When I burst through the end of the tunnel work, sun has already set in the west. Darkness envelops me almost immediately before stepping out into the slick silt connected to the small creek running parallel to the castle. I look around waiting for my eyes to adjust in the darkness so I can place which side of the castle I ended up on. I expel the breathe I’ve been holding because I cannot distinguish any landmarks in the pitch black of the night. Desperate I look up, the gods’ star is in the sky right where it should be, where it will remain for millennia to come. I travel south following the path laid before me, with the star at my back hoping to keep my enemies behind me as well. This is going to be a long and weary road; no need waisting anymore time. I pull my hood over my head to hide my flaming orange hair, my one distinguishable feature.
Turning, I look back one last time to see if I am being pursued, but really to take in the only place I’ve ever known one final time. Realizing no one is following me, I exhale sharply watching the puff of my breath dissolve into the night, my muscles relax just a bit. I pray that Aelfraed has not met his death at my expense. If not tonight, surely he will be thrown in the dungeon to face the wrath of the queen, my dear mother. I press on as a single tear slides down my face almost freezing to my translucent cheek. Clutching my hood I press on through the expanse next to the castle, heading in a direction and a road I know nothing of.
My pockets jingle lightly as my potion bottles clink together. They will likely not last me long, and I will need to find someone that can help replenish my supply. I can’t think of that now, I must only think of pressing on and putting as much distance between myself and the castle. It would really help if I had a horse, or if Aelfraed had told Garrick of his plans. Not that I’ve ever needed the help of a man, but having a knight with his steed would certainly come in handy right about now. I pause at the edge of the forest, listening within for any wolves, or worse…sentries. I hear a flap of wings, the chirping of crickets, and the rustle of the wind through the leaves in the trees. Determining it safe, or as safe as any forest can be at night, I put one foot in front of the other breaking into unknown territory.
Except it isn’t completely unknown. I used to play in the fields and forest next to the castle. I have a sudden flashback to a lush greenery surrounding me as I ran, small breasted, through the trees searching for a path to lead me back home. Yelling for Garrick to give up, and reveal his position within the forest so that we can go back, a small twinge of fear crawling up my spine. What if he had left me here. How will I ever find my way home, he knows I don’t know the way. I tie up my long flame locks and hike up my dress. “Garrick, come on. It’s not funny anymore.” I stop at the base of a fallen tree, standing on it’s stump searching the forest for any sign of him. Hissing under my breath I pause and listen. The forrest sounded different than it does now, so full of life. Another thing my wonderful mother had changed. I heard a branch crack to my left. I stayed on the stump, knowing he could see me and not wanting to give him the advantage again. I forced myself to sag and added a nice whine to my speech, “Garrick, come on…mother will be furious when she sees my dress clothes dirty…” I held my breath and didn’t move, and I heard the familiar crunch of dirt under boots, again from my left. He was going to approach me as if to scare me off the stump. I smiled to myself before launching in his direction.
I heard him curse and stumble as he tried to run from me. Breaking through a dense tree line I caught sight of him and laughed in glee knowing I could catch him, because I was faster. When I caught up to him I snatched at his belt and drug him to the ground. “HA! I found you, you snidely bastard.” I spit as I sneer at his shocked face. He stared up at me from the ground, astonished and pleased with himself. He was just a boy of 17 then, barely showing any kind of hair on his face or chest. His tunic lay splay open revealing his smooth, but hard chest heaving for breath. I wanted to fall atop him and kiss him something fierce. The only thing holding me back was the idea of my mother finding out. I leaned back smiling, offering him a hand. He took it gingerly, raising gracefully to his feet.
“Well done Hil.” he breathed as he grinned at me. “You found me, you have won…this time.” He laughed as he stood before me, brushing the dirt and grass from the seat of his riding pants.
“You’re just angry because I used my brain to find you, bet you were holding out hope that I would cave.” I sneered at his smirking face.
“You really think I wanted you to lose?” He had the deepest blue eyes that I had ever seen. They searched my own and I felt naked before him. What had he really wanted from me? I still didn’t know. Gods know I wanted to.
I closed my eyes, chasing the memory away. A sweet one, but one that also brings me pain. What I would give to have that searching look upon me again. I may never see Garrick again, especially after what his father did for me. I bit my lip trying to hold back the tears, but they came, stinging my cheek. I just hope that Garrick will not suffer in my place. I am certain mother will plot to hurt him in any way that she had ever plotted to hurt me.
I need to find shelter for the night. I walked farther into the forrest, as quietly as I could over the fallen bark and leaves. The earth had an even mustier smell than usual, which usually meant it was going to storm soon. I stumble over something, turning to look over my shoulder I notice the same fallen tree from my memory. I gasp, scrambling on all fours. It’s mesmerizing to see something from the past still around. My mother seemed very accurate at all of her endeavors. Plotting against everything within her power of the kingdom and all the realms that fall at her feet.
I gently place a palm on the trunk of the tree, now covered in moss and mostly rotten. I still find it in myself to smile. Thankful that this small thing had survived the wrath of her. I jump to my feet following the tree back to the stump, the very stump I stood on to get a better view of the forrest. I stand taller now, than I once did. I almost cry, even though this day has gone horribly wrong in every sense of the word, I feel happy. Unbelievably so. Just like that day I close my eyes, not causing much of a difference this time because of the inescapable night. My hearing is heightened and I can hear scurrying along the dirt floor a few feet away, probably a chipmunk or mole scavenging for food.
My eyes flutter open when I hear a twig snap behind me. My pulse quickens and I crouch on the stump. Grasping the edge of the bark straining my eyes through the darkness to see what had approached me. I had been careful, until my fall of course. Silently cursing myself under my breath I slowly ease myself off of the stump. Crouching down I strain my eyes and pray for any kind of indication who is following me, friend or foe. I hold my breath hoping for any sign that this was just a forrest animal that is moving my way instead of a sentry.
“Hil?” a voice softly crosses the distance and my heart leaps into my throat. “Hilaria, it’s me. Where are you?” Garrick’s soft rasp crosses the forrest floor faster than his outline in the darkness. I almost weep with joy as I leap to my feet.
“Garrick!” I squeak, barely able to keep my balance. “I’m by the stump.” I whisper in case other ears happen to be listening. I figured I was vague enough that he would understand what I meant, and anyone else would need more clues.
I kneel down and bow my head my tears falling to the earth. I am safe once again. I am no longer alone. The relief that swells inside of me is magnetic. It pulls my ribs tight and I find it harder to breath. I’m about to have a spell, but I close my eyes concentrating on my quick pulse. I count as high as 55 before my breathing slows and I return to normal. I open my eyes, but I don’t need to. I can already feel Garrick’s body heat as he kneels next to me, gently touching me shoulder to shoulder.
“What are you doing here?” I am the first to break the silence, because he knows that it is imperative to let me find myself during one of my moments. I look over at his dark figure, clocked by darkness and his growing brown locks.
“I told you I would always find you, Hil.” He whispers, I feel his warm breath on my shoulder as he moves in closer to my ear. “I could never let you leave me here without you.” I crack, falling into him and letting the hot tears roll down my face as unattractive sobbing racks my chest.
“I’m so scared Garrick, she turned father against me. No one wants me alive.” I sputter between breaths.
“I do.” he says gently into my hair as he rocks me back and forth, my cheek pressed to his chest. Now of 25 he has coarse dark hair, thick on his chest and chin. His beard has really filled out in the time since I have seen him last. I smile up at him, knowing he can’t see me, but still comforted by the thought that he knows how elated I am to see him again. Reunited, like they said we would never be. I lean into him listening to his deep breaths. After what seems like a lifetime I pull away and ask what I know we are both thinking.
“How long do we have to get out of the realm?” I hold my breath, not prepared for the answer that I am sure he is going to give.
“Not long, maybe three days.” I gasp, though I’m thankful that it is much longer than I ever anticipated, it is not enough time to walk across all of Xenia. “They decided they would allow you to have the night, figuring the comforts you have been allowed your entire life will soften you to the outdoors. They aren’t entirely convinced you will live through the night.” He winces when he says the last sentence like it has caused him physical pain to tell me what I knew all along.
“And your father?” I ask with bated breath, fearing for the worst.
“He will be hanged tomorrow in front of everyone as a traitor to his queen, and will stay there until the crows finish him off. Father knew what he was doing when he helped you escape, and he also knew the price he would pay for keeping you alive long enough for me to find you.” He grimaces, but I know this is hard for him. His father had tried to warn both of us, and we had ignored him. Allowing our emotions to get the better of us, making us weak. “His sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
“Garrick, we should save him. He deserves it. He tried to warn us, and we didn’t listen. It’s completely my fault that he’s even still in there in the first place.” I said softly, dreading that he would actually take me up on the offer.
“I’m not entirely sure we would be successful on our own, Hil. He has the gift of forethought and he knew that we wouldn’t listen to him, coming to this end. He knew, and yet he didn’t say anything or try to change our paths. He allowed this to happen.” He brushed my cheek with the back of his fingers so softly I shuddered in the chill of the night. “He believed in you, and knew that the kingdom needed you to survive your mother. He helped you escape to ensure that would happen, and charged me with finding you and getting you the hell out of here.” I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was smiling down at me. They were good people, that my father had entrusted to my care.
“I’m thankful for both of you, genuinely.” I lean in and feel his breath halt for just a split second, knowing that his outer wall had been chipped away, slowly over time. I smile against him, and kiss his cheek. “When do we leave and where will we go?”
“Right now, and wherever you are safe.” He holds my cheek in his hand, keeping me from kissing him again but knowing that deep down that’s exactly what he wants me to do.