It was the worst night of Leasha’s life.
Freezing cold to the bone, her joints stiff, and her muscles rigid with fear Leasha’s exhausted senses pricked at every distant sound. She heard shadows in the dark, her healing already exhausted her, and her friend lay dying in her arms.
Each sound she heard in the heavy blanket of darkness sent a wave of fear across her. But on she rode, heading ever west with nothing but stars to guide her through a half-remembered landscape. She felt sick knowing that unseen enemies lurked all around.
Suddenly, her stag reared. It nearly threw her as they crashed into an ice-cold river.
She gasped, and the beast shrieked, rearing up as the water-drenched Leasha’s boots.
The shallow breathing of Breanna in her arms reminded her they must keep moving. They couldn’t turn and go back. There was no time to search blindly up and down the river bank for a ford or bridge in the dark.
Leasha tightened her jaw and pushed on.
The reluctant creature circled in the shallows but gave in and plunged into the depths, soaking itself up the neck. Leasha, now waist deep as the huge red deer swam across, could feel the tide pulling against them pulling them along and making each stroke forward that much harder.
But her mount was strong. Together they made it to the far side, and the stag dug its way up the muddy bank. The current had swept them along some distance and Leasha hoped it would make little difference to their journey. After the unexpected dunking, Breanna was colder than ever and her breathing shallow. Leasha had fought so hard to be the one to take her, the one to carry Breanna all the way to the settlement of Midwinter Down, she wanted to keep her safe, bring her back from the brink. But now the thought crossed her mind that her friend would die in her arms.
It made her dizzy; as if she were standing on the peak of a mountain with nothing to stop her plummeting into the abyss beneath her feet.
She shook the idea away. She couldn’t afford to doubt herself now.
Instead, she turned her attention to the sky, searching for the north star. Once she had her bearings, and knew she was continuing west, she felt more confident. More in control.
Leasha was not certain how much of a safe place Midwinter Down would be for her. During the festival it welcomed anyone and everyone from the far reaches of the Edge Islands. But during Harvest? How would they take to an intruder? How would they take to an Elf?
A sudden screech above chilled her to the bone.
She knew there were more than just Dragons in the dark.
There would be herds of oroc; giant two-horned beasts taller than an Elf and with the strength of half a dozen deer.
There were howlers, fast and unforgiving.
There could be Druids, hunting illegally, ready to face a lone rider. If they didn’t know who she was, they might kill her in an instant. But, if were to they recognise her as the Princess, then perhaps her fate would be worse.
‘It was only an owl,’ she told herself.
Or had it been the screech of a Sycorax?
Was one of the taloned creatures following her through the night. There were legends of those creatures, stories of them seeing in the dark, of them swooping down and plucking a ranger from their stag only to tear at the flesh then discard the remains.
The Meadow Dragon had protected them.
But not anymore.
She drove the beast faster and on they rode. Through the night.
Every sound, every shadow, every cry, filled her with a terror that kept her from falling into the sleep that pulled at her eyes and her stomach. The cold burned at her and she clutched Breanna tighter, not only to keep the maiden warm but for the comfort it gave her of having her so close.
“It’s all right,” she whispered to the half-dead Wealderling, “we’ll make it,” she prayed she was right.
Hours passed until she was drunk with exhaustion. Her stag had slowed to a trot and Leasha’s head lolled forward as the sky began to lighten. The first rays of dawn pricked at the horizon and the sheer heavy blackness of night began to lift.
Slowly, the heavy waking of the morning sun put the stars to bed. Leasha and her patient huddled together atop the mount as it wound its way through a low pasture. Sleep had fully claimed her and only a dull fraction of her sharp Elven senses pierced the blanket of unconsciousness.
The morning dew made the long grasses glisten in the still chill of an early harvest dawn. Her beast slowed to barely a walk as distorted shadows emerged, with long-low bellows, though the morning fog.
Snapping awake, Leasha’s eyes widened and she cursed herself.
But it was too late for curses.
They were surrounded.
Thousands of oroc packed tightly together. Sleepily waking up from their own night’s slumber they huddled up against one another for warmth.
In the dark Leasha and her mount had lumbered blindly into the herd. But now the docile creatures were growing irritated.
The larger beasts snorted and grunted as they manoeuvred the smaller spring calves behind them.
A tumultuous sea of bodies moved all around them. Leasha was adrift on a frightened raft in the centre.
Breanna dozed uncomfortably in her arms. Her eyes fluttered, and she moaned now and then, jerking awake as a beast whined, only to fall back into her fevered unconsciousness. Her body was hot and her skin slick, Leasha wasn’t sure how long either of them could go on.
With her back to the rising dawn in the east, the Princess could only push on.
She eased her mount slowly forward, clucking gently but the animal, tired from the ride it wasn’t as brave as it had been when facing the river. It resisted every pull, hissing, stamping, and finally rearing up.
The oroc bulls flared their nostrils, and they pushed the calves back.
“Calm,” Leasha pulled at the reins, her years of riding were no good; her commands were useless to the agitated beast. As the creature reared and barked the bulls pawed at the ground.
The largest of them flared his nostrils.
He was readying a charge.
The stag lowered its head at the pounding of the bulls feet against the ground its own head low.
“No!” Leasha screamed, and the fevered Breanna awoke.
She sat bolt upright in Leasha’s arms. Her hair wet with fever, and her usually deep brown eyes were unfocused and lightened with a strange golden tint.
Leasha gasped as a sound seemed to emit from her body, low, like the rumbling of distant thunder. Yet it was silent.
“Breanna!” Leasha tried to calm her to pull her back down as if she could protect their weak bodies against the onslaught. But as fast as she had awakened Breanna slumped once more in her arms. Still, and silent, her breath released from her chest.
Leasha cried out, a sob rattled through her as she clutched her friend and prepared herself for the onslaught of the charging beast.
But the onslaught never came.
Her charge had calmed.
All around her the oroc, as if a blanket had washed over them reclined into tranquility. And to her amazement, they parted.
Like a river piercing through the landscape a path opened as the beasts pulled themselves to other side. Leasha looked around, there was no one else, no Wizard, no herder, no trained Elf Rangers; no one could have controlled the animals but… Breanna.
She didn’t have time to stop and guess what had happened. She didn’t know how long this miracle would last and she didn’t know how much longer Breanna would last.
She tugged at the reins and pushed her stag onward towards Midwinter, praying that the little of the healing magic she had left in her exhausted body would be enough to help Breanna cling to the last precious ounces of her life.