Nolan had ordered for searchers to comb the palace grounds. Every path and trail-head was to be traced, every field and pasture that lay beyond. He hoped it possible that for some yet unknown reason that Erinael had been thrown from Dasa and that she was now lying injured. It sickened him to wish for such a thing, but the thought of her being alone on the road and in the wilderness sickened him with worry even more.
When even his own search of the trails known only to himself and Erinael turned up empty, he knew that she had gone. During questioning, the guards at the gates reported nothing out of the ordinary. No travelers bore resemblance to the Princess, and all had left in an orderly fashion.
Nolan pursed his lips at the indication. For all intents and purposes, Erinael had vanished. Determined to find her, Nolan took several detachments and rode from the city.
* * *
The steady clip-clop of Dasa’s hooves was somewhat comforting as Erinael traveled along the road. Her thoughts frequently returned to home and the events that prompted her to leave it.
Erinael had always felt a level of apprehension and fear in her life. She had been the sole survivor of a massacre that not only wiped out entire villages, but saw the most helpless abducted and carried into the Cursed Woods. The epicenter of the Great War and its horrors. That was no insignificant thing and people thought as much. It had spawned much conjecture and suspicion, many believing that someone may be attempting to use the dark magics that had been battled and defeated so long ago. It concerned Erinael greatly to think that she could be remotely connected.
And what of the Lord-King Andraes, who had raised her as his own daughter. And the Prince Nolan. Had he not been the protective and doting elder brother? And the manner to which she had repaid that love and kindness… She had allowed her terrors to get the best of her, to fall into a headlong rush to escape a perceived and false danger.
The Seer. What had been her goals to encourage and aid such a foolish thing?
A desire for answers welled up within her then. She would go home, Erinael decided. She would apologize and explain things to Andraes. He would be sure to press the matter with the Blind-Woman and ascertain her motives.
She drew up on Dasa then, about to turn her around when she realized just how truly dark it had become. She had been so lost in thought that she had allowed Dasa to plod on well into the night.
The bridle jingled as the mare shook her head in apparent exasperation with her mistress. She would have preferred to be in her nice comfortable stall rather than out in the middle of nowhere. Erinael was inclined to agree.
“I’m sorry, girl.” she murmured, patting the horse’s neck before dismounting.
In the dim light of the slivered moon, Erinael led the mare off to the side of the road and under the branches of a nearby tree. It was too dark to try to head back now, so camping for the remainder of the night was the prudent thing to do.
She tethered Dasa to a tree limb and unsaddled her. Saddle and horse blanket then became a makeshift bed as she lay down and willed herself into an uneasy sleep.
* * *
It was a restless sleep that Erinael had, the dream running rampant in her mind. First, there was the fire. Hot and burning, she could feel the choking smoke that stung her eyes and burned her throat.
She wasn’t alone. She could hear coughing and frightened cries as they all sought escape from the flames. And then there came the screaming and the sound of metal against metal.
Erinael burst from one of the buildings, barely ducking a sword strike. It caught cloth against wood before swinging back again. The clang of steel and a voice telling her to run jarring her from her stupor as a hand pushed her toward the woods.
She began to make for the tree-line, knowing that she wasn’t fast enough – the great bulge of her belly slowing her down. It never ceased with its physical and emotional torment. Behind her, the sounds of battle continued, cries of pain and anguish filling the air. Why had the bandits come back?
Erinael then screamed as she was grabbed from behind, struggling against the rough grip that held her. No! Not again! A part of her mind reeled as she was thrown to the ground. She tried to crawl away, but he advanced on her still, one hand clutching a knife. He grinned down at her sinister before two white arrows plunged into his chest in quick succession. His look turned into one of stunned surprise before he slumped to his knees, the arrows protruding from his back when he fell forward. Hands then pulled Erinael to her feet and led her into the woods.
All at once the scene changed. The burning village melted away into what Erinael could only assume was the Cursed Woods. Blood curdling screams pierced the blackness before they eventually fell silent, swallowed up by the aging forest. The plundering hoard would waste no more time.
One by one their captives were hacked to pieces and their babies crudely torn from their wombs. The squalling infants were then carried deeper into the thick, black woods. Erinael followed behind, trying to keep up. She had to see what was to happen.
They only stopped when they broke into a clearing. At its center was the biggest tree to have ever lived. It was bright and vibrant, unlike all of the other trees in the forest that all but oozed with a poisoned sickness. It could only be Igdrasil, the once great dragon who had sealed the barrier all those centuries passed.
A chill overtook Erinael as she watched the bandits look upon the tree with derision before disappearing into a cavern beneath the Great Tree. She felt it to her bones what was about to happen next. They were going to sacrifice the newborns and use their blood to attempt to poison the tree and waken the seals on the barrier.
She had barely been able stomach the screams of the women, but the shrill shrieking of the babies was more than she could bear. Erinael dropper to her knees, sobbing and dry heaving.
* * *
Erinael awoke toward dawn to the concerned expression of her horse, barely inches from her own face. She had vague memories of a frightening dream full of blood and death. She then sat up, wincing as her stiff back and neck complained about her sleeping arrangement.
Dasa whinnied softly, ears pricked forward as she intently watched Erinael. It was almost as if she was asking if they could go home now.
“You silly horse.” Erinael said with a groan as she got to her feet. She then lovingly rubbed the mare’s neck, even as the animal swung her head hard against Erinael’s shoulder.
Erinael pulled on her mane then, reminding her who was boss. The horse only stomped a hoof impatiently as she waited for Erinael to fetch the blanket and saddle.
“Yes, I will get a move on, since you are obviously too good for common grass. The hostlers spoil you with grain and sweet hay.”
Just as she stooped to lift up the saddle, she noticed a stark white stone nestled between the exposed roots of a nearby tree. Her blood ran cold as the white stone then morphed into a skull. She snatched it up from the ground and threw it against the tree, where it promptly turned back into a stone. She then buried her face in Dasa’s mane as she tried to calm herself.
“Excuse me miss, but did the stone do something to offend you?”
Erinael gasped and her face flushed. She had not been expecting anyone to witness her tantrum, and she had certainly not been expecting to meet someone on the road. She looked up in alarm to see who had spoken, and in proper Elvish!
He was a swordsman from the look of him – dusty leather armor and a sizable sword strapped to his waist. His angled face bore a playful smirk as he studied her.
“Oh, ah, no.” Erinael stammered, reaching for her saddle and fumbling with the straps. “Simply a misconception.”
The smirk did not leave his face. “I was hoping to not have to fight a road marker to recover a lady’s honor.”
“Road marker?” Erinael asked, confused. “But it is just a white stone.”
His face broke into a wide grin then. “To the uninitiated, perhaps. But to a seasoned traveler, it is a road marker indicating food and shelter.” He then strode over and replaced the stone to where it had been.
So that was where he had come from, Erinael thought.
He scrutinized her as he stood. “You didn’t know what it was, did you?” The hint of a smile remained.
Erinael flushed again. “No, I did not.” she admitted quietly. I didn’t even see it until a moment ago…
“Well, it was a pleasant night to sleep out in the open.” He stepped over to Dasa, and after offering the mare his hand to sniff, began to rub her neck. Dasa stretched appreciatively, but kept her bearing aloof.
“Yes, it was.” Erinael replied, keeping a wary eye on him as she finished tightening the straps and securing her pack. “I do not wish to be rude, but I must be going.” She then began to lead Dasa onto the road.
He took firm hold of Dasa’s reigns then. “I’m sorry, Princess, but I cannot allow you.”