Sealed within a sacred land high above the clouds,
An ancient golden power sleeps—the heirloom of the gods—
World beyond all mortal sight where goddesses descended,
The old ones by whose mighty breath the timeless chaos ended
Left behind in earthen grove to last the test of time,
A mystic stony gateway stands—the passage to the skies—
Shrine beyond the memory of every living race
Where worthy men may dare ascend the path to godlike grace
Given to the people to be sheltered from demise,
The keys to that great doorway shine—three treasures of the light—
Stones within the grasp of those who bear beneath their skin
Crests upon their spirits that mark virtues deep within
Though many seek the sacred gold that grants the heart's desire,
None has ever risen who possessed what is required
For godly might does not respond to mere and mortal skill—
Only one of worthy heart may bend it to his will
When darkness overtakes the land and demons walk the earth
The light will rise to banish it and put an end to hurt
A race to claim the One True Force shall surely then begin
And the way to the skies will manifest at the gathering of the winds
IT'S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE
Don't stop running. Those were the last words imparted to her before she began her desperate flight into the wilderness. Though the warning had been but a whisper in her ear some days past, it rang loud and clear, a reverberation coursing over every inch of her body, urging her onward; its solemn pulse kept time with each compliant footfall.
Already she had traveled for three days and three nights with little rest and less food, and her body ached with hunger and fatigue. The temptation to take a brief repose nagged with the same insistence as that resounding warning to press on. She knew however that even in places of relative safety she could not risk slowing for long to catch her breath so long as the light of day could betray her whereabouts. Her pursuers would surely have secured horses for the chase and therefore held a measurable advantage, so she made certain to take all possible precautions to avoid being seen; for that would be the end of her. Had she been in any position to access the stables and procure a ride of her own she would have done so, but her enemies had acted to prevent it.
So on she ran, drenched from head to foot in salty sweat. Her hair flew after her, a disheveled stream of gold that somehow after days of rough travel still glistened beneath the sun. She had intended to keep it in a bundle so as to be less conspicuous, but the pins had fallen out some miles ago. At the time she had not thought to pause and scoop them up again, instead focusing on putting as much distance behind her as she could before nightfall. She had since considered that her pursuers might stumble upon the pins and from them ascertain her trail and cursed herself for leaving them. But it was too late for regrets; she could only hold fast to hope and press on.
She intended to flee across the border to the eastern province and had a vague idea of the way as well as a satisfactory sense of direction, but had never traveled on her own before and as such did not recognize the surrounding countryside. The necessity of straying from any roads she happened to come by made keeping her bearings all the more difficult. Whenever possible she sought the cover of the trees, but she knew that they could not hide her for long: the forests were thin in the central plains and would not thicken until she reached the river some distance to the east. She would be safer then, and safer still once she crossed the border; in the meantime she would have to do her best to hold an eastward course.
Soon she came upon a happy sight: a vast cornfield that, if she moved carefully enough, could serve as a hiding-place, freeing her for a brief while from the eyes of those who hunted her. She hastened to intrude among them, marveling at how they towered several heads over hers, a virtual city of stalks. The fields proved an unsettling haven, however: even though she was confident that she was securely out of sight, it occurred to her that anyone who sought to find her here could say the same. She had a pair of daggers at her hips should she face the worst, but while she had some skill with a blade, against trained soldiers she stood little chance and knew it. She kept moving.
At the edge of the crop fields were a series of corrals: she recognized cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, as well as cuccos. She scanned the scene for a horse that she might make use of, but the only ones within sight were occupied with helping their masters wrangle in their stock.
One of the cuccos wandered away from the rest of the gaggle, headed towards a gap in the chicken wire fence that bounded it. Something about the way it strutted out of line conveyed a sense of purpose. She wondered whether it shared her impulse to get away from those who would subjugate it. As she pondered this, a diligent wrangler spotted the stray and moved to head it off, waving it back into the group. Before rejoining its brethren, it made an effort to double back, hoping to avoid further detection; but its master had sharp eyes and thwarted the trick. When it tried a third time, the wrangler scooped it up into his arms and carried it on his lap, evidently unwilling to tolerate any further indiscretion. Her pursuers would not be so careful if they managed to catch her. She shuddered at the thought and refocused her attention on moving as discreetly as possible along the perimeter of the pastures so she could press on.
By the time she reached the edge of the ranch-lands the sun had already begun to dip behind the mountains to the west. Judging by the late hour, she had been traveling for at least nine or ten hours since sunup. Surely she must have come close to the river by now, unless she had dipped too far south and missed the bend, a possibility she had to consider. She decided to veer a bit to the north just in case she had lost her intended course. Though she was confident in her route, she would have to move quickly; for soon the cover of darkness would overtake her, and she could not be sure whether that would be a boon or a curse. The night would lend her aid in avoiding detection but would also make it difficult to find her own way and increase the ever-lingering threat of monsters living in the wilds. So far she had been lucky, but she knew she should not place much trust in fortune—fate did not always reward faith with kindness.
A steep hill greeted her, and she bundled up her skirts and pressed through the rolling grass to ascend the slope. From the crest she met a terrific view of a tranquil wood, nestled in a small valley. She judged that water must have flowed there, a tributary of the main river, carving out its stream as a serpent leaves a trail as it meanders through sand and soil. Those winding bends were proof enough to convince her. She started for the base of the dell in hope of following it to the river. Midway down the decline her foot snagged on a small root, but instead of trying to hold her balance she pitched into a roll that carried her the rest of the way to the valley floor, laughing spiritedly as she tumbled.
When she reached the bottom she quickly scrambled to her feet and scampered into the trees, where she was happy to discover that her suspicions proved true: a stream trickled, doubtless to join the river in its southward course. Anxious and excited to follow her discovery to the end, she rushed as quickly as she could manage along the stream's edge, bounding over rocks and brush as she went. She traveled in this way for a mile or two, following the flows all the way out of the mouth of the valley until she at last reached the main river. The sound of rushing water coursed angelically in the flowering night.
On the opposite bank stood Moruge Forest, the barrier between her and the eastern province. She estimated that if she cut a straight path through the forest there were about five days' travel ahead of her before she reached the eastern province. There she could appeal to the regional elders for protection, as long as the hand of corruption had not yet reached so far—and she had little reason to believe that it had. Calatia was mostly self-sufficient and so kept to its own affairs as far as it could manage and out of the business of the interior whenever possible.
As luck would have it there was a crossing a short distance upstream. It would have been too dark to see at a distance but for the lamplight issuing from the river man's post. She was about to make for the bridge when she remembered that she was a fugitive and that it would not do to permit anyone the occasion to give witness to her crossing, even someone so benign as a friendly river man. Instead she took a running leap into the river, letting the cool, pure running water course over her. The river rinsed the filth from her clothes and hair and soothed her tired limbs. The weight of the day's task seemed to wash off her, leaving her with a tingling sensation of relief and a strong desire to rest.
Though a keen sense of caution still ran through her every thought, a bank of clouds had gathered overhead and now shrouded the moon, as though to shield her from its betraying glow. She considered this a moment and decided that a moment of relaxation was worth the risk after her long journey. She closed her eyes, intending only to take a brief rest. But sleep soon overtook her, and she breathed softly and soundly as the river gently bore her hence.
- - -
When she stirred awake, mid-morning was already upon her. The sun peeking above the eastern wood was in fact the chief reason for her rousing; otherwise she might have gone on sleeping well into the afternoon. At first she was alarmed that she had allowed herself to drift off for so long in such an unpredictable place and circumstance but was nonetheless relieved to discover that she had lasted through the night unharmed. Apparently she had gained purchase at the foot of a willow hanging over a bend and curled up in its roots, where she remained relatively hidden—indeed surprisingly well so given that the river had dropped her there purely by coincidence.
The much-needed rest had greatly restored her strength. Now she would be better able to endure the remainder of her flight through the wilds, and for that she knew she should be grateful. But she did not yet know how far she had drifted downstream; for all she knew she could have floated almost to the shores of Lake Hylia in the south, far from where she intended to travel though she supposed as good a destination as any. She crept out from her hiding-place and peeked through the hanging willow-branches to get a better look at her surroundings.
By all appearances she had not drifted too far. The edge of Moruge still loomed across the water (or else that of some unknown forest she had neither seen nor read about), and judging by the direction of the morning sun she seemed to have nestled in a crook in the river that bent towards the east—the very bend she had been afraid of overshooting the previous evening. At most she was a few miles south of the crossing, hardly a significant setback. But the river had picked up tremendous speed for quite a long way leading up to the bend, and not far downstream it turned to rocky rapids. She was fortunate to have met a turn in the river before she reached those currents; the stream had left her safely at the foot of the willow instead of leaving her to the mercy of rougher waters. The river had also widened to over twice its earlier breadth. Unless she followed the bank some distance upstream to a calmer stretch, she reckoned it was not safe to swim. She turned her attention back to the rapids and saw that there looked to be enough rocks that she could make use of them as a natural step-stone bridge. The going would be treacherous but not beyond her.
Before setting off she decided that it would do her no good to traipse about in her wet state; the water that dripped in her wake might leave a more conspicuous trail for the enemy to follow. Her dress was soaked through and her skin pruned from a long night spent in the river, so she slid out of her garments and hung them on one of the lower branches of a nearby tree. Since she had no towel with which to dry or cover herself, she retreated beneath the willow's canopy, reclined on a large rock that happened to rest there, and waited for the day's heat to do its work. Though the drooping boughs hid her well, they let in more than enough light to warm her; and the sun-rays passing through the leaves cast a soothing greenish glow on her tranquil hideaway. Lying exposed in such an unknown place was both exhilarating and terrifying, but knowing the comforting verdant sheath shielded her from outside view tempered her anxiety and put her as much at ease as she could hope to be. She tried to direct her thoughts to the whisper and the feel of the soft breeze, or to the sweet birdsong, or to any of a number of other pleasant things.
Her skin dried much quicker than she guessed it would, as did her clothes (she did not intend to wait for her hair to follow suit). Within a half hour she had redressed and stepped out from the leafy sheath, and was on her way. She noted, much to her chagrin, that she had already lost almost half the daylight hours between oversleeping, scouting, and sitting out to dry; still, she hoped to make good headway before the day was out.
The place she chose for her crossing was a short quarter-mile downriver and was much more intimidating up close than at a distance. Rapids leaped and tumbled and splashed over the stepping-stones with persistent irregularity so they were visibly slippery and the threat of being tripped by a rush from the river hung over them like a prankster spirit; it was a disheartening spectacle. Her resolve quivered all the more when she saw that some of the other rocks that littered the stream were jagged and menacing and that the river was as wide as ever.
In the end will overcame fear. She drove out her trepidation with a sobering reminder of what her enemies might do if they discovered her and took a desperate first leap to the nearest stone. A wide cleft that ran down the middle made for slightly awkward footing, but she managed to catch herself. The next few stepping-stones were closer together; she hopped between them easily until she came to a wider rock near the middle of the rapids. This one hung over a dip in the rushes, and as she touched down it wobbled and almost slid from its place. A quick shift of her weight steadied it enough for her to avoid a rather nasty fall and take another jump to a less precarious perch, but a crunch and a crash and a quick look back told her that she had made it just in time. The force of her leap had further loosened the rock's hold; it broke free and dropped into the white-waters and out of sight.
From there on to the northeast bank the going was relatively easy, and before long she had taken her first steps into the forest.
- - -
Moruge Forest was one of the Elder Woods, that pantheon of sacred forests that had stood since the dawn of man—or so the stories told. In olden days, before the founding of the kingdom, it marked the fringe of the sacred land where the goddesses first descended. Since then both forest and country had grown and prospered, and the woods now stretched from the banks of the river all the way to the Calatia border—a considerable distance for even a seasoned traveler. She had a trying journey ahead of her, but the eastern edge of Moruge was the closest provincial divide and thus her best bet.
Though she had been able to make good time across the plains while keeping her distance from the road, the underbrush grew increasingly prohibitively thick the deeper she went and slowed her progress. The denser environment brought with it not only more plant-life to reckon with but a host of creatures both large and small; she heard far too many frightful noises that she could not identify and found herself peeling spiderwebs off of her face and clothes much too often for comfort. Keeping an eastward course proved more difficult than she had hoped. Enough sunlight poked through the trees that she could at least negotiate her way through the trees, but without a clear view of the sun's path across the sky or a well-traveled trail to follow she could only do her best to avoid meandering too far either to the north or south. Compared to the plains, however, the forest provided safer and more consistent cover; she could at least be grateful for that.
She continued in this manner for several hours until she stumbled upon a clearing that looked to have served as a camp once upon a time. An old fire pit lay in the rough center, distinguishable by the pile of spent ashes and the telltale circle of stones that surrounded it. The forest canopy opened up overhead, letting in a considerable amount of sunlight. Out on the plain this would have been a liability; in the midst of the sea of trees it was a comfort. It was already evening and the clearing seemed the best place she could expect to find to settle down for the night, so she went to gather some stray logs and kindling and after some toil managed to light a fire. She spread her shawl on the ground at the edge of the pit and sat staring at the flickering embers.
Hunger began to settle in; she had exhausted her meager store of food two days before, but she supposed she was fortunate enough to have been able to bring what provisions she had. She could use her knife to catch small game in a pinch, but she had no real experience in that sort of hunt; she was much more comfortable with a bow in her hand and a quiver at her back. At least she had taken the opportunity to refill her canteen at the river before entering the forest and so if she rationed it well she would not have to go without water for a good while.
As the stars settled into the heavens, she settled in for the night. She wrapped herself in her shawl and lay down beside the fire. The forest floor could hardly match the comforts of home and a nice cozy bed, but she had a roaring fire and a makeshift blanket and after days of desperate flight that was more than enough.
- - -
Her sleep was sound at first; she dreamed lovely dreams and the fire kept her more than warm enough. But as the hours dragged on, beasts began to stir in the woods and a mighty howl rang through the night. She snapped awake to see only the fire, still burning brightly, and as her eyes adjusted to the night she used its light to scan her surroundings. As far as she could tell nothing unsavory had yet crept into her camp, which was reassuring, but she thought she heard the sounds of footfalls in several directions—whether animal or man, she could not say. If her pursuers had tracked her there they would have no trouble finding her by her fire; yet she could not put it out for fear of monsters, a more certain threat in those parts. Judging by the noises coming from the trees beyond her sight and the light of the fire, their threat was more than merely an imagined one.
The wind that had settled in whipped the conflagration into a violent, captivating dance that only served to amplify her anxiety. Until the uncanny noises and eerie movements of the flickering flames subsided, she would have no more truly restful sleep that night. She began to shiver in her terror and the growing cold, so she curled closer to the flames, tucked her knees against her chest, and hoped the warm light would cure her chill and ward off any vicious creatures that might think to draw near. If it did not—at least she still had her knife to depend on.
She clutched its handle at her waist, but it brought little comfort, serving instead as a constant reminder of the danger she could feel circling around her, prowling beyond the pulsing ring of light that marked the boundaries of her zone of safety. Hoping to shut out her fears, she squeezed her eyes closed. Her trepidation got the better of her, however; every few moments, at the sound of crackling twigs or the fluttering of owls' wings in the treetops, they snapped open again and scanned the night. As the noises grew louder she found it increasingly more difficult to hold herself back from peering all about. She drew herself to a sitting position and huddled with her legs against her chest.
After what seemed like hours of constant vigilance, she thought she spotted a pair of eyes twinkling in the flicker of the fire. Those two eyes multiplied to a dozen before advancing into her camp, beyond the edge of the flame's light. As the creatures to whom those glowing lamplights belonged came into view, she gasped. They were wolf-like at first glance, with long slender snouts and great pointed ears, but their fur lacked the clean, well-groomed sheen of most common wolves. Instead, they were mangy and knotted, and their bodies almost appeared to rot. Their torsos bulged with muscular bulk that rivaled that of the strongmen who often accompanied traveling circus troupes in those days.
Wolfos. She knew these beasts from their descriptions in the tales of travelers, though she had not seen one before, having never found need to venture so deep into their territory. Now that she found herself face-to-face with a pack of them, however, she knew that they were more terrible to behold than the stories ever could have told. Still, she feared them less than the danger she had left behind. She rose to her feet and brandished her dagger, marking each of her foes as they approached.
She knew something of fighting, though she had only sparred with men, not beasts. Her limited skills would have to be enough. A fight was a fight, she supposed; wolves attacked by swiping and leaping just like anything else. It was the biting that concerned her; she knew no tactic for countering snapping monster jaws. She had little time to consider them before they advanced, bounding at her with ferocity in their eyes and snarls.
They seemed to favor coming at her in twos, the pair circling her so as to size her up before they delivered their attack. Before long one of them leaped, teeth bared and paws slashing through the air as it flew at her. She managed to dodge it more easily than she had expected, and gave it a sharp stabbing blow to the back of its neck as it lunged past. It fell to the forest floor in a crumpled heap without even putting up a struggle.
She drew back her knife and raised it in front of her in a defensive stance, ready for the next attack. Her head swam with the thrill of having struck and killed with her own hand. She could feel her adrenaline rising, setting her heart pumping and sending a vicious heat over her as the fallen creature's sap-like blood trickled down her knife and onto her fingers. The feel of the monster blood steeled her resolve. Now that she knew she had the capacity to deal with them, her attackers seemed much less intimidating, even despite their numbers. She had only to isolate them and dispatch them one by one. Judging by their stalking tactics, accomplishing this would not be too difficult.
As the second Wolfos continued strafing around her, another beast bounded forward to replace its fallen brother. She kept her gaze focused on the newcomer while the other slipped behind her and crept close to deliver a mighty swipe, believing she had diverted her attention and would not notice. Fortunately she had not been so careless; she whirled around and jabbed her blade into its heart just as it reared onto its hind legs and raised its paw to strike.
The next two beasts to attack did so in tandem. She was at first surprised at the change of strategy, but managed to fend one of them off with a quick heel to the face and used it as a stepping stone to leap over the other. Before the Wolfos she had kicked could recover, she slammed her boot into the back of its neck and slid her knife through its spinal cord, silencing it immediately. The other wolf skidded at the edge of the trees and bounded back in her direction, but she was ready. She threw her shawl at the monster so that it draped over its head, obscuring its vision. The beast stopped short and struggled for a moment, and looked about to tear through the shawl when she tugged it away and stabbed the Wolfos between its eyes.
She had not even withdrawn her blade from the creature's skull before the remaining Wolfos made their move. Her blade carved a path toward the nearer of the two, but it lifted its paw in defense to knocked the knife out of her hand and swiped its claws across her left arm. Fortunately the slash delivered only a glancing blow that left her with only a pair of long jagged gashes; its claws were long and powerful enough to have ripped through her completely. The beast moved in to take a great bite out of her, but she brought up her heel and kicked it in the roof of its mouth. It staggered back from the recoil, but its comrade bounded over its stunned kin and lunged at her face. She ducked low just in time to avoid its wild strikes and it went soaring over her and into the fire.
The wolf's dry and patchy fur erupted in flame, causing it to howl in pain and scramble helplessly about the clearing, rolling against the ground in a mad effort to extinguish the conflagration. All its efforts came to naught, and as the fire spread over its body it ran off screaming into the night. Bewildered by the terrible fate that had befallen its brother, the final Wolfos, still stumbling from the blow she had delivered, fled after the burning beast with a weak whimper.
Panting from the effort, she collapsed, clutching her profusely bleeding arm. She recovered her knife and cut a section from her shawl to use as dressing for the wound, choked off the gushing blood, and checked the corpses of her fallen attackers to be certain that all that remained in the clearing had perished. Satisfied with her findings, she wrapped herself in her shawl, crept back close to the fire, and listened closely for any sign of some other foul beast in the vicinity.
After convincing herself that nothing else would threaten her that night, she acknowledge the hunger that gnawed at her. She did not know if Wolfos meat was suitable for human consumption, but she knew that she needed food, and there was no telling when she would find another chance at a meal. She also had no idea how to skin an animal, but she did her best and managed to scrape together enough meat to curb her appetite. Onto the fire it went, propped up by a pair of flat rocks. She poked and prodded it periodically with her knife to examine its tenderness, and once it had cooked through she devoured it with her bare hands. It was neither particularly delicious nor noticeably vile; with the right seasonings it might have been presentable.
She finished the meal quickly and let it settle in her stomach for a few moments before reclining again and letting her exhaustion bear her back to sleep, if not a fitful one then at least restful enough that she could recover from the night's events.
- - -
Morning came too swiftly; her sleep was much briefer than the night before, and the sight of decaying Wolfos corpses as soon as she woke made for a much less pleasant awakening. Still groggy-eyed, she did her best to extinguish what was left of the fire and recover her bearings and set out as soon as she could.
No sooner had she set foot beyond the bounds of her camp than she heard the sounds of footfalls and clinking armor headed in her direction. She then realized her mistake—she should not have let a single one of her attackers escape. For though the monsters that made their home in the deep woods of the world kept mostly to their own packs, foes like those who pursued her could easily sway such beasts to serve their wicked purposes. They must have extracted her whereabouts from the fleeing Wolfos, who would have been eager for aid in avenging their fallen comrades.
She thanked the gods for the meal they had delivered her in the night; without it she knew she would not have been able to summon the strength to take flight. As she ran, she was careful not to permit her feet or her dress to get snagged on the tangled roots that regularly jutted out from the ground. She weaved her way around the trees, hoping to avoid being seen. With any luck her pursuers would not have realized that she had just vacated her camp and would lose time in examining it for any signs of her next move. She did not dare to trust too much in hope, however, and kept running without losing a stride.
A few minutes later she stumbled upon a sight that was both reassuring and alarming: she had reached the main road. It was no wonder that her pursuers had found their way to her camp so quickly with the trail so close by. At the same time, she knew she was headed in the right direction, and if she skirted the road she could ensure that she stuck to the shortest way possible through the brush while remaining relatively out of sight. She just had to move quickly and quietly and lay as low as possible in case some of them took back to their horses and to the road with the hope of spotting her in the trees. Just in case, she kept her eyes fixed on the road as she ran.
Her close attention to the road diverted too much of her focus from what lay ahead; she ran directly into a large rock that lay across her path and let out a yell. She immediately clamped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late. Anyone close by would have heard her scream. Fortunately her pursuers did not seem to be near at hand.
She recovered from the momentary shock and was about to rise back to her feet when she saw someone approach her, a sword slung over his shoulder. Fearing the worst, she gripped the handle of her knife and watched him with suspicion as he came toward her.
He stopped at a short distance and called out to her: “Are you all right, Miss? I heard your scream as I rested across the road and could not help but investigate.”
Now that he had drawn fairly close, she took a better look at him. He was youthful and strong, with an eager face; he wore no mail or armor, clad only in simple Calatian garb; his sword was like those wielded by knights of the kingdom, but lacked any special adornments. She reminded him of many of the young men who came from all corners of the land at this time of year, the end of the harvest season, to pledge their service to the king. Judging by his manners, he may well have been on his way to the palace at that very moment and for that very purpose. In any case, he did not seem to have anything to do with her pursuers, and certainly did not mean her any harm. He might even be able to help her.
She relaxed her defensive stance and removed her hand from her knife.
“I am...fine,” she said. “I doubt that there is even a scratch. It was only a shock. I was too careless and ran headlong into this boulder.”
“It's dangerous to go alone this deep into the forest,” he said. “Why stray so far from the trail? And what happened to your arm?” He arched an eyebrow and gestured towards the wrappings she had made for her wounds the night before.
“I see that nothing will get past you,” she said. It seemed certain that even if she did not disclose the details of her plight, this young man would find her out, but she was still unsure of whether she could trust him. His gaze caught hers, and she peered into his eyes, scanning them as if she could somehow see through them to the character of his heart. She sensed genuine concern in him—the kind of concern she would expect from a true knight. Her guard at last retreated.
“I am pursued.”
His expression shifted from relaxed concern to alerted caution, but she still saw the same kindness in them.
“Pursued? By whom?”
“It is a complicated tale,” she said, “one that I fear I do not have the time to tell here. Suffice to say that my pursuers are soldiers from the capitol. Something terrible has happened there, and as a witness I have become a political target. I took flight, hoping to reach the Calatia border, appeal to the elders for protection, and expose all that unfolded, but could not escape undetected. They have tracked me, even into this remote stretch of country.”
He stood silently for a moment as he considered her story. She had of course left out many critical details, but what she had told was accurate enough. Her greatest concern would be that he thought her some kind of criminal and that the castle soldiery had just cause for pursuing her. She expected however that he was bright enough to realize that only the highest crimes were worth sparing the castle's defenders for a hunt this far from the capitol, and hoped he would not suspect her of such a thing. After all, she had heard of more unlikely persons than she being recommended to the gallows for treason—and not on false or trumped charges.
Behind her she heard the soldiers approach. They did not seem to care much for subtlety; she could not yet see them clearly and already they made a terrific clamor. With her pursuers so close, she lost the resolve to steel her emotions. She ran to cower behind the stranger, clutched his arm, and whispered pleadingly in his ear that there was no time to waste, that they were almost upon her. He seemed to hear them too.
“I believe you,” he said at last. “I will help you in whatever way I can. For now, we should ride together to my village. It's not far, only two days' travel beyond the edge of Calatia. If it's the elders' protection you seek, you will find it there. My horse is tethered at the other side of the road; we can be away at once.”
He led her by the hand to the place he had described, where his horse waited just as he had said. The steed was the picture of elegance; it wore a beautiful reddish coat and sported a magnificent pure white mane. She told her protector as much, and he smiled.
“Her name is Epona,” he said, scratching the horse beneath her chin. “She was to bear me to the castle so that I could deliver my village's tribute to the royal family. If something terrible has indeed happened at the capitol, as you say, it may be better that we undertake your errand instead.”
He hoisted her onto Epona's back before climbing up easily himself, and they broke off and rode ahead along the trail. The trees flew by them on either side of the road, and she forgot the sound of her pursuers gaining ground as it passed away beneath Epona's hoof-falls. On foot she would have had three or four more days ahead of her before reaching the eastern edge of the forest; now, gods willing, she would pass the Calatian border by the end of the afternoon. She could not believe her good fortune.
“Forgive me, Miss, but in the midst of the excitement I've neglected to even give you my name,” the young man called over his shoulder. “And don't feel obligated to give me yours in return. I understand you've got your safety to worry about.”
“Thank you,” she said—and meant it. Already he had shown her more care than she had ever expected to find this far from home, even from the elders in whom she sought refuge. She tightened her grip around his waist, and she thought she could feel him turn the corners of his mouth to smile at her through the back of his neck.
“Don't mention it,” he said. “Once we've reached my village we can talk more about the details.”
He eased Epona around a bend, steering her with the skill of a seasoned rider. There could be no doubt that he was a Calatian: their horsemanship was legendary. It was no accident that many of the most celebrated knights in the traditional tales of the great storytellers came from the province.
“As for my name...it's Link. Link Swiftblade.”
Swiftblade. That name was well-known inside the capitol. It seemed her guess that he might be destined for knighthood was sounder than she had first supposed. If this young man bore any relation to the Swiftblade she knew—suffice to say that the gods could not have blessed her with a more capable savior.
“I am very glad to meet you, Link,” she said. “Although perhaps you might have already guessed as much, with things as they are.”
Link let out a hearty laugh, and she could not help but smile.
“And do not worry about my name,” she said. “You have trusted and helped me; I in my turn shall trust you. You may call me Marin.”
“Marin...” said Link, seemingly to himself. “What an impossibly lovely name.”