Chapter Two: The Northern Mountain Pass

I’ve barely reached a semi-state of slumber before an anxious hand shakes me to consciousness.

“My lady! Please, wake up!”

Rubbing my eyes, I sit up from the improvised bed composed of saddle and blanket. Though I don’t mean to, my tongue is snappish, “Surely it cannot be my turn for night-watch yet.”

As I become more aware, I note Lorna’s worried expression and instantly soften my tone. “What’s wrong Lorna? Did something happen to the villagers?”

“No, it’s not that. They’re all asleep. I heard something in the brush…I think it’s the Hornets. They’ve sent scouts to find us!”

 Immediately I start pulling on my boots and tighten my baldric, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. You’re a huntress, you know very well that creatures rustle in the brush just as much as men do. Still, given our situation, it is worth looking into. Is Chalon still sleeping?”

 “Aye my lady, and snoring rather profoundly.”

“Go and wake him then. He and I will go and investigate while you keep post. I’ll get the horses.”

 I stumble forward and call softly for Nightsbane. I can barely make out his dark shape in the equally dark night. He lifts his head, confused as to why I should disturb his rest. My hands find his muscular rump and I slowly glide them over to his neck. Taking hold of his mane, I steer him towards the other two horses. He plods beside me obediently. Chalon’s horse is a pretty bay, known as Glidingair because of her unfathomably smooth gait. She and Lorna’s gelding nicker at Nightsbane’s approach, polite protocol for the small herd’s dominant male. I grope for Glidingair’s mane and apologize for taking both horses captive.

“I hate to do this to you, but duty beckons. We have quite a few people to look after now and rest must be brief. Let us hope that this will all come to nothing.”

One arm around each horse’s neck, I lead them back to the dim campfire where I can see Chalon standing at ready.

“No point saddling and bridling them,” I say as I pass Glidingair over, “I can barely see the ends of my fingers in this dark and time is not our ally.”

“I’ve always preferred bareback anyway,” Chalon responds good-naturedly. Lorna shifts from one foot to the other with apprehension, “Shouldn’t I come with?”

“No. Someone needs to be with the people. If you get too nervous, wake a few of the mothers to stand guard with you. They have bows to arm themselves.”

Chalon and I ungracefully climb onto our horses’ backs. “If we take too long or if things turn sour, Lorna I’m leaving you to take House of Hunters to Herndon. Make sure our people are safe.”

“Yes, Hella.”

Lorna quickly makes a torch for us each to carry, and Chalon and I set out to patrol the perimeter.

About half a mile from camp, Chalon and I are silent, each listening for any signs of our enemy. However, all that is heard is the methodic hoof-steps of the horses. Drowsiness begins to overtake me—I fight to keep my eyes open.

Chalon stifles a yawn and asks, “Are we sure she heard soldiers?”

I sigh, “No, but she was sure she heard something.”

 Suddenly a flash of red leaps out in front of us and disappears as abruptly into the gloom once again. This startles Nightsbane and Glidingair (and me quite frankly), both horses snort and toss their heads. Chalon and I calm the spooked animals and glance at each other with amusement.

 “Well, I’m so glad Lorna woke us up to chase after some fox. Very dangerous, they are, especially to people of our House,” Chalon remarks sardonically.

 I’m about return his sarcasm when the screams start. A sickening feeling hits my stomach as I hear Lorna yell my name in obvious terror. All color drains from my cheeks and Nightsbane is up in a gallop with hardly a second thought.  

When Chalon and I ride into the scene, swords drawn, we immediately engage in battle. It’s House of Hornets alright, but thankfully only a small band of about five or so. Lorna and three mothers are surrounded and lashing at their attackers as best they can. The rest of the villagers have either been slain in the surprise ambush or are fleeing for House of Shadows.

Nightsbane really is glorious. Upon the first soldier we encounter he rears and pummels the man with his front hooves like indomitable thunder. A fatal slash from my blades ensures the man won’t get up again. One of the Hornets seems to recognize me for he shouts, “Blonde hair and black stallion! That’s her!”

He pulls out a horn and puts it to his lips, but one of our archer mothers silences him with her arrow before he gets the chance to alert the others—wherever they may be. The bugle falls alongside its player, but another solider is quick and snags it again. He administers a short blast before I send my swords through his heart.

 With Chalon and I as reinforcements, the rest of the attackers are taken care of. But with that horn’s call, more will be coming soon. I order the archer mothers to go after the villagers, “Don’t stop until you reach House of Shadows. I don’t care how tired or how weak or how slow. Do not stop until you see those gates. Understand?”

            “Yes, Lady Hella.”

I leap off of Nightsbane’s back and start gathering whatever supplies are made known to me in the dark. Looks like I’ll never have Nightsbane’s saddle again, but I do find his bridle and hastily slip it on him. Lorna and Chalon remain frozen, which irritates me greatly.

“What are you doing standing there uselessly!? Let’s go! Get what you can, we have to move fast.”

Chalon wrings his hands, “I think not, my lady.”

I stare at him dumbfounded. Fine time to be insubordinate.

 “Excuse me?” I say icily.

Lorna speaks imploringly, “Please don’t misunderstand. We don’t mean to disobey you…it’s just…I believe we have to follow the Guard’s Creed.”

My confusion at what the hell the Guard’s Creed is does not sit well with my anger.

 “What in Rune’s name are you talking about? What is this Guard’s Creed? I’ve never heard of it.”

 “Of course not, my lady,” Lorna explains patiently. “It’s an oath taken by simple folk—royals need not know its phrases. When one is inducted into the Royal Guardsmen, part of our ceremony is the Guard’s Creed. A lot of it promises to uphold the laws and governance of the House of Hunters, to be loyal and fair and seek justice. One of the last phrases though speaks of protecting the Lord or Lady in charge. It goes such as this, ‘When our House is threatened. When the lordship is in jeopardy, the crown cannot fall. Until there is no one left in the Royal Guard, we shall lay down our lives for the sake of our House. We shall defend until our spirit leaves this realm. This is the will of High King Rune; this is the intent of the Royal Guard.’ The enemy is coming for us. Chalon and I are all that is left of the Royal Guard and you, my lady, are in danger. You must escape. You must take our people to Lord Herndon. Meanwhile, Chalon and I must stay behind and buy you some time. We’ll take on all that Avispa sends us, for the sake of your crown.”

I can tell from the steadiness in her clear light eyes that there’s no arguing with Lorna. I turn to Chalon, hoping to find some way to persuade at least him. But his face is as set as hers.

“It’s what Captain Roan would’ve done,” is all he says.

I clench my fists in volatile rage, though my voice is even and quiet.

“I’m sick to death of people sacrificing themselves for my crown. For honor or glory or whatever else. Damn the crown and what it represents. I am no different from either of you. I am only a person. Do not die for my sake—I am royal by happenstance. I am her Ladyship because of my people, I am nothing without my followers. I spit upon this Guard’s Creed.”

Lorna smiles sadly, “I know you do. Which is why you’ll be the greatest leader our House has ever known. I fervently wish I could’ve served you for longer. But my mind is made up.” 

She calls for her gelding, shy and docile Redtail, and mounts determinedly. Chalon and Lorna then cross one arm over their chests and bow their heads to me for the last time. I suppose other people would’ve felt moved by this act. Instead, I hurl curses and insults at them until my voice is hoarse and they’ve long since vanished from sight. I even try going after them on foot, but the confounded night has shrouded them from me completely.

Others would’ve felt shame afterwards, but that didn’t happen for me either. Not for a long while, anyhow. Unfortunately, the anger I have is one that holds and lingers. Like a relentless winter, it takes a lot for me to thaw again.

Who I’m mad at, I’m not entirely sure. Part of me understands Lorna and Chalon’s position. In fact, as her Ladyship, at my coronation I would’ve taken similar vows of uncompromising loyalty. And yet, I will not forgive them for leaving me behind.

For leaving me here.

Leaving me alone.

Again.

Hatred seeps into my heart. Hatred toward my father and brother. Hatred to those who swore themselves to me. Hatred to High King Rune for letting this happen. But mostly, hatred towards the one who started it all—Lord Avispa.

Nightsbane nudges me and I’m brought back to the present. I feel comfort at the touch of my horse-friend’s soft nose.

“Maybe it’d be better if we died too? It has to be less painful than living this nightmare.”

He then turns his long neck over his shoulder, ears flickering thoughtfully. It’s as if he’s gesturing at something.

I see what he sees. A motionless bundle, about half a yard from us, slowly seeping into the earth. Though the campfire is barely burning, I can tell it’s the corpse of one of my people. One of those Lorna was unable to save. One of those I have failed. I do not know if it is male or female, young or old—I suppose in death, such things are of little consequence.

Nightsbane’s warm brown eyes now stare at me in that curious way animals sometimes do. Not indicating an opinion one way or the other, but still watching me.

I take hold of the bridle, “You’re right. That’ll be something to consider later. Come, our people need us.”

⸭⸭⸭

On horseback, it’s not long until I find the refugees. I whistle to them far before I reach them, ensuring the archers don’t mistakenly shoot us.

One of the women, Kortena, looks at me expectantly, “Where is Lorna and Chalon?”

A shadow crosses my face and I refuse to reply, sending Nightsbane to the head of the group. Kortena doesn’t ask me about them again.

One of the children runs up and holds out a flag with our House’s crest on it.

“Pardon me, Lady Hella,” the young boy squeaks, “but it seems fitting that Nightsbane holds the banner. That way all those in the back can know where you are.”

I smile at him and take flag, weaving it through the horse’s braids. The child was so sincere, I didn’t have the heart to tell him it’ll also alert enemies of our whereabouts.

We trudge onward, taking short rests. I must seem obsessed to my people and perhaps I am. I cannot relax until we get to House of Shadows. Even the rising sun brings little relief. I acknowledge it suspiciously, with the realization that this means we’ll be in plain sight.

To pass the time, I hear the elderly tell stories and fables of the surrounding area. Some I know well; some I’ve never heard before and wonder if they’re making them up on the spot. One teenager asks her grandmother what House of Shadows is like.

“Ah, don’t hold much stock in their name, dearest. They are not a dark people by any means. Why they got their name simply because their castle rests in the heart of a narrow chasm. You see we’re at the top of world at the moment, the Skyward Mountains are the tallest in all of Coldiay. Therefore, that inherently means what is below is the deepest part of our world. And that’s where House of Shadows is. In a little bit the Northern Pass will start to dip downward, a steady downgrade until we’re at the bottom of the mountains. Down there an old river has carved its way into rocks.”

            “Like Mare’s Tail?” the girl interjects.

“Yes. But Mare’s Tail is a great deal younger than Phantom River. She has yet to make much of a canyon. Phantom River, however, is said to be the very first river. Some call it the Eternal River, as if the souls of those passed reside in its waters.”

            “That sounds creepy.”

The old woman chuckles, “Ah, I’d agree with you. Don’t worry, tis only myth. It is as normal a river as our Mare’s Tail. But Phantom River is a right lot calmer and slower. Often House of Shadows’ guardsmen, known as Shadow Knights, sail his currents in long canoes. In the summer the people sail for leisure, and also for good fishing. But what is most unique about Phantom River is that he pools at his end into a great lake. Right there in the canyon! Big pillars of grey rock surround this deep lake, so deep the waters look black. Or perhaps because of the narrow sunlight. Who’s to say? Anyway, on the far beaches of Phantom Lake is House of Shadow’s castle and village. The castle itself isn’t very tall or tower-filled. It’s the canyon that acts as House of Shadows’ fortress, Shadow Knights keeping watch in all of its outcroppings.”

“Are there any trees or grasses there? What do the people do for food, besides fishing?”

“Oh sure, there’s plenty of bushes and such. All along the riverbanks green things grow. At House of Shadows’ village itself is a small forest they hunt in. And of course, the mountains have plenty of trees, though the groves are less dense than our homeland. But House of Shadow’s primary food source is on the Grand Prairie. You see, behind the castle is a tunnel that leads out of the canyon into a wide prairie—the largest grassland in Coldiay. The Grand Prairie is massive and is the natural boundary between House of Shadows and House of Dragons. It takes weeks to travel through that land of rolling hills and savannah. On its edge House of Shadows farms a wide selection of crops. It is partially because of that farmland that House of Hunters and House of Shadows have always been close allies. They often trade seeds, harvests, and agriculture with us in exchange for weapons, pelts, and game.”

“Although,” the old woman says thoughtfully, “I’d say the main reason we’ve always been such good friends with them is because of our mutual understanding of the mountains. Though we live at the top and they at the bottom, we both thrive in the Skyward Mountains.”

“In the past our destinies have been intertwined with theirs…now it seems as though our destinies will be intertwined yet again.”

⸭⸭⸭

It is a little past noon when I hear murmurs and gasps come from behind. I bring Nightsbane to a halt and look backwards to see what all the fuss is about. Towards the back of our train there is some sort of commotion, a large group surrounds something and talk to each other in excited tones.

A middle-aged huntress, known as Heigel, jogs over to me. She bows her head and half-heartedly curtsies.

“Heigel. What on earth is happening back there? Is a fight breaking out? Did Old Man Unroh’s wagon break again?”

She shakes her head, “No, my lady. Nothing like that. It’s umm—” she casts down her eyes awkwardly. “Maybe you’d ought come see for yourself.”

            I frown, “Maybe.”

“Make way for her Ladyship!” Heigel shouts as Nightsbane gently pushes through the throng.

Eventually it becomes apparent why Heigel was reluctant to speak. The people part to reveal a downtrodden sorrel and bay. Rider-less Redtail and Glidingair.

The pair looks awful—tired, hungry, thirsty, and a little frightened. Some of the villagers are silently petting the horses, cooing comfort to reduce the panicked whites in the animals’ eyes.

“They must’ve scented Nightsbane and followed us, my lady. Herds stay together,” a young girl comments solemnly.

“That they do,” I reply.

I knew Chalon and Lorna were probably dead, but seeing their horses is undeniable confirmation of what I feared. The Royal Guards probably dismounted before their last stand, hoping to spare the horses of a grizzly death.

 Several hundred faces gape at me, waiting to hear what else Her Ladyship has to say.

“Care for them then. Water, feed, all that. When they seem ready, make them useful again. Place those who find it difficult to walk on their backs. Have them pull a cart. Whatever. War horses need jobs to do. That’ll be the greatest kindness we can offer them.”

Nightsbane traipses back to the front, and I take a vigil of silence for the rest of the day. There is nothing else to be said.

⸭⸭⸭

A good hunter knows when they are being stalked. Unless we are asleep, we are always aware of our surroundings and can hear, even feel, when something is following us. I’m not the only one to have this feeling. Several of my people note feeling eyes on them, but being unable to decipher what it is.

We all decide, with slight uplift, that it is not a person. It’s some sort of animal. We come to this conclusion because mankind is not as good at melding into the scenery as animals are. It’s not long before a man will make his presence known. That, and it brings with it a heavy musk even the wildest of men could not produce. Whatever this is, it moves almost silently and is clearly adapted to traversing steep edges and rocky slopes.

Our group has come to the curiously open part of the Northern Pass, when the thick forests of our mountains make way for the more desolate expanses of House of Shadows. We haven’t quite reached their boundary, but we are close. To our right the path drops into sheer nothingness, on our left the mountain shoots upward to unclimbable heights.

The pass has become very narrow. We are all nearly in single file, carefully picking our way over boulders and through sharp turns. We have to stop often, helping the elderly, sick, and those with carts through tricky spaces.

Each time we stop, my eyes dart uneasily at the rocks above us—hoping to find a glimpse of our pursuer. My fingers are constantly poised over the bowstring, ready to fire at any given moment.  

Kortena trots Glidingair up to me, “My lady, it’s closer today than it has been. I worry at dusk it might strike…especially at times when we’re practically motionless like this.”

“What would you have me do, Kortena? Abandon those unable to navigate this pass quickly? Sorry that you’re going to be some creature’s dinner, House of Hunters, but her Ladyship finds you much to slow and cumbersome.”

She visibly flinches and I regret my venomous tone. This journey has sapped me of all tact, but that’s no excuse to bark at those just trying to help.

I sigh deeply, “I apologize, Kortena. That wasn’t right of me. I promise I’m usually a lot nicer than I have been this past week. In fact,” I say with a rueful grin, “I can be quite clever with my words. But that cleverness can quickly turn into viciousness. Again, I am sorry. Clearly, your mind was considering some sort of solution. Please tell me what you were thinking, I’d really like to know.”

“It’s alright. You’re a good person, Lady Hella. We all know that…All I was thinking…what I was wondering…is if you’d agree to have me and a couple other huntresses go after this thing. If there’s one thing we can do, it’s fight off predators. We wouldn’t even have to kill it, a couple good arrows where it counts and we’d probably scare it away.”

“How familiar are you with this area, Kortena?”

Puzzled, she replies, “Uh, not very. I have never left House of Hunters’ boundaries before.”

“Precisely. If you and a small band leave our group, what ensures you that you won’t get lost? This land is not our home. We do not know every tree, trail and boulder like they’re old friends here. This is a foreign place, filled with foreign dangers. When encountering things, it’s better to be surrounded by those you do know—your people. So, no. You shall not go after this animal, no matter how close it gets. Leave it for me to take care of.”

“My lady, you’ve proven how strong and devoted you are already. You do not need to keep doing so! Please, let us help. You don’t have to carry that burden alone.”

My tone hardens to one that allows little room for dissent, “I carry the crown alone, Kortena. So too must the burden of it must be mine as well.”

She doesn’t argue further.

 “Yes, Lady Hella.”

I understand Kortena’s misgivings. In truth, I share them with her as well. Part of me seriously considers consenting for her and a few others to go after the animal. Yet, a nagging fear forbids me to do so. I’ve lost too many too recently. I won’t have anyone else slip through my fingers.

 When the bear attacks, I silently curse at how this onslaught still caught us off guard. It was dusk, like Lorena predicted, and it was strategically placed at the moment when we were most vulnerable. At a narrow point in the pass, we had to stop to help one of the villagers with his wagon—it was then that it struck.

Nightsbane noticed it first. His nostrils flared uneasily, and his ears pinned straight back. He swung his head back and forth, trying to pinpoint the location of the threat. I’m about to shout a warning when a blur of dusty brown fury bounds seemingly out of nowhere and waylays Glidingair. The villagers have been taking turns with the two horses, and at this moment a little girl, no more than twelve, with a nasty cough was riding the mare.

            Time freezes briefly.

It’s an ugly, emaciated—but still very powerful—bear. It’s already reached up and swiped at the girl, causing her to lose balance and fall to the earth with a sickening crunch. Glidingair has reared in terror, barely escaping the length of the bear’s claws. It now advances on the girl with a crazed look in its eye.

I don’t quite know how it happens, or how I’m able to do it—but time unfreezes and Nightsbane and I are already between the bear and the girl. From brave Nightsbane’s back, I tear my swords into the bear’s shoulder. He growls and backs a way a little, intelligently considering this new obstacle. I can feel tension rippling through Nightsbane’s body as he struggles with his instinct to flee and his desire to obey. The bear stands upright and lunges for Nightsbane. But before it can sink its teeth into the stallion, my blades slice through its neck—decapitating it.

The ferocious head bounces off the road and into the depths of the mountain’s canyon. The body sinks down into the dust, its previous brutality subdued to eternal stillness. I dismount, swords clanging to the ground, and I dash to the girl. A small gathering has already encircled her, but they back away upon my coming. A woman, whom I guess to be her mother, is cradling the girl’s head in her lap.

With tear-stained eyes she looks up at me, “She would have been devoured whole had it not been for you, ma’am. Thank you.”

The girl’s leg has a deep gash, her arm is bent in an unnatural position, and she’s been knocked unconscious from the fall. I frown and rip a strip of fabric from my own shirt.

            “Don’t thank me yet. Someone pass a canteen please.”

A bottle is handed to me and I quickly soak the cloths in water, wiping away the grit and blood from the girl’s wounds. I wrap the strips around her leg, bandaging them the best I can and trying to ignore how quickly they become seeped in blood. Then I take another strip and place it delicately on her forehead. I glance worriedly at her clearly broken arm. Ripping more cloth, from my cloak this time, I wrap her arm into a makeshift sling.

“She needs an expert’s advice. Advice I, nor any of us, can give. Phantom’s Castle is another ten miles away. Without stopping, we won’t reach there till morning. I don’t think the little girl should wait that long. Now if I took her on Nightsbane, I could get to Shadow’s Castle within three hours or so.”

I take hold of the mother’s hand and squeeze it a little, “Would that be okay with you? Will you entrust your daughter to me?”

She glances down at her still motionless girl. The woman is trembling, but she returns the hand-squeeze.

 “Yes, my lady. You’ve already saved her life once today—there’s no doubt you will do all you can to save her again.”

I look to those around me.

 “I’m going to need some help getting on horseback with the girl. Whatever we do, we have to make sure we keep that arm as still as possible. If it gets jostled or moved in any way—it will cause intense pain.”

The mother kisses her child softly on the crown of her head and allows several tender arms to reach down and lift her up. They follow me back to Nightsbane’s side and wait as I vault onto his back again. As gently as possible, the girl is passed upward and onto the stallion. With one hand I take the reins, the other securely around the girl’s waist. Her limp body props against mine listlessly.

            “Lady Hella.”

It’s Kortena. She’s somehow managed to wrangle Glidingair again, keeping a tight grip of the mare’s mane with her fist. She nods to the young boy who gave me the banner at the beginning of our journey. How long ago that seems…

With as much strength as his little body can summon, he drags my dual swords from where I dropped them and struggles to hold them out to me. His dark grey tunic has turned an unsightly maroon-ish color. He must’ve cleaned my sword with the edge of his own shirt.

 I smile at the gesture and effortlessly grab their hilts. Still keeping hold of the girl, I slide the swords back into the sheath. I silently pray for the bear I had to kill, hoping his next life will be one where he’ll never again feel the desperation of starvation. I also briefly thank Rune for giving me the skill to end the bear’s attack.

I untie the banner from Nightsbane’s braids and lean over to come eye-level with the boy.

“Thank you for your help. In my absence, I’m putting you in charge of making sure our troupe stays together. Until we meet again, you shall be the banner-wielder.”

A serious look spans his expression and he reverently agrees to the task. I straighten and address the villagers.

“Follow the road, and you’ll be at the gates by dawn. I’ll be waiting for you there. Listen to your huntresses,” I motion to Heigel and Kortena, “They are wise and just. If you meet Shadow Knights, show them our banner and say you are House of Hunters—coming in friendship. By then, House of Shadows should be expecting you anyway. I doubt our oldest allies will give you any trouble.”

Scanning the crowd, an unexpected warmth washes over me. I feel torn about leaving them. Seeming to sense this, Kortena steps forward, “We’ll be alright. Though your subjects are not as fearless as you, we are still of hardy and valiant stock. No one in House of Hunters is easily quelled.”

            ⸭⸭⸭

A light rain starts not long after the sun sets.

Like that old woman told in her stories, the pass has now sloped downward as we descend from the mountain tops into a rocky and narrow canyon. Before this moment, Nightsbane had been keeping a steady trot or canter—but because of the steep downgrade he has been reduced to a careful walk. This is probably best anyway; the stallion has really pulled through for me the last several days and deserves a break.

I pat his left flank, “Three miles left to go, my boy…”

I peek down at the girl’s slumped shape, “And not a moment too soon.”

For the most part the girl has stayed unconscious. But there were a few times she awoke and started muttering incoherently. There was also one time where she awoke and promptly vomited all over herself. I did my best to wipe it off with my cloak (forever ruined that poor thing is), but in order to really do a good job I’d have to dismount. If I did that, it would surely be a struggle to get back up again and besides all that, it would take away precious time. So, we ride on. At least the downpour has weakened the smell.

Because of the rain, I remove my cloak and do the best I can to cover the girl with it. Strangely, the stark breeze invigorates me with newfound energy.

To entertain myself, I sing an old Hunter’s hymn. With its familiar lyrics I’m flooded by memories of my father, Hunter’s Castle, and my childhood.

“Oh snowy mountain,

Keep my love close.

Let him roam,

Let him hunt,

Let him be,

But please, bring him home to me.

Oh snowy mountain,

We trust ourselves to you.

Hide us in your forests,

Envelope us in your tundra.

Let us roam,

Let us hunt,

Let us be,

And please, bring us home to thee.”

Being so swept up in the song and days past, I hadn’t noticed that we’ve reached the canyon’s depth. The earth has leveled out and towers of rock cut out the sky above. I can already hear Phantom’s River. We go forward a few more paces, pass a slight bend, and then the river is observed in its full glory. With the recent rain, it’s swelled to greater heights than usual. Even so, a tranquility flows in its waters and I find myself not intimidated by its foreignness. It’s dark and cold down here, no starlight finds this place. Shivers run down my spine, perhaps from this desolate landscape, perhaps from the chilled air. More likely from both.

I’m about to send Nightsbane into a canter again when two Shadow-knights materialize from the brush and stand in the path ahead, swords drawn.

            “State your name.”

“Lady Hella the Pursuing, House of Hunters. This is a wounded villager of mine who needs medicine,” I respond flatly. This is the first time I’ve used my full official title. It feels strange as it leaves my tongue.

The Shadow Knights look confused.

“Lady Hella?” one repeats, “What of Lord Varlion? Or his son, Lyrron?

“And why come to House of Shadows for medicine? Does House of Hunters not have physicians?” adds the other.

“Lord Varlion, my father, and Lyrron the Decisive, my brother, have passed. The House of Hornets besieged our realm. They exterminated all they could. None are left of our Royal Guard. I was able to evacuate the mothers, children, elderly and sick. Such as this little girl. But I had to ride ahead because we were attacked by a starving bear on the Northern Mountain Pass. That is how this girl got injured, that is why we have no one else to aid her. We wish to seek refuge in the castle of our most trusted allies, House of Shadows.”

Though they still don’t seem entirely convinced, they agree to escort me to Lord Herndon. It’s hard to deny the need of the young girl in my arms. Going back briefly for their horses, the Shadow Knights take up a mad gallop and I follow close behind. Though I am completely soaked from the cold rain, I can only feel gratitude as the castle gates near with increasing speed.  

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