“You need to mask your worry.” she murmured to him. “And don’t be so stiff. Relax. I’m supposed to be your sister, remember?”
Nolan smiled and patted the arm loosely wrapped around his waist. That was why he and his men wore their helmets. The silvered-steel all but covering their faces and masking emotions.
“She is safe with Tanis and his men.” she continued, keeping her voice low. “They are veterans of the Eastern lands. There is nothing that they cannot handle.”
Nolan wanted to believe that. But what he knew of the Eastern lands made it hard to do so. Even after a thousand years, the eastern lands were overrun with the Necromancer’s handiwork.
The Sorna River was the primary barrier, the fresh and living water working as a deterrent to keep the foul magics from the Western lands. It was there at the river headlands where the Great Tree Igdrasil was said to reside, the river gushing from between its roots.
However, it was from these northern reaches that the Dead were able to cross into the West. The forest land that lay there had since come to be known as the Cursed Forest. And that was the main focus of the Dead Hunter patrols. Except for Tanis and his men. Wanting for a day where the Dead Hunters could rest, he and those who would follow went into the Eastern lands.
But hardened men as they may be, there still escorting Erinael into danger.
They traveled farther east, toward the Sorna river. From there, they would then angle northward toward the Cursed Forest and the tree. At the same time, Nolan and Morena traveled west, toward the Coastal mountains and home. Broga and his men had gone with them while Tanis and his men stayed with Erinael. The man kept close to Erinael as he led his over-sized gelding of glistening black with a long, wavy mane and tail.
Although Tanis had explained to her that they were battle mounts, trained by the horse-masters of the Mountain Clans, both Dead Hunter horses seemed gentle enough. Morena’s gelding especially, who would frequently rest his head on Erinael’s shoulder whenever she would stand near him. But she had nodded in acceptance of his words, even as Morena’s Lorner rested his head on her shoulder. She idly scratched his neck and he snorted in her ear in return.
They made camp on the road at night, lighting no fires. Dead Hunter scouts would appear at various intervals, usually alone, but sometimes in pairs. Most were of their original party, checking in with Tanis as they cycled from the leading edge to the rear of the vanguard.
There was the occasional newcomer, of course. Many of the Dead Hunters were traveling the road and came by to share the news, and still others had been called by Broga to join them. And all of them paid reverence to the Mender and Idriss.
That puzzled Erinael greatly.
Erinael thought that they would have left Idriss at the River clans, but the Mender had insisted that he was to come with them. He was a sworn protector of Erinael’s bloodline, which did help some things to make sense. However, he was still a half-breed of the bloodline of Sartoris. Worthy of respect, yes, but the level that the two were treated suggested something more.
“Something troubles you, Princess?” Tanis asked.
Erinael smiled meekly. “Nothing more than usual.” she said quietly.
“The burden you carry is not a light one by any means.” Tanis said, nodding in understanding. “No, this is something else that bothers you.”
“You and your men treat Idriss and the Mender with such respect as I have never seen shown to Lord-King Andraes.” She sat with her knees pulled up to her chest. “I know that she is of the Bloodline of Sartoris, but even then…” she trailed off.
Tanis smiled. “They exhibit the characteristics of Igdrasil and Seresana.” He said simply.
Tanis only flashed her an enigmatic smile. “In due time.” He stood then. “You should get some sleep. We will be nearing the border of the Cursed Forest tomorrow.”
Erinael paled and a cold shiver went up her spine. Tomorrow. She hadn’t realized that they were that close to the forest so soon.
She got up then and went over to where Idriss and the Mender were. “How is he?” she asked.
The Mender smiled. “Stronger.” she said. “He is beginning to get restless.”
To prove her point, she took Erinael’s hand and folded Idriss’ around it. The calloused fingers spasmed, but held the loose grip on their own. Erinael beamed at the Mender, who grinned back.
Erinael awoke from a light sleep, finding herself to be still holding Idriss’ hand. He was dreaming, his hand tightening its grip as his face twitched and muted sounds gurgled in his throat. On the other side, the Mender seemed to be sleeping deeply.
With her free hand, Erinael reached up and gently touched his brow. Making soft shushing noises to calm him. His eyelids fluttered, but did not open, much to Erinael’s disappointment.
Hearing a rustling noise, she turned to see one of the Dead Hunters melting back into the darkness, only for another to step out. Erinael thought that she recognized him as one of Tanis’ men. Seeing that she was awake, he saluted her before moving to check the rune wards at the perimeter of their camp.