Slumber Page 52

With a jerk of the reins we took off, the horse steady on his feet as we took the steep trade road down into the valley. Once on level ground we took off at a faster gallop, hoping to put as much distance between myself and Wolfe as possible. The last thing I needed was him catching up to me.

In the dark I didn’t see much. I wouldn’t have even if I’d wanted to, I was so determinedly concentrating on getting to those mountains. The trade roads were rougher in Alvernia, less travelled, and we stumbled a few times along the way until I realised I had to pull the horse into a less frantic pace. I’d wear him out if I didn’t stop soon anyway. Exhausted and tense, every little noise that I heard over our galloping making cold sweat slide down my back, I was thankful when the sun broke the horizon. It burst out over the mountains until the brownish-green rolling plains of the valley became visible. We grew closer to the mountains towering over the valley in the distance, mountains like monsters beckoning travellers into nightmare. Thick, brutish, looming trees the Alvernians called the Arans, covered what appeared to be every inch of the mountains; the lushness of those deep, black-green trees a sharp contrast to the sickly pallor of the plains I was passing through. The mountain people of Alvernia lived among those trees, their homes shrouded by their darkness, and their lives sheltered in ignorance and uncivilised isolation.

My stomach lurched and I pulled the horse to an abrupt halt. Thankfully I made it off the poor horse and to the side of the road before I vomited up last night’s fish.

***

After a quick… break… I was back on the horse, racing him faster than ever as the mountains drew closer. I didn’t see much from the trade roads, only a farm or two visible from the road, but I wasn’t interested. My magic was beginning to hum and vibrate through me the closer I drew to the Somna Plant. The Silverian Valley wasn’t huge; most of Alvernia was covered by those mountains. It could be crossed in under a day, and as mid-morning crept past, the horse and I finally drew into the shade cast by the mountains. Up close they were utterly mammoth. I watched a bird circle up ahead and then fly in among the trees. Disappearing forever.

I rolled my eyes at myself. “Stop being maudlin,” I hissed.

Soon we drew around a bend in the road and the Aran trees stood before me, an entrance up into the woods, dark and waiting. I slowed the horse and trotted forward. The horse snorted again, feeling my thighs squeeze against him in my fear. My stomach was so full of butterflies they were brimming over and touching my heart, their stupid wings tickling against the organ and urging it to react in kind. When we drew closer I could make out a wooden sign nailed to one of the trees, the words:

ALVERNIN MOWNTINS

TRED WIF CAYR

carved crudely into the wood. I closed my eyes trying to draw in breath and calm. Shakily I slid off the horse, leading him over to a humble lane cut into the fields around us. Pitched into the ground was another sign in the same carving.

HEVERS FARM

I soothed my night companion who had gotten me this far and thanked him, before hitting his rump, sending him into a jolt up the lane where hopefully the Hever’s would find him and take care of him. I couldn’t take him up into the steep mountains. It would slow me down and be unfair to him.

For a moment I stood at the opening of the woods, looking up the hill into the gloomy inside of the forest. I could hear the crick and twitch of the woods themselves; branches snapping, woodpeckers pecking. Insects buzzed around me, small animals skittered over crushed leaves and twigs, and in the far, far distance I even thought I heard the howl of a dog. I shivered. I imagined the overwhelming aroma of the forest might calm me with its musky floral, honey, laurel, and freshly cut-grass smells all breathing beneath the heady scent of rich, dark soil. It was wonderful. But I was still quaking.

With another deep breath I straightened my shoulders and took my first step into the mountains.

“Only for you, Haydyn,” I whispered, and continued on in resignation.

The climb was almost immediate. One, two, three steps and the ground began to tilt upwards. There were no more signs posted to the trees giving me directions to towns or settlements or whatever it was these people had in here, but I was following my magic, managing to keep to the rough track that already wound its way up through the mountains. The longer I climbed, the more I began to wonder where the people were. My ears were practically pinned back, my body and heart jumping at every little noise. I must have stopped and spun around a hundred times, my eyes probing through the trees for signs of life. So on edge, the nerves in my body had taken on a life of their own. I wasn’t going to sleep tonight.

I climbed for hours, my feet beginning to blister inside the maid’s boots. I fought off the pain by refusing to think about it, thinking only of the growing darkness within the woods, how cold it was becoming. By dusk I was beginning to panic that there were no signs of life. My magic told me the Pool of Phaedra was still days off yet and I had hoped to find some safe place to shelter for the night. Safe. I snorted. Was that even a word in the Mountains of Alvernia.

I stopped suddenly, my ears kicking back at a familiar noise. Water! The trickling noise in the distance set my heart racing again. Surely where there was water, there were people! I followed the noise, tripping over a thick root and taking my first tumble in the woods. I landed on soggy leaves and damp soil, little dirty circles staining my trousers at the knees. I grunted and got back up, determined not to feel foolish considering no one had seen me. The noise drew me to a stream and I followed that stream, making sure it didn’t pull me too far from the direction of my magic.

Surprise rippled through me as the woods broke beyond me, the stream leading out of the trees and into open mountain. This part of the mountain had been cleared. Stretching before me, encircled on all sides by the Arans, was a town. Shacks, I gathered were houses, dotted here and there, some by the stream, some further off until they looked like little black squares from where I stood. Lights shimmered in the dark. An extremely well-lit larger shack, some way in the distance, caught my eye.

“Can I be helpin’ ye, son?”

I jerked and then froze, my mouth falling open, my eyes wide, my palms and underarms instantly giving into cold sweat. Slowly, afraid of what I’d find, I turned to confront the gruff voice with its strange burr. A huge man, exactly what I had in my mind when I thought ‘mountain man’, stood before me; burly, tall and suspicious of me. He was wrapped up warm in worn clothes, a furry hat covering his head. I gulped at the sight of the huge axe laid casually against his shoulder.

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