Andra rode her horse slowly through the dark wood. She paused. Listening. Then quietly slid off the creature before tying it to a tree. She would make the rest of the journey on foot.
Nervous of pursuers, she glanced behind before pulling the pack from the saddle and heading off down a faint path through the thickest of the trees.
The ancient temple was an old familiar site to her. Now overgrown where once it had stood proud and alone in a clearing, the undergrowth grew up around it and it took skill to know where to find the entrance. Few knew such a place even existed.
She half expected her old friend Gilde to appear. She would greet her at the entrance, berate her for taking so long and bark orders at her. She smiled as she remembered the old woman and all that she had done for her and Olwen. But she was gone now, like much of the world she had known before.
She reached the threshold and paused. There was no fire inside, it was dark but not too cold and she wondered if she should call out, warn them.
But before she could, there was a bark, a ferocious growl, and then a hound leapt from the darkness toward her.
Taken aback for a second Andra almost drew her sword, but her sense quickly drowned her instinct and she knelt to the dog. He took a moment to recognise her but in a flash he ran to her open hand, circling himself in delight.
“Greetings, Wolf,” she said, “where is your charge?” She fed the dog a scrap of dried meat, and he happily played around her feet as she entered the darkness of the cave. “Don’t be scared,” she called, “you can come out now.”
Her body stilled as she waited, hoping but not knowing she was safe. So many times she had done this same routine, so many hundreds of times so many years ago for a young rogue mage on the run from the Wizard’s council.
But now the world seemed turned on its head.
Perhaps Olwen had searched this place, perhaps she guessed at her plan, perhaps she had discovered Andra’s secret.
But no, the child’s face, dirtied with mud and dust, and made grimmer by the lack of light, appeared from the north chamber.
Andra hurried forward and knelt down to the girl. “You look frozen!” she said, rubbing her little arms, “here,” she took the pack from her shoulder and placed it in the girl’s arms and she hungrily dived on the contents.
Andra let Cara devour what she found, while she lit an oil lamp and looked about. The place was not too messy; the blankets were rumpled, and the jars of food lay empty, although she noted a few leather bottles of water still filled. The child had not gone without for too long.
“Hungry?” Andra asked as the child gnawed at bread and ham. She grinned and nodded eagerly, her mouth too full to do more than groan her assent. Andra sat on the stone floor beside her, “Lots more where that came from,” she said unloading the stolen supplies. The girl looked at them and her eyes widened.
“I stayed exactly where you told me,” she said happily supping down some water with her bread.
“I can see,” Andra replied not able to withhold a smile from her lips, “And Wolf has done a good job guarding the door, hasn’t he?”
“There was a fox,” the girl announced brightly.
“Really, a fox?”
“Yes, and Wolf shouted and shouted and the fox ran away.”
“Oh good work, Wolf,” she patted the dog, and he delighted in the praise, rolling onto his back and exposing his belly. He was only five moons and yet he was growing fast, a fox would have been little bother for him. But it was a relief to know that a fox was all that had troubled the pair when so many soldiers and wild beasts stalked the lands.
“Are we going home soon?” the question was sudden and asked between mouthfuls.
Andra’s smile fell. She was quiet as she petted the dog trying to find the words. She forced a smile and looked at the girl in the oil’s light.
“This is going to have to be our little home for a while, all right?”
The child looked around and breathed out slowly, “and then we’ll go somewhere warm?”
Andra choked on her answer and pulled the little girl into an embrace, placing a mother’s kiss upon her crown. She breathed out hard and slow, trying not to let her emotions stain her words. “I’ll find somewhere with a good hearth and more blankets and more food than either of you can gobble in a lifetime.” She squeezed the girl, and she giggled, then manoeuvred her little body to sit in Andra’s lap where she happily finished her bread and ham before and moving delightedly onto an apple.
“Will Mother Olwen be there?”
Andra thought of Olwen. She thought of how they might have raised a daughter together, how their lives might have played out differently in a different life.
She didn’t have much time. She would have to go back to her. She couldn’t abandon Olwen, not now. Not when Olwen needed her so badly… but Cara could not go back.
Even if she managed to disguise the girl, she couldn’t hide her foot. If Olwen discovered her betrayal… she couldn’t bear to think of it.
“No,” Andra said, “We will stay here a little longer and then go somewhere new, somewhere safe.”
“When?” Cara asked her cold little body warming in Andra’s embrace.
But Andra shook her head searching her mind for answers she couldn’t produce. “Soon.”