Lunessa had never been terribly comfortable in the library, her father's sanctum, but she couldn't recall the air in that little room ever being quite so fraught with tension. Lord Deheubein hadn't looked up from his tome since he had bade her to enter. His words had been clipped, and she tried to remember the last time she had seen him so obviously angry. The emotion seemed alien coming from him.
They had reached the castle shortly after the sun had come to rest on the horizon, and Lunessa had been swiftly force-marched up to the library and instructed to wait on Lord Deheubein's pleasure. However long that took. Two of the guards from their party waited stiffly at attention by the door.
Lunessa was conflicted; she certainly was in no hurry to begin the inevitable confrontation with her father. She had known that he would be upset that she had snuck out of the castle, but this went far beyond what she had anticipated. But whatever punishment Lunessa faced was the least of the concerns that filled her mind. Rosalynn was down in the dungeon, and that was completely unfair. Rosalynn hadn't done anything wrong! Lunessa wasn't really sure she herself had done anything wrong, either, despite the way everyone was acting. But all Rosalynn had done was gone along with Lunessa's plan. She didn't deserve punishment.
“Um... Father, I–“ Lunessa began, taking the plunge. Lord Deheubein's gaze snapped up, and at the fury on his face Lunessa's words died in her throat.
“Lunessa, do you have any idea...!” Lord Deheubein shouted. Lunessa shrank away. Her father had never shouted at her before. He stopped, shook his head, and with visible effort brought himself under control. “Do you have any idea what kind of danger you put yourself in?”
“I...” But Lord Deheubein was in no mood to let her answer for herself.
“What if you had gotten lost? What if you had been attacked? By wolves, or worse! Never mind that a young lady such as yourself would make all too tempting a target for ransom! Did you think of that? Did you?”
“No, father,” Lunessa said, eyes downcast. “I did not.”
“But,” she managed, licking her lips, “I had Rosalynn with me, surely she could protect me from any of that!”
“Some mere squire, and a slip of a girl at that...!” Lord Deheubein paused, and something about his expression chilled Lunessa to her core.
“That's it, isn't it? That thrice cursed peasant girl is at the root of all of this, isn't she?”
“Father, no!” Lunessa cried. The path of her father's reasoning unrolled itself before her, and the place it led was terrible indeed. “It was all my fault! Not hers!”
Lord Deheubein wasn't listening. “I never should have brought that girl into my castle. Well, an easy mistake to fix. We'll pack her back off to her village at first light.”
“No,” Lunessa whispered. Everything was going wrong.
“She is too young yet to be married, but a long betrothal never hurt anyone. We can afford to put up a small dowry, so I'm sure some man in the village can be persuaded to take her and keep her out of trouble.” And away from you, he didn't say, but he hardly needed to. There was an air of finality to his words; Lunessa could tell that in his mind, the matter was decided.
“Father, you can't!” she said anyway. “Rosalynn didn't do anything wrong! You can't send her away!” On the verge of tears, she forced herself to remain as composed as she could. Rosalynn needed her.
“You are in no position to tell me what I can or cannot do, Lunessa.” Lord Deheubein said, a trace of heat returning to his voice. “You will remain in your rooms until further notice.”
Lunessa trembled with impotent anger. “ You are so unfair! I hate you!” she screamed as loudly as she could. She took some petty satisfaction at the way her father's eyes widened in shock.
He did not relent, though. He gestured at the guards that waited by the door. “Take her to her rooms.”
* * *
Lunessa passed the hours miserably. The guards remained outside her door, and gently but firmly enforced her father's edict. Wracking her mind, she searched for some avenue of escape, some means of setting things right, but nothing presented itself. She felt terribly alone, as if the entirety of the world had set itself against her and Rosalynn. She wondered if they'd let her see the girl again before they took her away. Likely not.
Outside, the sun crept down below the horizon, and the sky gave over to night. Lunessa watched distantly through a narrow window – hardly more than a slit in the wall – as the moon climbed through the air.
Earlier, a maidservant had been allowed in to help her change out of the now ruined and bloodstained green dress, and to change her bandages as well. The cut hadn't been deep, and it had already mostly stopped bleeding, but it had hurt like anything when she was changing. It had taken a good deal of help from the maid to struggle into the simple linen shift she now wore. The maid had hardly said a word during this entire process, and when Lunessa attempted to provoke conversation, the girl had told her that she was under orders to do her work and leave as quickly as possible.
This was confirmed later when another servant brought up her evening meal. Lunessa chastised herself for not knowing the name of this one either. She knew the senior staff well enough. Most of them had been around the castle since before she was born. But the rest all seemed to come and go with the wind. It didn't help that all of them seemed either too terrified of her position or too exasperated at having to chase her down to speak more than a handful of words to her at a time.
All of which was a shame, since perhaps if she'd known this girl's name it would have helped the poor thing to relax a little. Or perhaps not, since when Lunessa had asked for it the girl had just stared at her with a certain pleading air. And so Lunessa had backed down, feeling slightly ashamed of herself and not quite sure why. The girl had been told to wait until Lunessa had finished, and had stood stiffly against the wall as Lunessa ate, desperately avoiding eye contact. Out of mercy, Lunessa had eaten as quickly as she could, and as much as she could stomach. She hardly tasted the food, and could scarcely even recall what it had been.
As the maid hastily collected the dishes in order to make her retreat, Lunessa had tried once more to speak to her, inquiring after Rosalynn. The maid pretended not to hear, and nearly ran out of the door. Lunessa sighed, though in truth she wasn't sure what she had hoped to gain by asking.
As the hours dragged on, and there were no further visitors to her chamber, Lunessa began to toy with the idea of sleep. She was in no hurry to see the dawn, but exhaustion was beginning to weigh down her limbs, and she could see nothing else she could do. Just as she rose from her perch near the window to douse the lights, her door opened.
Lunessa stared at the vision that stepped through the doorway and carefully closed the portal behind her. It was her cousin Mabyn. It could be no other. For one thing, no other woman in the castle would wear a dress with a neckline that low. (Oh cousin, it is all the fashion in the capital, she would say, as if that meant anything when they were hundreds of miles from both the capital and its fashions.) So the purpose of the hooded cloak, pulled well forward in order to hide her face, was inscrutable.
“Cousin,” Mabyn said, pulling the hood back, “how are you?”
“I am surprised you need to ask, Mabyn,” Lunessa hardly even tried to keep the bitterness from her voice. “Didn't you hear what has happened? What is going to happen?”
“I've heard bits and pieces. Rosalynn's down in the dungeon, but the guards are saying she won't be there for long. I couldn't find out any more than that, though.” Mabyn's face was nearly the same picture of misery that Lunessa imagined her own to be. “I'm so sorry, cousin!” Mabyn threw her arms around Lunessa, buried her head in Lunessa's shoulder. Lunessa, absently noting the irony, patted her cousin comfortingly. “If I hadn't helped you, if I hadn't gotten you out of the castle, none of this would have happened!”
“It is not your fault, dear cousin,” Lunessa murmured. “I did not know father would react this way, either. I only wish that poor Rosalynn wasn't caught up in the middle.”
Mabyn took a deep breath and looked Lunessa in the eye. “So? What will you do?”
“What will I do?” Lunessa raised an eyebrow. “What is there for me to do but wait? I can not even leave this room!”
“And if you could, what would you do then?”
“Well, I suppose I would try to get to Rosalynn and free her. I can not let her be punished like this, not when I am the one at fault. But it matters not, the guards will not disobey my...” she trailed off as Mabyn began to undo the laces of her bodice. “Um,” she said intelligently.
“We're about the same size,” Mabyn said by way of explanation. Lunessa was going to need more than that, however, and the blank look on her face must have said as much. “It is late,” Mabyn said patiently, “and the guards are half-asleep. A girl wearing a red dress and a cloak entered the room...”
“...And a girl wearing a red dress and a cloak will leave it,” Lunessa finished the thought, the twin mysteries of the shawl and what in the world Mabyn was doing unraveling together. “Oh, dearest cousin, what would I do without you?”
“I'm sure I don't know,” Mabyn replied from within a cavern of red velvet as she worked at extricating herself from the dress, “but for this instant, would you help me with this?”
Together they managed to pull the dress off of Mabyn, and, with rather more effort, get Lunessa in to it. Mabyn had been right; they were about the same size. The dress was a touch too tight in certain places, a trifle loose in others, but it was not uncomfortable. The draft over the tops of her breasts and the fact she was showing off rather more decolletage now than she had in her entire life put together did discomfit her somewhat, though. She tried to arrange matters to provide a touch of modesty, but it was a losing battle.
Mabyn eyed her critically. “I think you'll pass, as long as they don't get a good look at your face.” Clad only in her small clothes, she stepped forward and hugged Lunessa again. “Promise me you'll come back,” she whispered.
“I will,” Lunessa said. “As soon as I have gotten Rosalynn away, and I know she will be safe, I will return. I know what my duty is.” Mabyn slowly, unwillingly, ended the embrace. Lunessa looked her in the face, saw the tears start to well up in her cousin's eyes, and knew she had to be away before emotion overtook her as well.
After a moment's consideration, she grabbed a few small items of jewelry from her dresser and tucked them into the only hiding place she had readily available. She offered up a brief prayer to the Saints that the pins would not prick her too badly. She felt a little guilty at this act of theft, but Rosalynn would need money to make a life for herself outside, and Lunessa did not have a lot of coinage laying around.
In the mean time, Mabyn had tucked herself in to Lunessa's bed, just to add another layer to the deception if someone checked the room. Steeling herself, Lunessa pulled forward the hood of the cloak in order to make sure that her face was hidden, and opened the door gently.
One of the guards outside perked up as she stepped out. The other was clearly asleep on his feet.
“You were in there quite a while, Lady Mabyn,” the guard said. Lunessa risked a peek out from under the hood. He was a slender young man with shaggy brown hair and quite delicate facial features. He looked more like a poet than a soldier, despite the livery. He seemed somehow familiar, but Lunessa didn't have enough attention left to puzzle out why. “Is Lady Lunessa well?”
Lunessa cursed inwardly. Somehow she hadn't anticipated actually having to talk to anyone. Still, she spent more time around Mabyn than anyone else, mimicking her voice should be easy. Just drop the pitch down a little, and...
“Um, she's very upset, yes. Went to bed early. Cried herself to sleep, the poor dear,” Lunessa said. There, perfect. Mabyn's own mother couldn't have told the difference.
“You don't sound very good, Lady Mabyn,” the guard said, his face scrunching up with concern. “Is something the matter?”
“I– uh,” Lunessa managed. Curse you and your blasted curiousity! Just shut up! she thought. “I suppose I am just a little overcome myself. It is– it's just so terrible, what my dear cousin is going through.”
“I don't think it's all that terrible. I mean, she pretty much brought it all on herself, right?” Lunessa's head snapped up to glare at the young man, before she remembered she was supposed to hide her face and fixed her gaze on the floor. Just who gave the guards permission to talk back to nobility, anyway? “Now who I feel bad for is Rosalynn,” the guard went on blithely. “Locked up like that. It's not like she can do anything about Lady Lunessa dragging her all around, right? Oh, no offense to your cousin, Lady Mabyn.”
“Of course,” Lunessa muttered. She felt a stab of guilt. She didn't really drag Rosalynn around, did she? Well, maybe she did, but Rosalynn had wanted to go along, hadn't she? Lunessa shoved those thoughts aside for the time being. There were better times for introspection.
“So,” the guard said suddenly, and Lunessa noted with some alarm the change in his tone. “My relief will be coming soon. How's about we meet at the usual spot, and I'll do that thing with my fingers that you liked so much last time?” Lunessa didn't need to look up to know that the guard was leering at her. She could practically feel it through the cloak.
Lunessa stared at the ground in equal parts shock and righteous anger. Why he seemed familiar was suddenly clear. She'd heard this young man described before. He was Jakob, one of Mabyn's many conquests. She tried to come up with some reasonable way to excuse herself, but she realized she really had no idea how to act in this kind of situation. Cousin, with the Saints as my witness, if your slatternly ways have ruined this for me I will strangle you myself!
“I, um, really can't,” she stammered out. “I, um, have other things I must attend to.”
“Ah,” Jakob said knowingly, “you've already made arrangements with someone else. I see. I'll just wait my turn, then.” He seemed strangely cheerful about the matter.
“Yes, well, you see how it is,” Lunessa said quickly. She resolved to have words with Mabyn about propriety. Which in terms of futility was like admonishing an oak tree to stop being so tall. “Good night, Jakob.” She turned and walked down the hallway with just slightly more speed than might have been necessary.
“Good night, Lady Mabyn,” the young man called after her.
“Hmm,” he went on, apparently speaking to himself now, “Didn't Lady Mabyn have a mole...?”
Lunessa picked up her pace.
* * *
The Saints were smiling on her: the guard on duty in the dungeons was also asleep at his post. This was not particularly surprising – Lunessa couldn't recall the last time the dungeons been used, and was mildly amazed that they'd bothered to post a guard at all – but she chose to take it as a good omen anyway.
As she crept down the steps, she heard voices. And she realized with some genuine surprise that there was more than one prisoner down in the cells.
“I'm just saying, it's hardly fair, is it?”
“I mean, takin' bribes? Okay, fine. But when it's one of the lord's
brats givin' it to you, is that really a bribe? Seems more like... like a bonus! Right?”
“Yeah, I was just getting a little bonus pay. Not something to shove me into a cell over, is it?”
“I'm sorry sir, but could you please be quiet? I just want to sleep.”
Lunessa moved carefully past the table where the guard napped. Her slippered feet were all but silent on the rough stone floor.
“Eh, I dunno if I'd be so eager to see the dawn if I was you. My mate told me that his lordship is right skivvy with you.”
“Mhm,” Rosalynn's voice sounded like despair itself. Lunessa's chest tightened at hearing it.
“Hah, not that it's your fault. That little girl leads you 'round by the nose, don't she? Kinda reminds me o' me wife, actually....” The voice broke off for a moment. Lunessa made her way down the row of cells. “But what're you gonna do when his lordship's brat tells you she wants something, right? Tell her no? Eheh, she done you one right up the nethers with this, didn't she?”
“If you are going to be like that,” Lunessa said airily as she approached the cells that contained the two, “'his lordship's brat' is going to leave you there to rot.”
“Eh?” Morcant's face appeared between the bars of the little window in the cell door. As his eyes fixed on her, she was suddenly grateful that she was holding the cloak closed around her. Dealing with the weaselly man was unpleasant enough without giving him a show, too. “Ah, uh, beggin' your pardon, your ladyship. Ehe, didn't know you was listening.”
Before Lunessa could respond to that, Rosalynn spoke. “Milady? What on earth... I mean, what brings you down here at this hour?”
“Oh, you know, just came to visit, see how you were doing. Are you comfortable?” Lunessa said, and then felt guilty about it. Fatigue, worry, and fear of being caught had left her dangerously short on patience, but there was no need to be sarcastic at Rosalynn. “I am here to rescue you, Rosalynn.”
There was a long pause as this statement was digested. “I... don't think that's a very good idea, milady,” Rosalynn said finally. She spoke carefully, picking her words almost as if her life hung in the balance. For some reason, that irritated Lunessa all the more.
“Well, aren't we in enough trouble? Do you think it's wise to do something that will make Lord Deheubein even more angry?”
“She's got a point there, miss,” Morcant put in. “I ain't ever seen his lordship so pi– upset.”
“Shut up,” Lunessa told him. “Rosalynn, you don't understand. He's going to send you away! He even said that he would marry you off to some man in the village!”
“Ehe, is that all? Could be worse,” said Morcant.
“Shut up!” Lunessa snarled. She could feel her already tenuous grip on her temper slipping by the second. “So you see, Rosalynn,” she said, “I must get you out of here. I won't let you be punished for something I asked of you. If I get you far enough away it won't be worth it to my father to track you down.” She tried to smile. “Maybe even to the capital! Then you could come visit me, after....” She stopped, not particularly wanting to finish that thought.
There was no response from Rosalynn's cell. Lunessa waited for a dozen heartbeats, but Rosalynn remained silent. “Rosalynn, please.”
“I don't know...” Rosalynn's voice trailed off as if someone had dropped a wall between them.
“What? What do you mean you don't know?” Lunessa said, disbelieving.
“I don't know if I can protect you, milady,” Rosalynn said in a hushed voice. Lunessa thought she'd never sounded so vulnerable. “I don't know if I can keep you safe.”
“What are you talking about, of course you–”
“You got hurt.” Rosalynn's voice was still soft, but somehow her words cut right through Lunessa's.
Lunessa sighed. “It was just a scratch, really. It's nothing to get so worked up about. And besides, no one could expect you to fight against my brother anyway.”
“Rosalynn, we can talk about this later. Right now I have to get you out before we are discovered! Or do you want to be sent away? Do you want to never see me again?”
There was a sharp gasp from Rosalynn's cell, and Morcant mumbled something to himself. But he didn't actually speak aloud, so she let it be. “Very well, milady,” Rosalynn said eventually. Lunessa nearly collapsed from relief. “I'm coming out.”
The cell doors weren't locked. There wasn't much point, in truth. Where could they go? Even the guard at the table was just there as a formality, and to make sure they got fed. Rosalynn's cell door opened with a rusty creak that echoed in the narrow stone corridor. Lunessa flinched at the noise, glancing over her shoulder and praying the guard slept deeply enough that the sound wouldn't rouse him. When no demands to know what was going on echoed down the stone corridor, Lunessa breathed out.
Rosalynn came out into the torchlight. Her clothes and face were smeared with dirt, but otherwise she seemed to be no worse for wear. Lunessa took a firm hold of her friend's hand, then addressed the man in the other cell. “What about you, sir?”
“I think I'll stay right here, if it pleases your ladyship. I'm getting a wee bit too old to go gallivanting about. And me wife'd kill me if I lost this job. They'll leave me down here a day or two to think about what I've done, then I'll be back on duty neat as you please. But,” Morcant grinned conspiratorially, “I'll tell you what: I didn't hear or see nothing tonight. 'Slept the whole way through, did I, milord! Dunno where Miss Rosalynn went.'”
“Thank you, sir,” Lunessa said. “I wish I had some way to repay you.”
“Just make sure you both come out of this hale and whole. It'd be a real shame to see a couple kids like you get hurt over something stupid.”
* * *
After they said their goodbyes to Morcant, Lunessa pulled Rosalynn past the guard, and up the dungeon stairs. She was gripped with the fear that if she didn't keep hold of the girl at all times, Rosalynn would balk again, and Lunessa wasn't sure if she could deal with that.
The dungeons laid underneath the northwestern tower, and thus mercifully close to both the western gate and the stables. Lunessa explained her plan, to take a horse and make for the King's Highway in the west, and from there the capital. She'd made the trip a few times with her father, and she could mostly remember the way. Rosalynn said nothing as Lunessa told her all of this. She didn't argue; she just looked at Lunessa in a way that made Lunessa hurt. She wanted so much to just take the girl in to her arms and give her the comfort she so sorely needed, but there was no time.
They scurried through the night and the empty hallways. The castle seemed almost deserted at this late hour. There was one close call, when Rosalynn pulled them both into a cross passage just ahead of being spotted by a lantern bearing squire meandering through his patrol. Lunessa squeezed Rosalynn's hand in gratitude, and was rewarded by something that came very near to a smile.
The stables themselves were a giant mess of shadows. Slumbering horses were amorphous masses in the gloom. Lunessa grabbed the lantern that hung near the entrance, but she didn't dare light it. Thankfully though, the moonlight spilling through the doors was enough to navigate by, mostly. She stepped right past Whitewater, Roliff's horse, who was in the stall closest to the entrance. He was identifiable by his size if nothing else, the largest horse in the stable by far. He was fast and strong, but, much like his owner, he was unpredictable, and a complete and utter bastard. Besides, despite Lunessa's general rule of antagonizing her brother whenever and however possible, she felt that stealing his horse would be perhaps a step too far.
“This way, milady,” Rosalynn said. Lunessa started; these were the first words Rosalynn had spoken since they'd left the dungeons. She let the girl lead the way to one particular stall nearly at the back.
“Moonbeam isn't the fastest horse, but she's good and gentle.”
Rosalynn gave the mare a pat on the nose, and the animal woke with a snort. Lunessa could see the silhouette of Moonbeam raise it's head, and she imagined that the mare was eyeing Rosalynn curiously, wondering why she had been awakened and if it was time to eat yet. Rosalynn had just begun the process of opening the stall gate and preparing the horse for travel when Lunessa noticed, just a little too late, a shadow slip through the stable door.
“Now what might ye lasses be doing here at this hour?” Lunessa recognized the voice as Sir Rhydderch's, and the shadow resolved itself into the old knight's bulky form. “Especially since neither if ye are supposed to be walking about anyway.”
Lunessa's stomach dropped right through the ground. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rosalynn freeze. Sir Rhydderch loomed at them, arms folded across his chest.
“G-good evening, Sir Rhydderch. Would you believe I just wanted some fresh air?” Lunessa stammered, stalling for a chance to think.
“And takin' the horse out for some exercise while you were at it?” She couldn't see the old knight's face in the darkness, but his tone suggested that his tolerance for games was at an all time low. So Lunessa decided to take a different tack.
“Sir Rhydderch, have you heard what my father plans to do to Rosalynn?”
“Aye, he's sending her home at first light. Bit of a waste, but who am I to argue with a lord?”
“That is not the half of it! He plans to have her married off to some man in the village!” Lunessa said. “What we did today was all my idea. Rosalynn doesn't deserve to be punished like that for it!”
“Some might say that ain't so bad a punishment on the whole of it.” Lunessa started to argue, but Sir Rhydderch went on right over top of her. “But,” he continued, “I guess I can see why ye wouldn't see it that way.” He was silent for what felt to Lunessa was a long time. She glanced at Rosalynn, and saw that the girl was poised on her toes. Though what Rosalynn could have thought to do, Lunessa couldn't say.
“There ain't a cursed thing I could say to change your mind about this, is there, lass?” Sir Rhydderch said finally. Lunessa, confused, just shook her head. Sir Rhydderch a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Well, far be it for an old knight to stand in the way of a couple a' young fools. Ye'll be coming back, right lass?” he said, addressing Lunessa.
“I will,” Lunessa said. She very carefully didn't allow her complete amazement at this turn events show in her voice. “Just as soon as I know Rosalynn will be safe, I will return.”
“Right then, you two get out of here before I come to my senses.”
Lunessa didn't need to be told twice. Rosalynn also took her cue, and grabbed ahold of Moonbeam's reins.
“You two take care of each other, now. And afore ye think about doin' anything stupid, just you remember that this old man ain't long for Paradise himself, and if'n I find either a' you there ahead of me, I'll give ye a beatin' even the Saints themselves couldn't match.”
Lunessa smirked at the threat. “Thank you, Puff-cheeks. With any luck, I will see you again soon enough.”
“Ah, I'm gonna have a demon of a time explaining this to Colwyn,” Sir Rhydderch said quietly, almost to himself. “But Saints, he did enough fool things himself when he was young. Especially when it came to Gwynnad.” Lunessa wondered at the reference to her mother, but before she could work out a question, they were already out the stable door.
Leaving Sir Rhydderch and the stables behind, they led Moonbeam through the yard to the western gate. Used by messengers, it was just big enough for a horse and rider, and the road that led away from it shot straight across the western moorland to the King's Highway. It was an obvious route, but Lunessa was not about to risk getting lost.
Rosalynn had lapsed back into silence, as they waited in the shadow of the wall for the guard atop it to pass. When the way seemed clear, they hurried to the gate. The bar across it was heavy, and mounted solidly. Together they struggled with it, trying to muffle the sounds of their exertion, and slowly the wooden bar slipped from it's brackets. Then they dropped it; it hit the ground with a resounding thud.
“What's going on down there?” came the cry from the top of the wall.
“Blast!” Lunessa hissed. “Hurry, Rosalynn!” she said, giving up the pretense of stealth. They rushed to swing the gate open wide.
“Halt! Stop there!” the guard shouted down at them. His cries were beginning to wake the rest of the castle, and shouts were coming from what seemed to be every direction.
With a boost from Rosalynn, Lunessa scrambled up into Moonbeam's saddle. She spent half a moment cursing her lack of foresight as her skirts rode up, revealing bare leg up to the knee. Then Rosalynn swung into the saddle behind her and, grabbing the reins, urged the horse forward. As soon as they were through the gate, she gave the reins another flick, and Moonbeam took up a pace that tugged at Lunessa's cloak and quickly left the shouting voices behind them.
“Now what is the plan, milady?” Rosalynn asked in her ear, raising her voice slightly over the rushing wind and the horse's hooves.
“I had thought to make straight for the King's Highway, but...”
She felt Rosalynn shake her head. “Moonbeam's not that swift, and overloaded besides. We will be caught long before we reach the highway.”
“The woods,” Rosalynn said after a moment's thought. “We can can try to lose ourselves in the forest, and then circle around.”
Lunessa, stuck for a better idea, nodded. “Very well,” she said, and Rosalynn guided the horse on to a path leading north, toward a tree line barely visible by the light of the moon.
* * *
They made good time, but sounds of pursuit closed in on them with every passing moment. As they entered the woods, and the trees closed in around them, they were forced to slow. Lunessa lit the lantern, and the light of its flame helped to push back the darkness a little. But even so, they could hardly move at more than a walk. The lack of speed chafed at Lunessa, but as Rosalynn explained, in the dark the horse might trip or stumble if they tried to go any faster, and that would be bad for all of them. The hope was that the group that was behind them would be forced to do the same.
Rosalynn picked trails, seemingly at random, in an effort to throw off the pursuit. Lunessa soon became quite thoroughly disoriented, but she trusted Rosalynn to guide them. But the shouts and the flickering orange glow of torches remained close behind, too close for Lunessa to relax. She glanced about nervously. The trees that had seemed so pleasant in the light of day, now menaced in the dark.
Said trees grew closer and closer together as they headed deeper into the forest, and the path grew narrower until Lunessa felt as if she were being smothered. Branches slapped and scratched at them, and Moonbeam whickered as her hooves bumped against thick roots that rose out of the path. Finally, Rosalynn brought the horse to a halt. “Moonbeam can't go any further in this. We'll have to go on foot,” she said.
Lunessa hated to leave the horse behind, but she saw the wisdom in what Rosalynn said. Moonbeam was more suited to broad highways, not little deer tracks like this. Rosalynn dropped smoothly to the ground, and helped Lunessa make a slightly less graceful decent from the saddle.
“Will she be all right here?” Lunessa asked.
Rosalynn nodded as she tied Moonbeam's reins loosely to a low-hanging branch. “We'll leave the lantern here and make our way by the moon. The light should keep any wolves at bay for a while. And,” she went on, “it will not be long before she is found.” Lunessa glanced back, and saw the glow of torchlight might be just a bit closer now.
“Let us go, then.”
Rosalynn led the way as they hurried, single file, along the trail. As much as they tried to cover ground quickly, they were slowed by having to duck branches and untangle Lunessa's skirt from thorns. A shout behind them, far closer than Lunessa would have liked, told them that the pursuing party had found their horse. That lent them a little speed, but that was quickly sapped as Rosalynn slowed, then stopped.
“What is wrong?” Lunessa asked, confused.
“Milady, we are near to entering the Spirit Wood.” Rosalynn pointed off somewhere in the shadows. Lunessa couldn't see a thing, but she believed Rosalynn anyway.
“Rosalynn, I'm sorry, “ Lunessa said. She remembered the abject terror the place had inspired in the girl earlier, and that had been in broad daylight. “But,” she continued,” I don't see that we have much choice.”
Rosalynn nodded, slowly. Lunessa wasn't entirely comfortable with entering the place, either. Superstition it may have been, but Lunessa hadn't seen anything ever before that scared Rosalynn so much, and that fear was infectious.
Then, suddenly, time was up. “Lunessa!” Roliff stepped around a bend in the path and in to view. Half a dozen men, each bearing a sputtering torch, marched along behind him. They peered into the darkness as if they expected something to leap out at them at any moment.
“Oh, sod it all,” Lunessa growled under her breath, then thrust Rosalynn behind her. She straddled the path, arms outstretched, and stared her brother down. “Why can't you just leave us alone?” she screamed at him.
“Lunessa, what in the Saint's holy names do you think you are doing? Have you lost your cursed mind?” Roliff slowly advanced toward them.
“Father wants to send her away. I'll never get to see her again! I can't let that happen!” Lunessa took a step backward for each step Roliff moved forward.
“Fine, fine,” Roliff said, raising his hands, palms outward. “Calm yourself, 'Essa. We can talk about this back at the castle.”
“No,” Lunessa said. She reached behind her, and without taking her eyes from Roliff for a moment, managed to close her hand on Rosalynn's wrist.
“'Essa, you're coming back to the castle if I have to drag you. Now be reasonable.”
“No!” Lunessa yelled, and spun on her heel. “Run!” she shouted at Rosalynn, and pulled the girl along behind her as she did just that, dashing for the deeper woods.
“'Essa!” Roliff called after them. “After them!” There was a pause. “What are you waiting for?” Another pause, where there might have been a muttered response. “Cowards!” Then any further words were lost in the crash of brush and the pounding of blood in her ears.
The flight was darkness, and pain. What little moonlight that found its way through the leaves above was just enough to keep her from charging headlong in to a tree, and not much more. Branches tore at her; she was sure they drew her blood more than once, and turned her skirt to ribbons. It was all she could do to not trip and fall. A stab in her side told her that she had likely re-opened the cut there too. And yet all of that was secondary, a minor nuisance compared to the burning in her lungs and her legs. Only willpower and knowing what the cost might be if she stopped kept her moving.
Then it was bright. Lunessa squinted, shielding her eyes, as they stumbled into a clearing. The light from the moon and stars seemed positively blinding after the shadows of the forest. The trees stopped, in a perfect circle, as if there was a line they dared not cross. But that was not the curious thing. Lunessa stared, bent over with her hands on her knees, gasping for breath, and tried to understand what she was seeing. It looked like water, but it hung in the air in the precise center of the clearing like a tapestry. It was oval, and translucent, and utterly impossible.
“What... is it, milady?” Rosalynn asked, transfixed by the bizarre object. With a touch of jealousy, Lunessa realized that Rosalynn wasn't even winded. Lunessa shook her head, wanting to tell the girl that she didn't know, but not yet having the breath for words. After a minute of gulping air, she felt well enough to stand up straight. She walked towards the thing that hung in the air, and with great hesitation, reached out to touch it. There was the faintest resistance, and then her hand passed through. With a hiss, she jerked her hand back. The air, water, whatever was on the other side of the thing was unbelievably cold. She heard Rosalynn move to stand behind her, the sound of her boots on the grass was loud in the deathly silence of the clearing.
“Milady, we should...” Rosalynn began, but whatever else she was going to say was trampled over by the sound of Roliff crashing into the clearing.
“What in the world...?” He was staring at the thing, just as they had. The bastard wasn't short of breath, either. “'Essa, get away from that thing.”
Lunessa, still not quite feeling up to speech, shook her head again. She looked from her brother to the thing and back again, the beginnings of an idea forming.
“Essa, don't do anything stupid now,” Roliff said, edging toward them. Lunessa grabbed Rosalynn's hand, interlacing their fingers, and looked into the girl's eyes. Rosalynn met her gaze, and Lunessa saw the faith there. She was waiting for Lunessa to take the lead, as was the usual arrangement. Lunessa looked back at the thing once again. Roliff was probably right; this was probably stupid. But one thing Rosalynn had said earlier rang in her mind. People came back from the Spirit Wood.
Lunessa threw herself into the thing, and the continued warmth of Rosalynn's hand in hers told her that the girl had followed. Lunessa focused on that as she plunged into the icy place past the thing. Her lungs strained, but whatever existed in that place, it wasn't air. She couldn't breathe. A sensation of what she could only describe as evil washed over her, and there were whispers in her mind that in her panic she couldn't comprehend. And then she gave up the fight, and let herself fall in to unconsciousness.