by Zentara Shadowsoul
That night we kept going as long as we could, not stopping until fatigue forced us both to do so. I made a quick camp by the side of the road, half-hidden by bushes but not within the trees themselves. There was a murmuring in the branches that seemed unnatural and I felt antagonism toward me rather than the comforting chatter that I’d previously sensed. After an uncooked meal of bread and dried meat I dozed fitfully, my head on Ghost, his warmth and body protecting me. He was as aware as I was that we might not be safe but whether by luck or with the protection of Ekchua we survived the night unscathed. Long before dawn we broke camp and were on our way once more, taking it slowly in the moonlight, speeding up again as soon as the rising sun gave us enough light to see clearly.
After another full days hard riding with only a few short stops for food and rest I was beginning to think that we’d have to spend another night in the forest. Something I didn’t want to do. For some while I’d been convinced that there was someone behind us, although he or she was a fair distance back. But if we halted now I was sure that they would catch us up and that wasn’t something I looked forward to. So we kept going into the evening and it was with relief that I finally spotted the lights of a farm or woodman’s hut huddled amongst the trees. The old road became less overgrown and signs of habitation grew as we neared the river and the small town beyond. Beginning to feel safe, we slowed down. Ghost, I knew, had pushed himself beyond his limits. He was sweating profusely, his gait becoming more and more plodding and I stopped him, easing off his back gently, my legs and back sore and protesting. Together we walked between what became fields until eventually I could see the old stone bridge ahead. A small figure with a lantern walked toward us and for a moment I felt a pang of fear but as he came closer my heart leaped with joy.
“Grunthrin!!!” I exclaimed. “Oh, how wonderful to see you! I was on my way to the Guild Hall to meet up…”
“A relief to see you safe,” he announced breathlessly. “Your doll had warned us something was wrong. We came as quickly as we could.”
“My doll? ”
He nodded. “The dolls are there for a reason, Zentara. They are a link, we said before you left. She knew you were in danger. But come, come. We have rooms for all of us at the Scarlet Tankard. And a place in the stables for Ghost.”
“Who else is with you?”
Grunthrin grinned but refused to say any more, leading me across the bridge and to the inn where a stable lad took charge of Ghost.
“Give him a lot of care and a good meal,” I asked. “He’s ridden hard and deserves a good rest.” I patted Ghost warmly as he neighed happily and the lad nodded. “Will do,” he replied as Grunthrin hefted my saddlebags onto his shoulder.
Satisfied that Ghost would be well looked after I followed the Targ into the back of the inn and down a short passageway past the kitchen. As the aromas of stew and cooked meats poured out of the open doorway I realised how hungry I was, and my legs almost buckled. With a grunt my mentor slipped his arm around me and led me into the main room of the inn, guiding me toward chairs and table by a roaring fire.
“Sit!” he commanded in his gruff voice. “I’ll go get you some food. We’ll talk once you’ve recovered.”
I nodded, too tired to argue, smiling up at the man with gratitude. He harrumphed then waddled to the bar to order stew and bread and ale whilst I looked around the small inn. There was only one other group of people there, all men, locals I guessed, enjoying some ale and gossip. But as I looked toward the stairs I noticed a woman descending, her face and shoulders shrouded by a large woollen shawl. It was only as she turned and walked toward me that I realised who she was and, despite my fatigue, I jumped up to meet her.
“Isolda! Oh, how wonderful! What are you doing here? With Grunthrin?”
She held my hands and kissed my cheek. “Sit back down, girl! Have you ordered that food for her yet, Grunthrin?” she asked as he wandered back to the table.
He nodded, placing three tankards of ale on the table. “On its way shortly,” he declared. “Now, Zentara, sit back down and relax. You’re safe now, and we have plenty of time to hear your news. Drink, eat and then we’ll talk.”