They rode on in comfortable silence. Chely’s ears flicked at almost every sound, even the ones Cass couldn’t hear, while Cass closed her eyes and breathed in the dark earthen scent of the forest. The dirt was damp and the air felt humid, as though a rainstorm had just come through even though the night sky was clear.
Abruptly, Chely picked up her pace and, startled, Cass’s eyes flew open, a bolt of alarm striking her.
“Chely?” Cass whispered .
The dhakyr didn’t answer; just flicked her tail sharply. Her heart beating madly and all of her senses fully awakened, Cass leaned forward and pressed herself against Chely’s neck. Her eyes were wide, trying to stare into the dark forest, but the minimal moonlight streaming through had her feeling blind.
“Chely,” Cass whispered again.
Quiet, my lady, Chely ordered, her voice full of tension. I hear people in the forest, but can’t tell if they are travelers or not.
It was the “or not” part that had Cass griping the dhakyr’s mane, fear immobilizing her body. Had she left the safety of the palace just to die in a dark forest?
Something in her screamed “no.” She grit her teeth and forced her head to rise so she could peer into the midnight forest surrounding them. It was just her and Chely. The dhakyr only had so many abilities, could only protect her so much. It would be up to her and whatever powers being the Star Queen she had to get them out of the forest alive.
Cass didn’t know what she was doing, but her hands curled into fists and she tried to coax courage into her terrified body.
Branches moved, creaking and cracking in the still air. Leaves moved aside to let more moonlight fall around them. A tremor only Cass could sense rippled through the ground. Forest animals scampered away and became still as branches swayed without the wind.
Chely’s ears flicked and her nose turned slightly to the left. Cass followed the barely perceptible movement and, through the thick night could see a small bobbing light. It was faint, but rapidly brightening.
“Keep going,” Cass whispered, “but don’t vary your pace. Let them think they are catching us unaware.”
Is that safe, my lady? The fear lacing Chely’s voice had her heart faltering.
“I don’t know,” Cass admitted, “but they could simply be lost travelers or curious children out exploring the night forest.”
Chely didn’t respond, but kept trotting along. The light bobbed closer, brightening until it broke free and three men stepped out onto the path to their left. Cass rested her hands flat against Chely’s neck and the dhakyr stopped.
Despite her terror, Cass held herself tall and firm as she gazed at the three men. With their dark, skin-tight clothes and long knives that hung at their hips, these were not travelers or exploring children. They didn’t look the way Cass thought bandits would, yet she was sure that’s what they were.
They were young, no more than a few years older than her. One had a head of bushy black hair, the second was bald with gleaming black eyes, and the third had beautiful blond hair that shone in the light of the fire he carried. Despite their casual postures, Cass knew they meant them harm.
“It’s a dark night for a pretty lady to be out riding by herself,” the blond said, taking a step forward.
Cass remained silent as she studied him, her heart thudding as the branches over their heads shook. The dark haired man glanced up and a flicker of unease briefly lit his eyes.
“I find the roads quieter and more enjoyable at night,” Cass said, fighting to keep her voice from shaking.
The man chuckled and glanced back at his companions. The bald man returned the grin, but the other didn’t move a muscle, his eyes still staring at the waving branches with trepidation.
“I bet you carry one of that witch’s traveling charms,” the man said, taking another step closer. “Soon you’ll realize she conned you.”
Cass lifted her chin. “What do you want?”
The man grinned. “Your purse, for one.”
He shifted, about to take another step. Cass flung out a hand, holding it up as though she could stop him. The leaves around them shook a little harder, the rustling now a bit louder, but the man paid it little attention.
“Do not take another step,” she ordered, swallowing the harsh taste of fear.
The man and his companions laughed and looked at each other. The bald man grinned broadly and fingered the hilt of his knife. The dark haired man flicked his eyes around, noting the trees’ movement in the absence of any wind, but he seemed to be putting his trust in the blond man. His chuckle was tinged with caution, but not fear.
“The lady is feisty!” the blond said, his eyes gleaming as he studied her. “What do you think? Should we keep her?”
Dark glints that had Cass’s stomach dropping filled their eyes. They took slow steps towards her and Chely’s whinny and dance away from them had the blond reaching for his knife.
Something in Cass snapped as fear shook her to her core. Seemingly out of nowhere, a branch swung out and knocked the dark haired man against a tree. He groaned and sank to the ground, where he lay still.
The blond man hissed and drew his knife. It glinted in the faint moonlight as he lifted it high. “You’ll pay a hefty price for that, lady. And don’t think anyone will hear you scream. Anderithen is nothing but ruins.”
The ground began to tremble before he could take a step. Startled, he and the bald man cried out and stumbled to regain their footing, holding their arms out to their sides and nearly cutting each other. Cass held tight to Chely as the trembling grew until the bald man lost his footing and his head slammed against a boulder. He gasped as the wind was knocked from him before slumping into stillness .
The blond man lifted his head, his face contorted in anger, as the trembling ceased. He raised his knife like a sword and Cass was horrified to see it grow into a long, broad blade. She screamed and flung her hands up.
The sound of the earth creaking and splitting filled the forest. Cass heard the man scream and lowered her hands just in time to see his head vanish down a deep fissure in the earth, just large enough to swallow him up. Heart pounding, she listened as the forest resumed its normal quiet cacophony with the trees swaying in the light breeze and the creatures scurrying. And she realized she never heard the man land.
Beneath her, the tension seeped out of Chely’s body and Cass slouched in relief.
Remind me to always travel with the Star Queen, the dhakyr quipped.
Cass shook her head. “I’m dangerous, Chely. I didn’t mean to hurt them. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I think the magic got away from me.”
Even though they meant to hurt you?
“I’m not like that,” Cass said softly as she slid from Chely’s back.
No longer touching the dhakyr, Cass only heard a snort of disbelief as Chely stamped a hoof.
Cautiously, Cass moved to the dark haired man. With his ebony skin, he blended right in with the night. With shaking fingers, she reached out to feel for a pulse on his neck. Holding her breath, she finally located it. It was fluttering and faint, but steady. Breathing out, she left him to check on the bald man. She didn’t even bother checking for a pulse on him; sadness filled her eyes as she stared into his wide, unseeing eyes. Blood pooled beneath his head, coating part of the boulder like thick paint haphazardly flung on it With a heavy heart, she moved to the fissure and looked down, but only saw darkness. She had no idea how far it was to the bottom, whether there even was a bottom, or how to close it.
Guilt heavy in her heart, she returned to Chely and climbed back on, head bowed. She gave a quiet command to go and then was quiet as hot, guilty tears slid down her cheeks.
They meant to kidnap you or murder you, Chely gently reminded her.
Cass wiped the tears away and sniffed. “That doesn’t mean I had to kill two of them. I’m dangerous, Chely. I have no idea how to control or manage my magic. I don’t even know what I’m capable of.”
Chely’s tail flicked. I can’t teach you, hut I know a sorceress on Cinalon. We’ll be going right through the island on the way to Raven Cliff and I’m sure she’ll be happy to help.
“No,” Cass said quickly. “I don’t want to get too close to anyone. I can’t have anyone getting curious, or, goodness forbid, recognizing me as the Star Queen, or, at least, the runaway princess from Baiater City. I have no idea if Landick and Talone have spread word of my disappearance. I can’t risk many people seeing me. Marianora and her friends and the minstrel are enough.”
Chely hummed in her head. Why don’t you disguise yourself? Cut your hair and color it. Dainadala is where we’ll get on the bridge to Cinalon. There are many with your hair color there. We can find someone who can style your hair for you.
Cass took a deep breath, seriously considering Chely’s idea. “It’ll be a start,” she murmured. “And I do need help. ”
I can get you there in a couple of days.
Cass nodded and leaned down to rest her head on Chely’s neck, obeying the dhakyr’s quiet order to sleep. She trusted the dhakyr to not let her fall and she desperately needed the rest. Chely assured her she would be well traveling through the night and could get them to the town on the other side of the village by morning, so Cass allowed herself to fall into a deep sleep.