The shadow did not return.
But the coils remained, every moment of every day and night.
Always waiting for Ember to take her eyes off the mountains for just one moment so it could pull her leg a little off course and bring her down.
The first day out from the oasis she fell down seventy-seven times. Exactly.
It kept count for her.
She got up and set out again one more time than that.
The next day she fell down seventy-eight.
She cried when that night came.
Somehow she moved again in the morning. Fought the weight off with words remembered from the scriptures, begged for the strength from Aihay, remembered to sing.
Remembered the songs to sing.
Sang them like they actually meant something.
And somehow the sand continued to pass under her feet day after day, hot, and gritty, and changeless, until it was no longer sand, but dirt.
And then grass.
Then trees at the base of the mountains.
That was where she found the first Imperial patrols that had nothing to do with her, guarding the eastern road leading into Salshira.
And beyond them…
The smoke of an army, rising into the sky from countless campfires.
She remembered the map of the region Bethania had made her memorize and turned south and then west, moving through the forests and foothills toward the higher pass at Jone’s Shield, near Sunfire Falls.
Even surrounded by armies, Salshira was just on the other side of those peaks.
Those peaks, right there above her.
At times she even remembered how to trot.
Until she saw the burned out valley leading into the pass, and the broken walls of the city, and the Imperial soldiers guarding its walls. Caravans went in, but they were caravans in Imperial colors, red and gold, and filled with weapons and more soldiers.
Salshira had fallen.
Ember lay down in a small cup of a valley at the top of a hill overlooking the pass. She almost wept. She wanted to, to wail and cry and scream.
So far. For what?
What was she here for?
To stare at a conquered kingdom? To die trying to rescue it?
“Please tell me, Yahsaw.”
She got no answer, but she did hear voices coming up the hill speaking a mash of Tokarien and Pemlik, accompanied by the clink of metal armor and the jangle and squeak of horse tack.
She got up and headed out the east end of the depression, back down into the foothill forests to go Kai only knew where.
That night she slept in a dense oak thicket hung with wild grapevines and dreamed of a heavy chest filled with gold nuggets that she had to take somewhere.
“But how do I get in?” she asked.
If she heard an answer, she didn’t remember it when she woke. But she did remember that there was a highpass in the southern mountains that wasn’t too far from her. If that failed she could just try finding a low spot anywhere and climbing over.
She looked up at the mountains, which went from low, and soft, and rolling in the foothills to sharp, and snowy, and almost straight up in the proper range. They were worthy of their name, “The Skyspikes”.
It wasn’t really very far. Just a day back the way she had come.
Two days walking, not trotting, trying to ignore the voice saying she would be so much happier asleep. She almost believed it again.
The highpass turned out to be another wrong way. From what she could see at a distance the Salshirans still held it, which was encouraging, but it was a long way up across open territory, and there were Imperial camps watching it. Even if the Imperials didn’t get her, the Salshirans might still kill her on accident.
Or with intent.
Still… if she kept moving as fast as she could, the Empire probably couldn’t stop her, and if they did shoot at her, that would probably be the best way to convince the Salshirans not to do the same…
No. No. If the Salshirans shot at her she wouldn’t survive. Running up the slope, even one hit would put her back into the Imperial forces, and that would be the end. She needed another way.
She crept back into the foothill forests again.
“Alright, Yahsaw. How do I get in? If you want me there, you need to show me.”
She sat down amidst the trees and waited.
Something laughed at her and told her to go to sleep again.
Ember sang a soft song while she waited, wondered how Ean was, if he was, watched the birds and squirrels that frolicked carefully just out of her reach.
Thought of the highpass again. No. Just no.
After several marks of waiting she got hungry.
It had been four or five, five, days since that deer that had stupidly gone to sleep in the brush three strads upwind of her, and that hadn’t been nearly enough. But it had taken the edge off. Now the edge was back.
She sniffed the air, searching for something large enough to be interesting.
No deer. No elk. No horse. Well, no horse that wasn’t also associated with human.
No grenik or chirikak.
She pulled out the scent. Scents. It was a pack, of course. Not too far away. Somehow mixed with some faint human scent, but the human was old, and the fresh scents were definitely wolves.
Ember got up and tried to blend in.
Worse than ever. She managed a dull green-black.
Well, if the black forest cats could manage, so could she.
She crept toward the wolves, staying as low as she could despite the pain and keeping the light breeze in her face as much as she could. When she found them, they were in a clearing. Make that a camp. A large camp.
That explained the old human scent. The wolves were picking through the remains of the camp looking for rodents drawn by the scraps.
She made it within pouncing distance of one of the gray beasts.
Its friends made the mistake of trying to defend it.
They were all very tasty.
When she was finished with her meal she looked around at the camp and tried to figure out what it had been for and why it was empty.
Why was it in the middle of the forest, away from any roads?
From the number of fire pits and the marks in the grass where tents had been, it had been for a sizeable force. And an orderly one. All the tents had been in even rows.
There had even been a smith, from the looks of one site. The smell of charcoal and the deep marks where the anvil had sat were unmistakable.
She found two paths out, one older leading toward the lowlands and one fresher and more worn leading to…
A cave that plunged into the base of the mountains.
She debated whether or not to go into the cave for a good kella. Seeing no reason not to, aside from the possibility of enemy soldiers, who would be small and crunchy and stuck in a small dark space with her where their ranged weapons and numbers wouldn’t do them much good, and getting no sense that she shouldn’t…
Go into the caves, Ember.
And ignoring input from the snake, she decided it was about the best option she had at the moment.
Unless the highpass was better.
No, not safe.
Down the hole, then.
Dark didn’t begin to describe it. At first there was faint light that bounced into the caves from outside, but once she made a few turns, there was none.
It was worse than the desert at night. There she had had the colors of the sky and the glimmering dots of the planets to remind her there was a world around her even when there was no moon, but here…
There was so little to see that her eyes seemed to be making things up. Little flashes and faint movement that all meant nothing.
Her nose still worked though, and it told her where the soldiers had gone from the scent their shoes had left on the stone. Iron hobnails grinding against basalt left a distinctive metallic smell, and the lard and beeswax used on the leather soles was also a potent trace.
Following the strongest concentration of shoe smell she crawled deeper and deeper into the cave system, until she was certain the entire mountain range was situated squarely above her head. There the smells became unreliable, as she reached what she was certain was some kind of underground river flowing through a gravel bed. The top of the gravel was dry to the touch, but the water was there, about the length of one of her fingers under the surface layer, and the scents were mostly absent.
She searched carefully and found a few pockets on patches of rock and higher gravel spots, but most of the trail had been washed clean, perhaps when the water rose at some point after the soldiers had come through.
She followed the few spots she could smell, making a line of them. They went with the river, and as the river descended… it split.
And also rose above the gravel. So there was no more scent. At all.
Ember realized this several turns too late. She sniffed for the way back, but it wasn’t there.
Ember felt the darkness move as the stone pressed down.
Welcome to my world, Ember. There’s no way out.
Her heart pounded in her chest. In her ears. Lights flickered and flashed in the darkness as she fought the panic.
Felds, ten-felds, beneath the earth, beneath the stone, lost with no way out.
A smile opened in the darkness. Eyes opened and looked at her.
Then were gone.
A claw traced along her cheek.
She backed up.
She wouldn’t scream. She wouldn’t scream.
“Yahsaw, please get me out of here. Please don’t leave me down here!”
“Oh, Ember. He’s abandoned you,” a clear voice said. “You chose to be down here.”
Not again. Not again! She had been through this already. She would not…
But it was true. She had chosen to be down here. She could have taken the highpass.
If she hadn’t been a coward.
Slow breaths. Don’t give in…
But she already had. She already had given in to fear.
How could she not lose?
She was in a cave. Just a cave. Just an empty cave.
A twisting empty cave. Where the blackness went on and on, the air swirled, and the water had swept away all guides.
She was never getting out. She was going to die here, all alone.
She clawed at the stone under the water. Lashed her tail. Whimpered.
Run. Run. You have to find a way out!
“No. No. No!”
Her heart felt like it was going to burst. The stone was closing in. The mountain was falling on her!
This was her grave.
Remember! There was something she had to remember!
There was nothing. Nothing but failure. Nothing but fear.
“Aihay was with me in the river!” She shouted it, trying to hear herself over the roaring that seemed to have filled her ears, drowning out all thought.
And still you feared. STILL you came down here.
She had… She had…
“I’m a coward.”
Her legs gave out and she covered her face with her hands and cried in the wet gravel. She had thought, through the desert, and the challenge with the shadow, but she was still…
Still afraid. Still the same.
It’s alright. I’ll get you out of here. Just follow me.
Comforting touches moved along her, coiled into her skin.
No. She had been afraid. She had not trusted, still. It was not alright.
But Aihay had been with her in Westruhl, too.
“Yahsaw, please forgive me for not trusting you.”
I HATE YOU! I hate you! I hate…
The roaring disappeared into stillness. The pressure of the coils was still there, but she was in a cave again. Just an ordinary dark cave.
And her nose felt warm.
She opened her eyes and saw…
From her feet.
Enough to see the water running under her by.
Looking at the flow she realized that if she went upstream, she would find the cave where the river had diverged again.
And there, she could pick up the trail by sight.
Aihay had heard. Again.
The last few passages were so narrow that Ember couldn’t go through them in her large form. She had to change, and even then there were places that left scrapes on her skin. As a human, she found the air cold, but not freezing. Which was good, because she had nothing on but boots, which didn’t really do a good job at keeping her warm.
Though they did keep glowing.
More, even, enough that she could see the marks left on the stone floor by the soldier’s hobnail boots. And spot the occasional crevasses and pits that yawned in the places the soldiers had avoided.
There had been a lot of soldiers. Perhaps a whole legion.
Rather than change back when the passage widened, she continued as she was. Changing still hurt some, and she didn’t know if there were more narrow passages ahead. Eventually she smelled air that was fresh even to her human nose, and soon after that she saw light that didn’t come from the boots.
She stepped out into a clearing, bounded by trees and recent undergrowth at about a quarter-feld from the cave. The mid-morning sunlight was blinding bright and warm on her skin, and she stood there in the open, breathing in the light and the open sky.
A crack from the brush drew her attention and she looked more closely at where she was.
She had been on the other side of a setup like this once.
Was that a hint of green cloth over there? The sound of breathing?
Was someone going to actually challenge her, or were they figuring out how many arrows to use feathering her?
She glanced at herself and realized that all the places on her that had no tan were shining in the sunlight.
She was rather naked.
“I would appreciate it if one of you would stop staring and bring me a cloak. Now, if you please.”
Crackles moved through the brush, accompanied by whispers.
A Salshiran del stepped forward, hands filled with a green cloak covered in fake leaves, and advanced with his eyes carefully averted. He held it out to her and she snatched it and swept it around herself, quickly buttoning up the storm buttons from the inside and then slipping her arms out through the sleeves. As she did she noticed other figures appearing in the bushes, relaxed bows in their hands.
“Thank you. Now take me to whoever’s in charge.”
“Ummm, who are you, Miss?” The young Bortin man asked.
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Princess Ember Rehksskari, Prince Tavarin’s betrothed. And you?”
“Oh, I, uh, yes. We thought you were…”
“Yes. Well, I’m back. Now take me to your commander.”
At first glance the camp looked like it occupied about a feld of open clearing. But as Ember continued to look around she saw that it continued into the trees, almost like the Salshirans had made a larger camp on top of a previous clearing, but failed to open more space for it. From the view she got atop a small rise it looked like the whole camp covered at least a square ten-feld, hidden under the canopy. Maybe more.
A huge army.
What was it doing at the cave?
The commander was a young Liltan man named Kemdry LirRistek. A ruhn-tegar, assistant to a commander of a thousand, not nearly a high enough rank for this many people. He looked hollow, like the last time he had slept was a year ago.
“Welcome, Princess Rehksskari. Prince Ean is here if you wish to see him.”
“He is?” She stared at him, leaving the question of why Ean wasn’t in the command tent, running things, hanging in the air.
“I’m sorry, Princess. He was shot by a cannon during the Empire’s assault on Jone’s Shield. We carried him with us when we retreated. Most of the other commanders were also injured or killed. Our scouts found the cave the Empire used to flank us and break the pass”
Shot by a cannon.
But he was alive.
“This is the army that was at Jone’s Shield?”
“Yes, your Highness.”
So that was why it was so large.
“Is the Capitol still intact?”
“We think it is. They had the walls finished before the Empire started their assault, but we haven’t been in communication. The Garagrans started looking for our flash signals.”
They were hiding, then.
“Take me to Ean, please.”
The hospital tent was filled with injured men, and it was only the tent for the officers. She couldn’t imagine how many wounded there must be if this was the condition of the command staff. As LirRistek’s aide lead her down the bedrolls laid out on the ground, past a scattered squad of nurses changing bandages, injecting medicines, and spooning food, she saw any number of men missing hands, feet, limbs, or even faces.
At least, that was what she feared was the case when the bandages covered the whole head.
Ean was at the end, and as she stepped up to the bed she smelled something off.
“Here he is. Shall I leave you with him, Princess?”
She held up her hand.
Ember approached the bed, noting the bandages that went all the way up his right arm, and the other bandages wrapped around his chest and side. A poultice covering his cheek, as well, but his face was still visible. But the smell…
It was rot, and if her human nose could detect it, it was bad. Her heart twisted.
She reached over and touched his left hand, clean and unharmed. Took it in hers and squeezed it.
Ean opened his eyes. Searched the room like he couldn’t see anything, then started to note things, like her hand on his. Followed her hand to her face.
She choked on a sob that just bubbled through her.
He smiled. Then he looked around, scanning for other faces.
“Trin’s gone,” she said, squeezing his hand tighter. “She died getting me out.”
Ean’s eyes tightened. He looked back at her and stared at her face.
He gave her hand a weak squeeze in return.
“I’m glad you’re back. Stay this time.”
She looked for the aide.
“Get one of the nurses for me.”
He nodded and went across the tent. A moment later a blue-gray furred Narimirin approached with the aide at her side.
“His wounds are rotten. I can smell them.”
The woman flicked her ears and tail and nodded.
The woman nodded again, trying not to meet Ember’s eyes.
“Have you done anything?” Ember heard the heat in her own voice, the beginning of a threat hanging over her tone.
“Your Highness, he told the surgeons to look after the other soldiers first. There are so many. The surgeons are still working day and night on the wounded.”
Ember pulled her anger back. Cooled it in prayer.
Aihay, be with me. Be with Ean. Help, please.
“Bring me the surgeon responsible for him. Now.” The woman dashed out. Ember gave the aide a look telling him he still wasn’t dismissed, then turned back to Ean. He had drifted off, his hand still in hers. She set his hand down on the bed and waited.
The surgeon was another Narimirin, his red-gold fur only visible around his green eyes and mouth due to the light green fabric bound tight over his whole body and even wrapping his head. He greeted her and went straight to Ean, first peeking under the wrappings and then removing them while the nurse waited nearby.
The arm revealed was black in places and the gaping wound in his side had…
“The maggots weren’t enough,” the surgeon murmured. “The shrapnel must have left too many fragments. He needs to go into surgery right now.”
Ember caught his eye. The look he gave her in return was grim.
“I’m sorry. I should have ignored his orders. I’ll go get the surgery prepped immediately. My assistants will be back to carry him over in a few kellas.” He glanced at the wounds again then back to Ember. “You should… you should encourage him. And stay until they come.”
In other words, she should treat the next few kellas as probably the last she would ever have with him.
Ember dismissed the aide after telling him to send his commander to find her as soon as he had a moment.
Then she sat down on the edge of Ean’s bed and gently shook him awake.
He smiled at her again.
“They’re putting you into surgery.”
“I think I heard.”
“Promise that you’ll stay.”
She moved close so that his eyes filled her vision.
He stared back.
“You’re eyes look different.”
“It’s not my decision to make.”
“That’s natat. Pahl chose to stay with the Akahllis. You promise me you’ll stay here, with me.”
“And what if Yahsaw tells me to come home?”
“Then you beg him to let you stay until he tells you to stop asking.”
“I’m sorry I got shot.”
Ember punched him in his good side. He grunted.
“I promise. If I have a choice, I will stay.”
She kissed him, then buried her face against his neck. The rest of the time they were together she told him how she had gotten back to Salshira, leaving out Woldmont and several other details. He could hate her later when he wasn’t about to die.
Then the surgeon’s assistants came and moved Ean onto a stretcher. She watched them go, then left the tent and searched the camp for a quiet place where she could break down. She found it in a stony overlook that reached out of the trees and gave a view of the foothills leading into the central valley.
There she wept. And screamed. And asked again and again how many people Aihay would tear out of her life.
And got no answer, only stillness.
A stillness that went on and on and only listened. Listened while she lost control. Listened while the tears soaked her face and the cloak and the sobs increased until she thought she would shake apart.
Listened while she threw rocks at the sky and then buried her face against the ground and pounded stone with her fists.
Listened until she was ready to listen herself.
And then was still silent.
“Why?” she asked into the silence.
The wind blew. The trees soughed. Somewhere a bird chirped.
Ember waited. Waited as the sun climbed through the sky, hit its peak, and moved on.
Waited until boots crunched on the stone behind her and she turned to find Ruhn-Tegar LirRistek approaching. He looked even more harried.
“I heard about the Prince,” he said. “The surgeons are still working on him. I got your message but couldn’t find you. I apologize for taking so long.”
Ember shook her head and looked back out over Salshira.
“I apologize myself. I needed to have a conversation.”
There was a silence, then the boots approached another few steps.
“We’ve all been having a lot of those.”
Ember thought of all she had seen and nodded.
No one understood.
Yet, Aihay was there. And… she thought of the butterfly. Of the gemstone city. Of a man with wounded hands sitting on a throne.
Of a friend’s forgiveness, a cowherd’s pardon, a Prince’s protection, a feast in a town, an unlikely champion, a slave in a dungeon.
Of a door bursting open where it couldn’t have, and a rock and a light in a raging flood, and two promises kept.
Ember stood up.
Yes, he was there. And she believed in him.
The wind blew again, and on it this time Ember heard a tone, deep and constant, that sounded like it had come from somewhere far across the plains. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kemdry jerk upright.
“What is that sound?”
“The war horn. Sunfire Falls is calling for reinforcements. The Empire must have begun its final assault.”
Ember nodded. Very well.
“Your will be done, Aihay.”