Slumber Page 54

Bewildered by her sudden proximity it took me a minute to realise she was reaching to kiss me. I squealed under my breath and jerked back, thankful as her weight was lifted off of me.

Brint gave her a look and patted her bottom. “Be on with ye, lass. This one is shy.”

The girl huffed in disappointment, striding off before throwing me one more longing look. My cheeks must have bloomed bright red because Brint was laughing at me again.

“Tera is a bit free with her favours.” He shook his head. “Gotten worse since the Iavii have gone. Everyone be a bit more relaxed these days.”

“I can’t believe the gypsies were that awful to their own.” I bit my lip. Up here, Haydyn’s evocation did not reach; up here where life was hard enough as it was.

Brint glowered now, looking as fierce as I first imagined him to be. “We weren’t their own. You never knew which Hill they’d come barrellin’ into next, takin’ that which wasn’t theirs to take.”

“Then I’m glad they’ve left you alone.”

“Me too, son. I pity the buggers who they be botherin’ now though.”

I grunted. I would be one of those buggers.

I shook off my memories and smiled, looking around me. “The mountains aren’t anything like I was told they’d be. Everyone is so friendly and nice.”

Once again, Brint’s lips thinned and he leaned in close to me. “In Hill o’ Hope we are. We be good people. But don’t ye be gettin’ all mistaken, son, there are folks in these here mountains who’ve gone crazy with the isolation. Ye watch yerself in this journey o’ yers. Stick to the trails. There’s a place one Hill from here called Shadow Hill. Ye be bypassin’ around the outskirts o’ Shadow, ye here. No nothing there for strangers but a world o’ suspicion and sorrow. And the closer to the pool ye reach, be warier. There be dogs in packs up that way, hungry and feral as any an animal starvin’ and uncontrolled.”

I gulped. The fear came back again. I should have known it couldn’t be as easy as I’d begun to hope. Hah, I snorted inwardly. Hill o’ Hope. It was really called so because it gave hope that the mountains were as kind and easy going as the people here. But according to Brint, I’d be foolish to think that. And I was going to take his advice.

“Thank you,” I replied softly. He nodded at me grimly, as if seeing past my deception and into the truth of me. He seemed concerned for me.

“Come.” He stood to his feet. “Let us get ye home and to some sleep.”

It was even colder out now. I thought about the nights ahead. I wouldn’t have a home to sleep in, a roof to shelter me, to give at least the pretence of safety. I thought of Brint’s warning. The thought of sleeping under the stars was nothing compared to the thought of facing the horror he had not spoken of… but had been there in his eyes nonetheless.

Chapter Twenty Three

Brint’s wife Anna was just as friendly and caring as her husband. She laid out blankets by the fire for me and stoked the fire to life to keep me warm. She insisted that in the morning I stay for breakfast, but I explained I had to leave extremely early. I was afraid of Wolfe and the Guard catching up to me. Anna ignored my protests, insisting she and Brint were early risers. But I knew I couldn’t stay. However, I told them I would, and made sure I thanked them enough so they’d know, when they found me gone in the morning, that I had been tremendously grateful to them.

I slept a little, but I was so nervous for the day ahead that I was up before the sun broke the horizon, and was slipping through Hill o’ Hope before the couple of roosters they had woke everyone up. I held on to my magic like a child holding a parent’s hand tightly in the marketplace, terrified of being lost to the wildness of the mountains.

The morning air was chilly, but as the sun rose and began filtering through the trees, I grew warm in the humid environment of the forest. I had to take off my jacket sure, with no one around, the fact that the trousers were beyond indecent on me wouldn’t matter. Stopping at midday for a quick snack and some water, I mulled over Brint’s words of warning. He’d told me the next town (Hill) up from theirs was full of good people, the Hill o’ Hope’s close neighbours. But I decided I wasn’t taking any chances like I had last night. I’d been lucky with Brint and his people. Remembering how badly things had gone in the past, I wasn’t going to press that luck. Instead, I took the outskirts of the town, keeping to the trees and treading slowly and quietly so as not to draw any attention. Through the trees a town, smaller than Hill o’ Hope, flashed in and out of view. Children helped their parent’s milk cows, sort out wool that was being clipped from the few sheep they had, collecting eggs from hens. They worked together in tandem, a machine of teamwork, just like Hill o’ Hope.

By late afternoon I was exhausted. My shirt was soaked with sweat underneath the waistcoat I wore and my feet were screaming in pain from the ever growing blisters populating my soles, toes and heels. If I kept walking I didn’t feel it so much. But then I’d make the mistake of stopping for water, and when I moved off to walk again the screaming pain would start over tenfold.

I pushed on through the night until my eyes began to droop. At the sight of a tree with a large root curling around the soil like an arm, I took off my pack and slumped down behind it, hidden from view from anyone beyond it. Every muscle in my body screamed at me. The pain in my feet made me whimper. I shook my head in disgust. When had I become this soft, genteel creature who couldn’t withstand a little exertion? I felt miserable and incompetent. When I lived on the farm I could run for miles without stopping; I could climb trees like a trapeze artist; walk and climb and walk some more and never want to stop. Life outdoors had been second nature to me. Now I was pampered and useless, and everything my parents had abhorred. I thought of Wolfe and had to hold back frustrated tears. I just kept betraying them over and over again.

Even more angry at myself for being pitiful and maudlin, I exhaled and looked around me at the little bed I’d made for the night. A large spider with spindly brown legs crawled slowly up from the soil onto my leg. I felt the tickle of it through the fabric of my trousers. Gently, I leaned over and scooped up the spider, putting it down on the ground behind me so it could scuttle off and not get squashed beneath me as I slept. Watching it, I was reminded of my little brother. He had hated spiders, terrified of them; said he didn’t trust their fast little legs. It was the only thing he ever squealed at, and I knew to come running to rescue not only him, but the poor spider, from his fear. Despite the spider, he would have loved this, I thought, gazing up through the thick branches of the Arans above me, hardly able to see even a drop of sky. He would have thought this was quite the adventure.

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