Thursday, March 21, 2019
Connor could see a few stands of tall trees that rose like islands in a sea of sun-dried grasses. Things moved there, in the shadows of the trees. Soon something charged off in haste, bounding through the tall cover, though he could not see clearly.
"Centaur," Erlis warned. "And I have to wonder where he's running and to whom he will report."
Druce stared ahead. "I see a trail just ahead, but it must lead straight to the stand of trees where the Centaur ran. I don't think we want to walk right up to them."
"Not wise," Antisha agreed. She tried to push hair back out of her eyes and snarled when it wouldn't stay back. "The centaurs sometimes go wild if something upsets them. We don't want to walk in uninvited -- and no, Connor, you would not make a difference in this. I've known many at court."
Connor had never met a centaur and wasn't going to argue. He and his companions kept going, and within the hour they found another path, leading into the tall grass that rose up to their waists and higher in places.
"Here looks like a good place to cross," Druce said. "I can't say where this path goes, but at least not straight to a centaur camp."
"What about my friend here?" Connor said with a hand reaching towards his pocket.
The fairy leapt out onto his palm and looked around as he gave a little stretch. Antisha came closer, and the fairy spoke in a quick rush of words and pointed to a taller tree a few feet away. Connor got the idea and limped over to it. The fairy leapt up onto the trunk and scrambled upwards, soon sitting in a clump of leaves and looking content.
"He'll be all right?" Connor asked.
"Yes. His people can find him," Nylia explained with a gentle hand on Connor's shoulder. "And he's strong enough now to get to cover."
"Safer here than with us," Druce added. "Fairies are woodland creatures. There's not much cover out in the grasslands."
Connor took one last look to make sure the fairy was safe, and then he started away. Connor wanted to rest, and if they stood still for too long by the tree, he was going to climb up and sleep as well.
Druce led them into the grass. He glanced back once after a few steps, but he couldn't see the fairy so he had to think the little guy would be safe enough there.
Connor concentrated on the path instead. While this one didn't have as much debris as they had to avoid in the woods, and while it took a relatively straight course, it was still not easy. Ruts were worn into the soil, and burrs attached themselves every time he brushed against the tall grass, clinging to hair, arms, and clothing. There was no relief from the sunlight which beat down on them all through the day.
Connor fought to keep his temper in hand. Druce occasionally cursed softly and then shook his head as though he regretted the outburst. They would have to rest soon; Connor wasn't the only one limping. The sun passed overhead, noon and beyond, but nothing different showed in their westerly direction, though sometimes the path turned a bit south, giving them their only hope of reaching anywhere.
But not today.
The heat and sunlight made his head pound. No -- that was the sound of hooves, and they were coming far too close!
Druce signaled everyone to stop as he looked frantically around, but there was nowhere they could hide that wouldn't leave a clear trail.
"We could split up," Erlis suggested, but then he shook his head. "None of us would get far. Can you see them, Druce?"
Druce, at the front of the line, was looking up over the taller stalks of grass. "I can see shapes. At least a dozen of them."
Nothing more to do except to rest and wait. Connor seriously wanted to sit down, but since none of the others did, he stood his ground, so to speak. He did bow his head and close his eyes. That proved to be unwise. He almost fell asleep on his feet.
Nylia caught him by the arm and gave him a nod of commiseration. She didn't look any happier. He tried to worry about what would happen now. Were they going to fight? Magic would call even more enemies to them.
Could Antisha talk their way out of this? She was trying to look presentable, even daring a few touches of magic. Centaurs were big on show, he remembered. What would they think of the human in the group? Maybe he should hide since he might not be noticed --
He looked around, but there was nowhere to go that wouldn't be noticed. Best, he supposed, just to face this with the rest of them.
There was a bend in the trail not far ahead. Connor hadn't noticed until now, but it kept the new group from sight until they turned --
"Wildlanders," Nylia said, relief in her voice. "Horses."
He hadn't quite believed it until they had neared, and the people dropped down from the horses. The Wildlanders looked almost as stunned to find the group here as Connor, and his companions felt.
"He said we should watch for you in the late summer," someone said and sounded shocked. "He said there would be trouble."
Connor recognized the man. "You were one of the people who brought Liam to Northgate."
"Yes," the man said, nodding emphatically. "And he told us to watch for you. He said that we must get you to safety. I didn't believe him because he couldn't say what was wrong."
"Northgate Keep came under attack," Antisha explained. "It happened at the close of the Testing. Galen and his son brought in trolls. We are not safe company."
"Come. We'll get you to the village."
Thursday, March 14, 2019
The others were more used to traveling in the woods than Connor who hadn't been cognizant of the first few days. He found his nerves frayed by every odd sound. The others appeared to be more resigned to the state of their lives, and Connor did his best to copy their attitudes -- and not to snarl in disgust at dirt and snarled hair.
They made good time pushing through the brush and following along the edges of streams while creatures watched from the woods. Somewhere dangerous enough that they chose a different path for a few hours. As long as the fae did nothing to provoke trouble, neither did the woodland creatures.
And so a pair of nesting griffins let them pass with barely a snarl, and a unicorn looked askance at them, a single bright eye blinking in the cover of leaves, and the tip of his horn glittering with magic. They all gave him a cautious bow, and he snorted once but didn't move.
The fairies helped. They traveled along with the group, and Antisha thought they might have sent word ahead that the refugees were not trouble.
Connor felt better again as sunset neared. The others said they were not far from the grasslands, though that was no place of safety. It was a destination, though. After eight days in the woods, they were finally going to reach somewhere. The sight of the woods had started to feel claustrophobic to Connor, and the fear that he -- not the others -- would trespass where he shouldn't plagued him when he should be resting.
Trouble came at sunset on the eighth day. Connor hadn't heard the sounds of the fairies, but they arrived in a rush, the call of frantic voices startling him. One, he saw, was carried by others, one wing mangled and the other gone.
"What happened?" Connor reached out with his hands and hey deposited the injured fairy into his palms. Connor made no sharp movements.
Antisha listened to the battle of voices and shook her head with a little dismay. "I think it must be Galen or Ordin. The fairy's don't see people the way we do; it's all scent and colors to them. I can't think of anyone else who would have done such a thing to fairies, demanding news about us."
"How far away?" Erlis asked.
"Half a day back. There are several more of them than there are of us, and better supplied." She frowned and looked to the south and home, but shook her head. "We wouldn't have made it that far anyway."
The fairies swarmed up into the air again and began to dart one way or another in frantic haste. The one Connor held lifted his head and then dropped back down, clearly too exhausted and weak even to be carried.
"Shall I keep him? I can put him in my pocket for now."
"Yes, good," Anthisa said and talked to the fairies again. They gave shouts, loud noises for them, and then headed into the woods at a slight angle to where they were going.
"We better keep moving. The fairies were right -- they dare not stay anywhere too long for fear it will attention. They're heading to a spot near the grasslands where an old ogre lives in a cave. If they can lead Galen there, he's going to have his hands full for a while."
"Brave little creatures," Erlis said with a smile. He tore off some cloth from his tunic and helped make a bed for the fairy in the front pocket of Conner's vest. The fairy settled in, looking over the edge as they moved on, and seemed content enough. "It will take a while, but his wings will grow back. I think we're going to have to keep going through the night. You up to it, Connor?"
"I'll go for as long as I can. If I can't keep up, take our friend here and keep moving."
"We will not --"
"Yes, you will. He can't find me. Come back later if you have to, but the rest of you have to stay far enough ahead that he can't sense you. That's the problem, isn't it?"
Antisha sighed. "Yes, it is. We'll see what happens. We aren't slowing yet."
Connor didn't argue. He didn't want to be left behind because some of the creatures of the woods only tolerated him while he was in the company of the fae. He didn't say so, but his friends were not stupid. They'd have thought of it, too.
They rested for only a few moments during the long night. A lone fairy came to tell them the others had followed the false path, but it wouldn't hold them for long, and their anger might well give them strength.
Connor and his friends had to reach the grasslands, though they wouldn't be safe out in the open. At least, though, they would have a chance to see what was coming, and they could make better time, which might help.
They were all exhausted. Connor wasn't the only one stumbling at every step. The sounds grew louder around them, and he feared something was coming --
It was. Sunrise turned grays to greens and a gold ahead of them that made him blink and think the sun was very bright --
The trees had begun to thin. The gold was the grasslands in the distance, beyond a range of scrub brush. Connor stared in silence, still moving forward. No one else said anything either, until they came to a stumbling stop near the edge of the taller trees, the vista still broken by young growth trying to take the edge of the grasslands.
"Here," Antisha said. She stared ahead and then shook her head. "We made it here. Now?"
She appeared almost too shocked to do anything more.
"Keep to the edge until we find a trail," Druce said and started out heading southward along the line of trees.
Thursday, March 07, 2019
"Connor?" Nyla whispered as her fingers tightened on his arm.
"Liam," Connor whispered in return, his voice sounded raspy, and his body ached in every muscle. "We have to get Liam. Leaving him in their hands is far too dangerous. Galen and Ordin could learn anything if Liam breaks."
"He's right," Erlis agreed. "Stupid thing not to consider!"
Connor tried to sit up but fiery pain raced from his hand to shoulder, and his heart began to beat too hard.
Nyla put a hand to his chest. "Easy. We can't race after him at this moment. But I understand, Connor. You're right."
"He said not to forget him," Connor added, appalled that his anger had blinded him to the danger. "He said they couldn't find me because I have no magic."
"Yes, that makes sense," Antisha agreed. He couldn't see her. "I thought you'd survived by chance. We need to get Liam, but we won't have much chance of working against Galen on our own. Our best hope is still the Royal Court."
"Too far," Erlis replied, the words Connor wanted to say, but dared not. "We can't get there in time."
"I hope to find a messenger," Antisha admitted. "My family has ties with the wilds. I might get someone to take word to court. Quietly, and soon, before my parents start to question where I am. Galen will be circumspect until then. He'll become a danger if he thinks he's about to be found out."
"Don't you think he'll expect you to head straight for home?" Nylia asked.
"I don't think we dare do anything else." She stared into the woods -- probably looking towards her home.
"Go slightly east and then south," Druce suggested. "It will add a little distance, but could put Galen off."
"Towards the Centaur lands? Open country and the centaurs aren't always friendly," Nylia pointed out.
"They are no friends of trolls, though. That wins us some cooperation," Druce said and won nods all around. The first light of day revealed more of the woods. The fairies disappeared. "We also have a better chance of finding a wildland tribe in that direction. We need help, Antisha. Running blind is not going to help us."
She gave a reluctant nod and pushed hair back from her face with both hands. Her arms were bruised and burnt in a couple of places, and she winced at the movement. Connor hadn't really thought about what the others suffered.
They were all in this together.
Connor made no complaint when they got back to their feet, though Erlis mumbled things beneath his breath. His usually well-dressed friend scowled as he brushed leaves from his tunic and then gave a sigh of capitulation.
Connor's fever grew worse that afternoon. Druce and Nylia helped him, lifting Connor over anything that blocked the path. Connor thought they talked to him, but he didn't understand the words.
By the next day, he had an even harder time holding on to his thoughts. Pain wracked his body, and he could eat or drink nothing. After that, he was only aware of excruciating pain and long periods when he was not conscious at all. He thought days had passed. He couldn't be sure.
Words blurred as much as colors. After a while, Connor didn't care.
And then he came awake -- just suddenly awake to find Nylia bending close over him, her hands on his aching arm, and magic playing over the wound.
"What --" he said, panicked. "You shouldn't --"
"Be still," Druce ordered. He held tight to Connor's shoulders while the others stood close by, shadowy figures in an odd light. Multiple lights, he thought and frowned.
"I got a lot of it," Nylia said, sitting back on her heels. She wiped a hand across her damp forehead. "Better?"
"Yes," Connor said, though still panicked. "You shouldn't have used any magic! They might track us --"
"We don't think so," Antisha said. "The fairies agreed to make a wall around the two of you, and she used very little magic, all of it kept local. We weren't prepared to lose you, Connor."
The last words stunned him. "I'm not --"
"You're one of us. And you were injured saving me," Antisha said. "You reached in and pulled me out of the wall. If you hadn't, none of the rest of us would have gotten free. You saved us, Connor of Northgate. The least we could do was keep you alive to share the joy of this wondrous adventure."
The others laughed. Connor saw that the lights came from the fairies, packed tightly together on the bushes around them. He thought the little faces looked troubled.
"Thank them for me," he said and managed to sit up. Weaker than he expected, but he was fully here. "And shouldn't we move? Even a concentration of fairies might draw attention."
"Thinking clearly," Nylia said and looked pleased. "And he's right."
She started to stand, but Connor reached out and touched her hand. She looked at him, confused.
"Thank you, Nylia."
"We're friends. We've known each other all our lives. And you didn't slow to try and save us, did you? You could have just left the keep. You already knew that Galen and Ordin couldn't find you, right?"
"Yes, I knew," he said. He felt odd. It never occurred to him to him to leave.
He thought Nylia saw as much in his face. She smiled and patted his hand, and then helped him up. His legs felt weak, but he could walk some distance with little help.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"Nowhere," Erlis said. "Nowhere at all."
"But closer to the grasslands," Antisha added. She sounded as though she had accepted the change of direction somewhere in the days that stretched out behind them and that Connor could not remember. "Closer to somewhere at least. And we've survived. All of us. Galen and Ordin will still face justice at our hands."
That was a goal he understood.
Friday, March 01, 2019
"Galen wants to rule Northgate? Can he take it? Would the Royal Court allow him --" He stopped and frowned. How close are he and his brother?"
Antisha gave a grim smile. "Not so close as they used to be. I was to keep an eye on Ordin, but we didn't expect Galen to arrive. He has made noises about being unhappy about you, though."
"Not a surprise," Connor said and rubbed at his arm. "I've heard it a bit at the Keep, too, you know."
"From whom?" Erlis asked, his voice sharp.
"It hardly matters now."
"Oh, but it might. Someone let the trolls in, you know."
He hadn't considered that part. He knew who to blame, though.
"Damn Liam for not telling us," he snarled.
"I'll reserve my judgment on Liam," Antisha said. "I've read about Seers and know no decision is without peril. Besides, he didn't save himself."
Connor said nothing. The sight of Rendon, dead at his feet, came to him again and Connor couldn't forgive anyone who might have stopped it from happening. Right now Galen, Ordin, and Liam were all the same to him.
"We can hide in the woods," Nylia said. "There's some wild food we can eat, and the power of magic here will be a shield if we don't draw attention by using magic. There are only five of us. It's not like we're trying to hide an army of fae in here."
"The others --" Connor began, then stopped and shook his head. "No, don't tell me now. I'm not in a mental state to handle the news."
"We must concentrate on Lord Northgate," Antisha said. "He was still alive and in the High Tower which meant Liam had to have warned him. Shall you blame Lord Northgate for what happened as well?"
Connor glared at her, and she said no more. He had no idea how to survive in the woods, and he didn't want to be a problem for his companions.
"The Royal Court is our only hope," Antisha said, as though she had been speaking all along. He wondered at the argument she must be having inside her head. "We have to get to my parents because this is worse than just Northgate in danger."
Connor felt a chill but said nothing as they kept moving, farther and farther into the trees.
"Tell me who said those things to you, Connor," Nylia ordered. "It might tie someone to Galen. If there are other survivors, we don't dare let someone through who might turn on us again."
Connor thought back to better days. Everything seemed hazy before the attack; as though that battle had wiped out his entire life. His head ached --
"Careful, Connor," Erlis said. "You don't look well."
"Fever," Nylia said. She shook her head. "We can't do anything to help you, Connor. We don't dare use any magic --"
"I'll be fine," he said. He'd had a fever before as a child, and even the magic had been slow to help him. "I'll survive. Let's just get away from here."
They kept to small trails where deer -- and probably more exotic creatures -- headed into the darker woods. Night came, and tiny lights glowed nearby, providing just enough illumination to show the way.
They moved on and on until even Nylia stumbled and cut her hand on a jagged thorn.
"Rest," Antisha said, her words barely a whisper and dull with fatigue.
Druce started to argue and changed his mind. They had found a small opening between trees, so close that none of them could have stretched out entirely. Connor didn't care. He sat down and leaned against a tree by Erlis, his shoulders aching as much as his legs. His eyes wanted to shut --
Movement caught his attention. The others saw too as something small and bright swept through their little area.
"Let them be," Antisha whispered. "Fairies are just curious. Go on, little ones. Let us rest."
Something buzzed around his head, and Connor almost made a swipe at it but held still. The fairy darted in front of his face, so close and fast that he only saw a trail of blue and purple. He closed his eyes and sat still.
"On your way friends. We mean you no harm," Antisha order though her voice remained soft. She had probably dealt with some of the wildland creatures, being the daughter of the king and queen. He left her to the business of the fairies and closed his eyes for a while.
Opened them later to find a crowd of fairies, maybe a hundred or more, sitting like glowing flowers on the branches of trees and bushes around them. Perhaps they worked as guards. He was still too tired to care. A shift of his shoulders brought more pain than he expected, and he held his breath, trying to fight it away. After a short while, fever and exhaustion overcame even the pain, and he drifted back into a restless sleep once again.
The nightmares came this time, both ones he expected and ones that took him by surprise. He saw the trolls; the vast, monstrous beasts that had killed his parents. He looked for the deadly needles, there in the trampled memories that surged up through his mind. None? He wondered what that meant this time.
The bones of his parents moved, became shapes that he didn't know and couldn't face.
"Connor," a voice whispered. "Connor --"
He didn't want to look and see. He tried to leave the tomb, but the doors were swinging shut.
And there, for a moment, he saw Liam's anguished face.
"Don't forget me."
He came awake with a gasp, Erlis with a hand on his shoulder and looking worried. Nylia knelt close by, some berries in her hand that she held out. Her face showed worry and fear that he had not expected to see there, not focused on him. They had other troubles.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
They ran, for hours, it seemed, but surely the woods were not so far away. Erlis stopped long enough to use magic to partially heal Connor's arm, at least enough to stop the bleeding.
"Rendon is dead," Connor said softly.
Erlis looked down at the ground. "I know. I saw him fall as we tried to batter back the trolls."
Erlis looked at him, his eyes narrowing, a flash of anger there that Connor felt an echo too. A moment later Erlis shook his head. "There's too much I don't understand. Lord Northgate was already to the High Tower. He had to know, too. I'm not going to make judgments yet."
Connor said nothing more, using his own anger as a shield against physical pain and mental rage. He could hold on to resentment, but he couldn't keep to his feet. Weakness swept over him, and he went to his knees, pulling Antisha with him. They were barely into the woods.
"Go," he whispered.
"No." She pulled him back up. "Don't fight me. We have to get into the trees where Galen can't easily feel us amongst all the other magic."
He'd heard that the woods were filled with incredible creatures of magic; griffins, unicorns, fairies, and even dragons in the far mountains. The fae left such places to them.
Maybe not where they should go --
No choice. Erlis took hold of his other arm --
Everything went dark for a while. Just dark and blessedly empty of pain, memories, anger, and despair. Part of him hoped not to come back.
He awoke hours later. Light streamed through tall trees, casting shadows around the little spot where they all rested. Mid-day, he thought and stayed still, trying to fight back all the emotions that battered at his aching head. He didn't want to remember. His breath caught in a little gasp as he moved his arm --
"Awake this time?" Druce asked softly, sitting beside him. The others might be sleeping, or at least resting somewhat.
"Yes," Connor whispered. He forced himself to sit up and ran a hand through his hair, trying to push it out of his eyes. "How far are we?"
"Not far enough," Druce replied, looking out into the woods. "But then I don't think we could ever get far enough."
Connor understood the feeling. His arm ached -- he concentrated on that rather than thinking about what they'd left behind -- the horror he had ignored, along with the loss and the betrayal.
The others began to sit up a few minutes later, all of them too worried to stay here much longer. They knew of a pond nearby and had not stayed there because they all feared it was too easy for someone to use magic to look at such a place. The water tasted cool and helped to ease his headache. No one said much, though. He could see the worry in their eyes that verged on panic.
"Can we keep going into the woods?" he asked at last.
"I can't think of anywhere else we can go," Druce admitted with a quick glance around them. "We have some cover here, at least, both physical from the trees and magical as well. He won't be able to track us once we're well into the woods. We've rested as much as we dare."
No one argued.
"We don't dare use any magic," Antisha added. She stared to the south, as though she saw some path through the dense trees. "Even when the rest of the magical beings are around us, we don't dare. And there's a problem. Not all of them are friendly and safe for the fae."
"Good point," Druce said. "We'll have to deal with that when it happens."
No one argued though Connor thought that might be more from shock than agreement. At least Druce and Antisha were thinking clearly. They started out with the others falling in around them and heading in the direction where Antisha had been staring. Neither said anything, so Connor assumed they had already discussed the situation and knew where they were going.
He didn't ask. He didn't care.
They hadn't gone far before Erlis, keeping close to him, shook his head and said. "It's a long way, you know. So many dangers -- and who knows what we'll find?"
"Where are we going?" Connor asked.
"We're going to the Royal Court."
Connor nodded. He wasn't sure it was the best place to go -- so far away they could take months traveling to get there. He feared they didn't have that much time.
Every sound startled the others, and more so for Connor who had never been this far from Northgate Keep in his life. He'd traveled very little into the woods with Lord Northgate when he was younger. Unfortunately, there had been trouble.
"I may be a problem," he said aloud.
Druce looked at him with a frown, but it was Antisha who shook her head. "You came and pulled me out of the wall. If you hadn't, I couldn't have used my magic to help the others."
"Lord Northgate stopped bringing me anywhere near the woods because some of the creatures were interested in me, a human, in a place were my kind never should have gone."
"Doesn't matter," Druce said. "You are with us. And quite honestly, we're most likely all a problem. We don't know, for instance, if Galen and that slinky son of his have allies here."
"I'd find that hard to believe," Antisha replied and never slowed. "The woodland beings aren't apt to take sides. They may not be allied with Galen, but they'll be no help for us, either."
"What does Galen want?" Connor asked.
Antisha dropped back to walk beside him, on the side opposite of Erlis.
"I can guess at what Galen is doing, but I can't say for certain. If I knew he was allied with other Gate Lords, it might be clearer."