I kept running, weaving between the trees. Each step taken with the greatest of care.
Thoughts of Gavia burst inside my mind, fearing for her safety if her companions knew what she had done. Would they kill her? I guessed they would. Although something deep in my heart told me she ruled over them.
After many kilometres raging fires began to roar through my muscles. My legs trembling with the pain, eventually bringing me to a stop. I rested for a few seconds, sucking in the cleanness of the forest air. My chest heaving with each painful breath.
Checking the map, shifting the compass to find north, I set off again. stumbling through the forest once more.
Seconds became minutes, turning to hours, before I reached the edge of the forest. Looking out over open fields.
The sun had dropped behind the mountain to my left, falling toward dusk. I guessed it was no later than six o'clock. Giving me three, maybe four hours of daylight to keep ahead of Gavia's companions. I hoped they would stop searching for me once night fell. If they searched for me at all.
I stepped from the relative safety of the trees, crossing the land with a quickening pace. Faster than a walk yet slower than a jog.
My stiffened muscles ached, badly. My head thumped with the booming of a bass drum hammering inside my mind. The cuts crossing my wrists and ankles still seeped blood. The ropes having scraped deep. Now stinging from the touch of my own sweat.
Thankfully the land remained level, with few pitfalls to snatch at my feet. Each step taking me closer to the next forest in the distance. Where I could hide from wandering eyes.
I glanced back across the land, unable to resist the urge, cautious eyes searching the trees I had ran from. I don’t know what I expected to see. Gavia and her companions, maybe? I still wondered what would become of her if they realised she had helped me escape. Or would they suspect her for doing such a thing?
After a gruelling slog across the land I finally reached the forest. The sun fallen, dusk pushing out what remained of the days light.
I checked the map once more. The distance to Grenack caves too far to reach before dusk. I knew I would have to find safety in the forest I stood in. Somewhere out of sight from those who may be passing, and the nocturnal beasts I knew hunted the forests under the covering darkness of the night.
I headed deeper into the forest. Navigating around the trees, through the undergrowth, climbing over natures obstacles. The canopy high overhead blocked out the falling daylight, sending the forest floor into early night.
Ignoring the tiredness of my aching legs I kept on walking, covering kilometre after kilometre. Fear of capture pushing me on.
The light inside the forest had almost gone. I was soon barely able to see more than a few metres around me, when I stumbled upon the remains of an aged stone building poking from the ground. Thick, green ivy covering most of the crumbling stones. Nature devouring what remained of the structure which once stood proud.
I walked around the stone, avoiding the loose debris scattered at my feet. Almost tripping over what looked like the darkness of an entrance. A metre by metre jagged hole chipped from the rock by tools so long ago. Now loosely covered by bushes, branches and wind-swept debris.
I pushed through the gap, dragging my supplies with me, finding myself in the chilling air of a cavern.
Dragging a torch from my pack I sparked it into life. The rising flames splitting the darkness. Showing me more of my surroundings. Relieved to see I stood in a good sized cavern offering sanctuary until dawn broke.
I quickly settled in for the night. A small fire crackling near the far wall. Food warmed by the flames. A few slices of meat, a palm sized potato, its skin already cracking, and doughy bread.
I poured boiling water over pieces of fruit inside a cup, savouring the fresh aroma lifting all around me.
I did not realise how tired I was until I had finished the meal. My stomach filled, my mind soon struggling to stay awake. A tired numbness having spread through my body.
With my back pushed against the cold rock of the wall, cradling the pistol in my hands, I drifted off into another lonely sleep.
The chilled air inside the cavern dragged me from my restless sleep. Another cold dawn clawing at my skin beneath my thin clothing.
I shuffled closer to the fire, relighting it with trembling fingers. Relishing the growing warmth. I slapped thin slices of meat on heated stones near the flames. Pouring freshly boiled water over fruit inside a cup. Soon enjoying the taste of breakfast. Savouring each mouthful.
Once finished I collected my supplies before heading back out into the forest. The light of the rising dawn pushed through the canopy high overhead. Yet barely able to light up the forest floor. But I had to move on if I wanted to keep ahead of Gavia’s companions. That is if they were following me.
With the compass and map I checked my direction before heading in a Northerly direction through the trees. The rising aromas of the forest drifted back to life, enveloping me with a calming grace. Such a beautiful place which could hold so much danger.
I kept my mind alert. Not wanting to be caught out again. Still angry at my own foolishness for allowing Gavia, and her companions, to capture me with such ease.
After some time, I had no idea how long, I finally came to the edging trees, staring out across open land. According to the map there lay one more forest before Grenack caves.
I stepped out from the trees, heading North at a steady pace. My eyes darted around the fields, watching for movement from either the town to my left or city to my right. Seeing nothing but the soft quivering of the knee-high grass.
No more than a quarter of the way across the land I caught sight of dark shapes heading across the land from the West. Were they Plagiars? Gavia and her companions maybe? Or Gourians? Or were they simply towns-folk passing by?
Who ever they were they were best avoided, at all cost.
I quickened my pace, shifting direction a little. Hoping to head away from those coming toward me. Maybe they had not seen me, as yet? Maybe I could slip out of sight before they did. I hoped so. Yet doubted I could.
Minutes later, nearing half way to the forest, I could see the approaching figures much clearer. Yet still unsure of who they were. Unable to see the clothes they wore.
I counted four figures, each one astride a large muscular horse. The air soon filling with the drum-beat of hooves trotting across the land. An eerie sound floating on the soft breeze, heading directly toward me.
I could see weapons strapped to the saddles. Rifles tucked into leather sheaths. Swords slid into purpose made metal loops dangling from the saddles.
It was not long before the figures were no more than a fifty metres away. A deep dread rushed through my blood. My heart pounding hard, a dull thump pulsating in my ears.
I somehow managed to control the fear bubbling inside me. Desperate to keep my mind clear in order to deal with what I feared was to come. Mere seconds now before I would have to fight of flee. Preferring the latter, fearing the former.
I kept moving, regardless. Faster strides cutting across the land. Each glance to my left seeing the figures getting closer. So close now I could almost read their lips as they chatted with each other.
For a few seconds I wished my brothers were by my side. To help me, to protect me. I even wished Petrus was standing with me. His confidence in such situations would have eased my fears. I knew he could have dealt with who ever rode toward me, one way or another. But I walked alone. I would have to deal with them by myself. But how?
Seconds later the figures were upon me. Slowing their horses to a trot, before stopping.
I looked up at the lead man sitting proud in the saddle. Now desperate to show a confidence I struggled to find. Deep inside I shivered as if snow covered my bare skin.
My mind had already worked out a plan. A plan which I knew would not work, but it was all I had.
I subtly slid my hand behind my back, wrapping my fingers around the handle of the pistol resting in my waist-band. Already having thumbed the safety catch off, giving me a better chance of firing the first shot. Maybe even the second too.
“Good morning,” the lead figure nodded with a smile.
I stared at him, not sure of his motives. “Morning,” I finally found my voice.
I watched him with suspicion, expecting him to grab for his weapon, a pistol, rifle, sword. Even a knife. Yet he simply stared at me.
“Do you need a ride to the City?” he asked.
“City?” I puzzled over his words.
“Dunedinium City,” he laughed, throwing his head back a little. His lips pulling away from chipped, discoloured teeth.
“Yes,” the lead figure smiled, “for the festival.”
It quickly dawned on me what he meant. The city holding the Festival of Profectus and Abundantio, prosperity and wealth. A festival held in most, if not all the cities across the land.
It was a chance for the Custodes and Tourians to show off their grandeur to others in their positions. How they had prospered since the festival the year before.
“Well?” the lead man interrupted my thoughts.
“Thank you for your kind offer,” I smiled as best I could, hoping my trembling lips would not give away the fear building inside me, “but I have an important errand to run first.”
The lead figure smiled, bidding me a good-day before glancing at the others. With a nod of his head all four were soon on the move again. Heading toward Dunedinium City.
I watched them go. Afraid they would realise who I was and come back for me. Yet none turned, taking no notice of me as they disappeared into the distance.
Breathing a sigh of relief I continued walking, heading toward the forest leading to Grenack Caves. A place I hoped would offer sanctuary for my rapidly aching body.
By the time I dragged my thoughts back to what had happened the riders were nothing more than dots of black in the distance.
Fear still rushed through my blood. Relief slowly settling the adrenaline flowing moments before. Even my heart-beat slowed to its normal rhythm. The realisation of how close I had come to being captured pounding my mind.
Then it dawned on me. The festival in Dunedinium city gave me the perfect cover I needed. Anyone I passed would assume I was travelling to or from the festival. But how far could I go before someone saw through this feeble disguise?
I walked on toward the forest separating me from Grenack caves. Glancing back several times toward where the four figures had ridden. The idea of them returning still tapped at my fears. Thankfully, I saw nothing but open land rolling away. The figures no longer seen.
It took what felt like hours before I reached the outer trees of the forest. Pausing at the edging trunks to look back along the path I had walked.
From the height of the sun, still rising, I guessed it to be noon. Giving me ample time to get where I needed to be before darkness fell. With a deep breath I headed into the forest, moving swiftly between the mass of tree-trunks spreading off in all directions.
As I walked my mind filled with thoughts of my struggles over the last few days, evading those wanting to capture me. Captured by those I thought I could trust. Gavia turning out to be someone I knew. A close friend from so long ago.
The face of the Ereptor I had shot in cold-blood pushed to the front of my mind, causing my heart to pound in my chest, so hard I feared it would crack my ribs. Hearing the Ereptor’s pleas for mercy. I showed him none.
Before I knew it, hours passing without notice, I had reached the other end of the forest. Pausing at the edging trees, taking in what lay ahead of me.
The towering rocky side of Grenack mountain stood less than a hundred metres across rugged land. I could see what looked to be an overgrown path cutting through the rock. A path I hoped would take me up to the cave marked on the map.
I stepped from the forest, heading across the short stretch of land. My legs pushed aside the knee-high grass, each step scratching through the aridness of the field.
It took only minutes to reach the foot of the mountain, quickly ascending the overgrown path leading up the rocky side.
The climb seemed to go on forever. Each step stabbing at my struggling legs. Tiredness dragging at my body.
For a moment, with the evening light already greying, I feared I would not find Grenack caves before dusk finally fell. Then I saw it. A flash of black behind patches of green. The mouth of a cave almost hidden from sight.
I made my way toward the blackness, pushing through the leafy bush standing in its way. A smile curved on my lips as I found myself in the cave marked on the map by my brother.
Stepping into the cave, out of sight of anyone who may be passing, I sparked a torch into life. The flames licked through the darkness, lighting up the ten-metre square cave I now stood in.
At the far end of the cave I caught sight of a darker shadow in the wall, an arched gap I quickly made my way toward with cautious steps. My free hand already having dragged the pistol from my waist-band.
I pushed the torch out in from of me as I stepped through the gap. Welcomed by a cave almost three times the size of the first. A good sized cave I knew would keep me through the darkness of the night. Another night I would have to spend alone with my own thoughts. Thoughts I feared.
I soon had a small fire lit. Food warmed. Water boiled, poured over berries inside a cup.
It was then I caught sight of markings carved in the rock of the wall. Markings I recognised. A roughly etched bow crossed by two feathered arrows. A small design I had seen Telestis sketch many times. He told me this would be his crest when he took control of the city.
I grabbed the torch, the flames illuminating the carving. With the softest of touches, terrified I would destroy Telestis's carving, I ran my finger along the lines of the rough work.
Moving the flames of the torch around my eyes fell on a deep indent in the rocky wall near my feet. No more than a third of a metre high.
I crouched down, peering into the indent. Heaving out a black-leather sack somehow squeezed in the narrow gap. My heavy heart, already anticipating what lay inside.
My heart thumped hard as I stared at the bulging sack, knowing my brothers had left it there for me.
I dragged it closer to the fire, struggling to fight back welling tears. With trembling fingers I untied the twine around the cloth, unrolling it on the ground. The contents lit by the dancing flames of the torch now wedged in the ground.
Each item I picked up brought a shock of sadness clawing at my heart. Yet memories brought a trembling smile.
Inside the sack I found a pair of trousers, shirts, a coat, some socks and a pair of scuffed boots. All my belongings. My brothers having raided my wardrobe back home. Or what had been my home.
There were other items in the sack. Several arrows for my bow. A length of rope tied neatly together in a loop. I even found some food. Rice, flour, coffee beans and cheese wrapped in waxed paper.
I picked up one of the shirts, seeing two rolled up papers tucked inside deep pockets. I grabbed for both rolls, unravelling the first, staring at a map similar to the one I already had. Only this one showed the lands North of Grenack Caves in more detail. The green of the forest, the grey of the mountains and the white of the land between.
My eyes were drawn to a forest East of Libertas mountains. Strange red lines curving through the greenery. I had no idea what the lines meant but I knew they were important enough for my brothers to have marked them on the map.
I unrolled the second paper, tears streaking down my dirt encrusted cheeks as I recognised Telestis's artistic hand-writing. My heart breaking with each word I read.
“Dear sis,” it read, “I knew you could do it, I always had faith in you. I know your journey has been a battle but there will be much harder times ahead, even after you make it to the mountains where mother swears freedom awaits.
“Although Grenack Caves is the furthest your brother and I were permitted to travel we are assured that it should take you two, maybe three days to get to Timore forest, (marked on the map in red) where you should find those you seek.”
I could not stop the tears streaking down my cheeks. Each itching blink blurring the words on the paper.
“From here you must show great caution,” I continued reading the letter through tear-blurred eyes, “you must be alert to your surroundings. The forest and open lands around these parts are awash with Ereptors and Gourians. But there are also those you seek too. Your dilemma is to choose those who mean you no harm, those who will not take your life to stop the freedom you seek.”
I could not read any more of the letter. Salted tears stinging my eyes. My heart heavy with deep pain. The weight of a thousand rocks pushing down on my weakened body.
Still clinging to the letter tiredness finally took me. Unable to keep my eyes open any longer. The battles of the last days running through my clouded thoughts until darkness fell upon me. Another night alone. Another night closer to those my mother told me to find. And find them I would, for her sake.
Author Notes: Chapters 11 - 14 of The Lonely Swan #4 - Desolate and Alone
Hope you enjoy the read, and remember, any comments, good or bad, are always appreciated .... but be nice, please