warlike, despite the Nine Years War. Mordwell’s sorcerers, they say, know no bounds. Perhaps this is their doing.”
Shaun thought about this and then rose to her feet. “We need to get moving. I think we should get across the river, put it between us and anyone that may be following us. Did you find evidence of anyone else?”
Thomas shrugged. “It’s hard to say. I saw nothing by the cave entrance. Other than the body of that creature—I pitched over the embankment. It stank. But no footprints or other evidence of someone sniffing around the cave entrance. I found foot and horse tracks near the river bank, however, so someone was out there searching last night.”
“How fairs Myra’s ankle?”
“She can stand on it, but walking is still difficult.”
Shaun frowned. “That will slow us down, to be sure.” She tied her hair back again.
Shaun wished they were able to secure horses before fleeing the city. Walking to Parna would take twice as long with Myra’s injury. Thomas and she could alternate carrying her, but they would expend energy they might need for fighting.
Thomas read her face. “Horses would have helped.”
“Agreed, but we will make do with walking.”
Shaun put on her sword belt. Sara and Myra fell silent when Shaun and Thomas approached them. Myra’s eyes were red from crying.
“We have to go now,” Shaun said gently.
Myra nodded and Sara helped her to her feet.
“What is our plan?” Sara asked, again sounding unlike the insecure girl Shaun once knew.
“We get to the other side of the river, put it between us and anyone who may be following us. From there, we follow the Kearning’s course as far as we can to Parna. Thomas and I will take turns carrying Myra.”
Myra frowned but nodded.
Thomas jumped up to grab the lip of the cave entrance and pulled himself up and out. When he gave the all-clear gesture to Shaun, she helped Myra up next. One by one they exited the cave. To her surprise, a blue-skied, sunny day greeted her on the surface. It seemed to her like the day should instead be gray and stormy, considering the state of things in Riverend. Sadness touched Shaun when she realized that under ordinary circumstances, she might have spent the day in a park with Sara, enjoying the day. Now, she may never see Riverend’s parks again.
Thomas knelt down so that Myra could climb onto his back. When she was settled, the four of them shuffled down the rocky incline toward the Kearning’s banks.
At the river’s edge, they watched the black waters of the Kearning flow past them, swollen and fast from rains that had lasted several days, just ending two nights ago. Shaun suddenly recognized the flaw in her plan. There was no way Myra could swim in those currents on her own with an injured ankle. They would all need to swim strong against the tide to avoid being swept away. The river’s currents and hidden eddies could challenge even the best of swimmers at this time of year.
Shaun broke the silence after a time. “We cannot cross here.”
“Not with Myra’s injury,” Thomas concurred.
“I am sorry, everyone. I am holding us up.”
“Nonsense,” Sara said. “We can find another place to cross.”
Thomas made a small grunt. “Arch Bridge is downstream. As long as the Mordwellians have not left guards there, we can cross there.”
Shaun nodded. “We’ll have to scout ahead as we go.”
It was another delay, but they had no other choice before them.