This was not the way we were supposed to go. The guards, loaned to me by my generous cousin and King, hesitated for an age at the edge of the woods. The men wore grey cloaks over their leather armour, and carried swords bearing my royal crest. Their horses circled about, their hot breath rising into the chilly autumn air, as a pigeon gave its hollow call.
I kept my horse still, and smoothed out my skirts. These woods marked the edge of my kingdom—his kingdom now—and beyond them lay my future. My cousin feared for me, and so I had to leave, live in exile, for my own safety.
Or his, now that he claimed my father’s crown . . .
I shook off that unworthy thought. It was clear that I was a target for assassination. I ought to be grateful for this escape.
The men came to their decision, and now drank from leather bottles, chaffing each other about bravery and death.
The youngest of them had been assigned to me, and was excluded from the discussion. He was new, arrived from the friendly south to act as guide on my journey.
“Why are we waiting?” I asked him. “If we are to stop for the night, we should find a better camp than this.”
The newcomer edged his horse over to mine, shockingly close. I leaned away. A princess may not love until her kingdom is secure, and sometimes, not even then. “We’re to go through the woods,” he said.
“How do you know?”
He gave a half smile. “The straight and open road does not need a show of bravado.”
“Ha.” I looked at him with fresh interest. We had ridden together since dawn, and he had said little, which suited my mood. My hood had shielded my tears until I summoned enough anger to show my face.
Fury was the only defence against the dismissive deference of my guards. Yes, Highness, no, Highness, leave the thinking to us, Highness.
Now I saw that my nearest protector was perhaps nineteen, and sat his horse with easy grace. The reins lay loose in his left hand, and his right hand rested lightly on his thigh. “What’s your name?”
“Loren, your Highness.” His voice was light and lyrical, its melody suppressed by tiredness and duty.
“Why do the woods need bravado?”
Loren shifted in his saddle. “The woods are dangerous.”
He spoke softly, yet the word sent a tingle over my skin. “It’s not time yet for the quell,” I said.
“Autumn comes sooner in the forest, and the quellmen must claim their prize before the first leaf falls.” Loren’s eyes were blue, flecked with gold, like ash leaves against a September sky.
I shivered. I had survived twenty quells, in the isolated safety of my father’s castle. The sky swirled, rivers burst their banks, and mountains spewed their anger over the land. And all the hidden creatures from the dark half of the year emerged to hunt. In my tower, watching the distant smudge of destruction cross the landscape, part of me longed to be as wild and free as autumn and the quell.
“Highness! If you’re rested . . .” The captain clicked his fingers at his men. “We’ll take the forest path. Highness.”
“Stay close to me,” said Loren in a low voice.
“If it’s dangerous, why would we go this way?”
Loren bit his lip. “I don’t know.”
He forgot to add my title. From sheer habit, I began a glare, but with his gaze on mine, clear and steady like a forest pool, I could not muster anger. “I am only Ildreth,” I said. “From the moment we pass beyond these woods.”
“I know. If we get that far.”
The other men kneed their mounts, and entered the forest. I glanced about at the kingdom which was no longer mine, then followed them with Loren, plunging beneath the dim canopy of trees.
We made a long line, the guards hunched over their horses’ heads. Loren rode at the rear, just behind me.
The captain urged the company ahead.
Around us the trees stirred, their trunks groaning. Beneath these branches, the year dwindled. No birds called, no deer leapt, staring, from the brambles. The animals had fled the quell.
Now I only faintly heard the captain’s coarse laughter. He was one of my cousin’s old hunting comrades, as all the guard were—the King’s truest supporters. They volunteered for this mission.
A cold idea pierced my thoughts. These men, these trusted soldiers, leading me into the forest, close to the quell . . .
My heart knew the danger before my head could express it.
Loren spurred his horse level with me. The animals’ warm bodies jostled together. “Stop,” he whispered.
He shot out his arm and clamped his hand over my mouth. I let go my reins to free myself, and Loren grabbed those too.
A princess is taught the art of kidnap early on. Be still, appear passive, allow your attacker to think you stupid. Find a weapon and strike when they are sleeping.
I relaxed my body, although my heart was pounding. Carefully I drained outrage from my eyes, and gazed at Loren as blandly as I could manage with his fingers around my cheeks and chin.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and in his eyes the gold gleamed, like sun on a stormy autumn day.
“Mmph—” The guards had heard nothing, kept moving ahead. In two minutes I would be alone in the woods with this man, at the turn of the year.
Then the ground ahead unfolded like the lid of a desk, and men and women mounted on giant birds trotted out.
Their mounts were black like crows, but thin like heron, the knees bent backwards. Their claws glinted silver, their heads bore silver hoods.
My horse froze, trembling, under my hands. Loren eased us into the shadows beside the road.
The quellmen advanced from their gateway. My so-called guards seemed asleep, drooping on their mounts.
The quellmen wore black cloaks, but colour flashed beneath—scarlet and blue, marigold and lavender. The faces of some showed dark skin, and others pale, and some a dappled mix of both. The women wore feathers in their hair, and glorious fishscale cloaks which shamed my plain gown.
Loren’s hand left my face. “Be still,” he whispered.
The crowd of quellmen surrounded the guards. “We claim,” said the leader. “A righteous prize.”
He laid his hand on the captain’s horse. It, whinnied, buckled and fell. Loren’s flinch echoed through me. The captain lay on the ground. The quellmen snorted, drew a sword as fine as a fox’s whisker, and slew him.
With hoots, the quellmen leapt upon the rest of the guards and killed them all with swift strokes.
“Another burden lifted,” said the leader. He moved his head around, questing, and it seemed he spoke directly to me. “We take deer, we take fish and fowl, and we take men who no longer serve the land’s purpose.”
I tried to plan my escape, but I had never known freedom. “He sees us—” My voice cracked. I reached for my reins. “You brought me here!”
Light spilled from the quellmen now, as they cast off their cloaks and sprang from their mounts.
Loren’s hand covered mine, on my horse’s neck. “No.” His face was urgent, his hand warm. “You were betrayed.”
His tone was sombre, but his gaze on me was like the warm sweet air which clings to a valley at the end of summer, forbidding the swallows to fly south, tempting them to linger, to swoop and soar among the late blooms.
“Wants you out of his way, he cares not how.” The autumn gold gleamed in his eyes again and swallows and butterflies thronged the air. I heard the liquid song of a wren, and tasted honey.
“Who are you?” As light swelled around us, I knew the answer.
“I can guide you south,” said Loren. Crimson and gold blazed beneath his cloak. “My father was a friend to yours. Or…” He released my hand, and the reins. “I am a friend to you. Join us. Join the quell.”
“Impossible.” But already my hand missed his. On the ground lay the remains of my captive old life. Behind me lay my kingdom, ruled by a traitor. “What would I do, in the forest?”
“Some of us roam far.” The horizon glimmered in his eyes, drawing me in.
There could be no other answer. “I want freedom,” I said, and offered Loren my hand.
He laughed, and clasped my fingers in his. “Nobody will call you Highness,” he said. “But all will honour you.”
“I don’t need Highness,” I said. I lifted my chin to face the strange throng before me. “My name is Ildreth.”
The quellmen let out a cheer, and as it faded, the first leaf fell.