* * *
As night falls, the road grows narrower, and with no moon or stars shining above us, it soon becomes difficult to see. Blackthorn commands the party to stop. The men climb from their horses and unpack small lanterns from the saddle bags. The lanterns shine with a yellowish light similar to the glowing rocks from the cave. They hook the lanterns to the front of their horses’ harnesses like single headlights and we set off again—Blackthorn and I in the lead, the others in single file behind us. The night is still and silent except for the gentle clop of our horses’ hooves.
After a mile or so Blackthorn pulls up on Tenasi’s reins and holds up a hand, bringing the others to halt. He listens for a moment and climbs down from the horse.
“Stay where you are,” he says to me, unhooking the lantern. He disappears up the trail.
After about ten minutes he returns, silently signaling his men to join him on the ground. They form a huddle.
I don’t know what in the hell is going on here, but no one is paying any attention to me, so I consider my chances of escape. There’s no way I can ride off on this horse by myself, but if I can slip off his back without killing myself, I may be able to sneak away in the darkness. I glance over my shoulder, but that Ralston guy is staring straight at me, so I decide to stay put… for now.
I strain to hear what Blackthorn is saying. “A group of a dozen or so patrols has stopped to rest ahead,” he tells his men quietly. “I see no way to avoid them. We will have to render them ineffective. Catherine, you remain with Jaden. The rest of you, come with me.”
Catherine clutches Blackthorn’s arm. “I will not stay behind with her. I am part of this mission. I came for the sake of my country. Tell Ralston to remain with her. I do not understand why you allowed him to come along anyway. He is a teacher not a warrior, and he’s not even Unicoi.”
“Must you always be so obstinate?” Blackthorn says.
“Only when combat is involved.” She grins.
“Very well.” He turns to find Ralston. “Will you please remain with the Princess, Professor? We shall return soon.”
The warriors quietly thread their way into the trees, and Ralston silently motions for me to climb down from the horse. I fall on my butt clambering off the overgrown beast, and Ralston frowns at all the noise I’m making.
“Shhh,” he says, pulling the saddle bags from the back of his horse and slinging them across his shoulders. He takes my arm and leads me off the trail a few yards to the edge of a large meadow.
“Once the fighting has begun, run straight for that herd of animals on the other side of this field,” he whispers, pointing across the clearing. I can barely see the outline of the herd.
“The animals and the darkness will provide cover for us. I know of a cave in that rocky hill just behind the herd. We will be safe there until I can transport you home.”
“Okay. But what is Blackthorn doing? Are they just going to kill all those men?”
“Of course not. They’re not savages. They’re going to disarm them and take their horses so they can’t follow. The whole thing will take a matter of minutes. The Unicoi warriors are larger and considerably better skilled than the Royal Guard, so we must hurry.”
“Shhh.” He shakes his head. “Wait for my signal.”
I don’t know this guy from Adam, but I’m guessing I’ll have an easier time escaping from him than from the others, so I decide to go along with his plan. I mean, how dangerous can a guy be who brews his own chamomile tea?
A blood-curdling battle whoop cuts through the night from the direction of Blackthorn and his men. I nearly leap out of my skin. Sounds of clanging metal and ferocious shouts ring out into the night. Ralston nudges me with his shoulder. “Now!” he says.
I run. Instinctively I run away from the sounds of the violence. I run faster than I’ve ever run before. Sharp rocks bite into the thin soles of the odd boots I’m wearing, bruising my feet. My heart pounds wildly, and my lungs scream for air.
When we finally reach the outside edge of the herd, we’re assaulted by a sickeningly sweet, fetid stench so strong it almost knocks me to the ground. Ralston takes my wrist and pulls me behind one of the animals.
“Put your sleeve over your nose, and breathe through your mouth,” he says, demonstrating with his sleeve.
“What’s that smell?” I cough, trying not to gag, as we snake our way through the grazing animals.
“It’s the fargen.”
“These beasts. They’re fargen.”
For the first time I focus on the odd animals we’re hiding among. They look like a cross between wooly mammoths and Texas Longhorns—enormous and ugly. Their coats are matted dreadlocks, so long that they brush the ground. Cruel-looking, curved horns perch on either side of their fat heads. They stink something fierce. Like a porta-potty stuffed with rotting garbage and rolled in cow manure. I pull down the bottom of my sleeve, clamping it over my nose to filter the stench.
“Careful where you step.” Ralston points to a massive pile of dung. “It’s slippery.”
We make our way quickly to the back of the herd while the peculiar animals graze serenely, oblivious to our presence. Once we reach the rocky prominence, Ralston says, “The cave is about halfway up. Follow me.”
He begins to scale the steep hillside, holding onto bushes and finding footholds in the rocks.
“I can’t do this,” I say.
“Yes you can. It’s easier than it looks. Come on.”
I grab a sturdy looking bush and hoist myself up. It isn’t easier than it looks. In fact, I expect to fall to my death at any minute. I lose my foothold several times, cut my palm on a sharp stone, and rip a couple of nice new holes in my flimsy leather pants. Finally, I make it to the ledge where Ralston crouches, waiting for me.
“I can’t go any farther,” I wheeze, completely gassed.
“It’s all right. We’re here.”
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Genre – Science Fiction/Fantasy/Paranormal/YA
Rating – PG13
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