When would it stop?
Ember ran until she was exhausted, until she was sure she would collapse, but still heard hooves rumbling in pursuit.
She couldn’t shake them.
She thought about turning to face them as a garagran and fighting her way through, but missed a step, tripped on a root and went down hard, her pack slamming on top of her.
She lay there for a moment, almost grateful for the snow–cold but soft–before getting up and looking for her bow.
Ember found it four steps ahead where it had flown from her hand.
Undamaged, but she barely knew how to use it anyway.
She started to move again but stopped when she realized something was missing.
Hooves. No hooves.
The night had gone silent.
She stood still, listening as closely as she could, but there was no longer thunder in the distance.
Ember knelt down and pressed her ear to the dirt.
Had she lost them?
It seemed very sudden. Possibly they were all circled around her, waiting for her to take another step.
She almost didn’t care. Taking a closer look at the idea of fighting them, she knew she would probably lose, especially considering the strange devices she had already seen them using. Even normal soldiers would have had a decent chance in her current condition. Her short time in the sun had barely given her any power, and she had used most of that up running away.
No power meant no flight, fire or extra strength and speed.
It also meant she would have no defense against anything that landed on her.
Tixeries had been known to use that tactic to great advantage.
If they were waiting, turning and fighting would only quicken her end.
And maybe there was still hope ahead.
Ember set out again, slower so she could listen.
Still no hooves.
She relaxed just a little and let her strength recover.
Soon a new smell came to her nose, complex and filled with character. A city. Pulling it apart she picked out smoke, tar, manure, roast meat, pine resin and the ammonia stench of a tannery. The smell of roast meat made her remember just how hungry she was.
Not so much the tannery or the manure.
She adjusted her direction so that she was heading for the smells and walked a little faster.
Suddenly she emerged over a rise and saw the city lights below. High walls and higher buildings, some of them… How did they live that high? Did they have lifts on every building?
No. Every tree.
The tallest buildings in the city were all hollowed-out trees, with lit windows that went up what had to be over fifty heights.
She’d heard of that before. It was something the Lilta did. The Children.
Not much was known about the kingdom she’d escaped into. Salshira, it was called. Set in a plateau valley, with high mountains on all sides, it was fairly hard to get to for anyone without wings and powerful flying ability.
Especially with all the guard towers along the tops of the mountain ranges.
There were also strange tales about attempted trespassers catching on fire suddenly when they neared the peaks. Those tended to discourage intrusions, too.
There were traders that visited, but it seemed most of them acquired their goods at the border towns just inside the passes. Immigration was allowed, but if there were emigrants from Salshira, they weren’t talking much.
The Children. Weak like the common Bortin, but almost as long lived as the garagrans and alleji.
Usually considered much more polite than the garagrans, however.
Perhaps they would only ask her to leave before they shot her with an arrow.
She sat down on the rise and stared at the city, wondering why she had come so close. There was no way she was getting in. Even if she could have gotten over the walls in this body, the guards appeared to have some kind of bright lanterns that they were shining around outside. Whatever the strange, blazing contraptions were, it seemed certain they would let the guards spot her before she ever got close.
Besides that, the Children had a reputation for seeing in the dark as well as any of the war races.
Perhaps this was where the riders had been driving her. It certainly seemed a good place for a trap.
No way forward and no way back.
Ember let out a deep sigh.
The trap could wait until morning. She was going to sleep for now.