Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
I heard the pounding of footsteps, quickly ascending. He’d found me. Rodden would be out that door at any moment. There was nowhere to run except along the parapet, and I knew he would soon catch me if it came down to an all-out sprint.
I looked at the monstrous eagle crouched down before me. It regarded me with an impatient glassy stare that seemed to say,
On or off? I haven’t got all night.
From within the stairwell, somewhat muffled, I heard my name being called. I had about three seconds until Rodden would be on the parapet. Three seconds was how long it took me to scramble onto the bird’s back, grab the reins, and for it to launch itself into the sky.
Rodden’s not-voice yowled my name in anguish and I felt a painful yank, as if a cord attached to my insides had been snagged.
The bird was climbing rapidly. Once we were a hundred feet off the ground I had to shut my eyes because of the wind and because the drop terrified me. A shudder went through the bird as if it had stumbled mid-air and I felt another painful yank on my insides.
We levelled off and flew straight. I dared a peek, wondering if from this height we would be face-to-face with the moon. But no, there it was by my left shoulder, still higher in the sky than me. I dared not look at the ground, and I shut my eyes tightly again because they had started to stream in the wind. It was freezing and I huddled close to the bird’s back, burying my hands in its thick feathers.
It did occur to me to worry where I was being taken, but I had an inherent trust in birds of prey, and by then we were descending in long, lazy circles. I wondered how far we’d come. To the beach I’d ridden to the day before the tournament? It couldn’t have been far as we’d been airborne for such a short time. We landed with a jolt, and with legs like jelly I half-dismounted, half-fell onto the dusty ground. I threw my palms back to brace against the fall, and a searing pain flared where my skin touched the dirt. I scrambled up and furiously rubbed my hands against my skirt, and then stared at them in the dim light. It was too dark to see but I was sure they had been burned. While I was examining my hands the bird flapped its wings and took off.
‘Hey, wait!’ I called, reaching to it in vain. It was already becoming a speck in the sky.
Drat. It was going to be a long walk back to the palace. Now, which way? The circling descent had muddled my sense of direction. I stood still, listening for the sea, but the place was eerily quiet. I must be in the forest just before the sea then, the one I’d ridden through on the horse that day. There were trees on all sides so I couldn’t get a look at the horizon. The ground had a slight gradient, and I reasoned that, being the lowest point of the landscape, the sea must lie downhill. This meant the palace, being in the opposite direction to the sea, would be uphill. I was quite pleased with myself for figuring it out.
I found something that might be a path and started walking up the slope. It was freezing cold and I was losing a lot of heat from my shoulders so I pulled the top skirt of the dress up and over myself like a cloak. That was a little better, but now my legs were getting cold as they were only protected by thin petticoats. I would just have to tough it out for the hour or so that it took me to reach the palace limits.
To keep warm, I thought of all the things I was going to say to Rodden when I saw him: that he was a horrid trickster and an arrogant jerk and not to worry, I was getting in that carriage because the thought of seeing his sneering, smug face ever again made my blood boil. I wished I had seen his face as the bird had launched itself into the air. What a hoot!
Still chuckling to myself, I looked around and for the first time I noticed that something was wrong. The trees were barren. There was no grass or shrubs, either. Just dust. I reached down and touched the ground with my finger, and again a stinging pain shot through my arm. I wiped the finger on my petticoat. That was very odd, and inconvenient as well as my shoes were starting to pinch. Walking barefoot over this ground would be like walking over hot coals. I cast my mind back to the day I’d ridden through here, and I distinctly remembered a lot of greenery, on both the trees and the ground. I was obviously in a different part of the forest. A dead part. I hoped I would get out of it soon, as it was a hellish place. There was no sound except for my own breathing, which was getting louder and louder in my ears. I wished a possum would rattle some branches or an owl would hoot, just to reassure me that the place wasn’t entirely dead. Because it definitely felt as if it was.
I looked up at the sky, but yellow-grey clouds had passed over the stars. I realised I was still wearing the peacock mask and I ripped it off, flinging it away from me. What time had it been when I’d fled the ball? Not late. Not much after ten, probably. If I hurried I might be able to get back before Renata missed me. I was shivering now inside the satin. Why had the temperature plummeted so fast? It had been such a hot day, and on the terrace earlier the night air had been pleasantly warm.
After an hour of trudging through the same dead, black forest, I started to worry. Where had that bird taken me? Had we flown east, along the coast? If so, I could be walking further from the palace, not towards it. I hadn’t felt it turn once we were in the air and it had definitely been heading north when we’d taken off.
. Oh, jeepers. Just how far had the bird taken me? It had felt like barely minutes in the air, but I was a little tipsy and Rodden had just put the wind up me. And the bird had been flying very fast. Fast enough to get me over the Unctium?
Looking around at the alien landscape I felt a rising sense of dread. Barren, black trees. Frigid temperatures. I remembered the large dark shapes with flapping wings circling in the sky above the palace, and how quickly they’d disappeared back across the straits. Big, bird-like things. Like the one I had so rashly climbed aboard. I recalled Rodden’s anguished not-voice as we’d leapt into the air. As if I was in great danger.
As if I was being taken to Lharmell
Oh, no. Not there. Not
Suddenly the black forest seemed aglow with twin points of blue light, eyes that stared at me hungrily. I saw that the ground beneath me had flattened out. Bewildered, I was no longer sure of the direction I’d come from. I looked for my footprints but the ground was hard-packed. Now that I knew I was in Lharmell, not Pergamia, I did a quick rethink. Uphill, away from the sea, would be north here, not south. The way I’d been going was leading me deeper into Lharmell. To reach the straits I would have to go back the way I’d come. If I could get there I could . . . what? Find a boat? I doubted such things existed in this place. I’d seen no signs of civilisation so far.
First things first: my shoes. They would not do. There could be hours of tramping ahead of me, plus the hour or so that I’d added by walking in the wrong direction. I found a rock and touched it to see if it was as hazardous as the ground, but there was no pain. I sat down and pulled off my shoes, carefully tucking my feet under me out of harm’s way. Examining the shoes, I thought I could use the soles, but the rest of them would have to go. They were made of a stiff blue satin, perfect for the ballroom but hellish to walk in. I was amazed I’d lasted this far. The satin tore off easily and I worked away at the little heels on the rock until I’d wormed them off. I tied the thin soles to my feet with part of an underskirt, being careful that no parts of my feet were exposed to the poisonous ground.
I stood and tested them out. There were no shooting pains and the binding didn’t fall apart straight away. They would do for a little while. I set out in the direction I thought I had come from, gathering my make-shift cloak around me and hoping that a swift pace would soon warm me up. I went more carefully now, running my eyes over the blackness around me, and checking behind to see if I was being followed.
I thought I’d been so clever to jump aboard that bird. But it was stupid. So stupid. There wasn’t a lot I could use to defend myself against a Lharmellin. I tried making a staff but the wood was also poisonous. I thought about finding a good-sized stone, but carrying it would weigh me down and I doubted lobbing one measly stone was going to mean the difference between life and death.
After about an hour the ground began to slope erratically and I was no longer sure that I was headed for the ocean. If only there was an opening in the trees and I could see the horizon; that might give me a better idea of where I was headed. Climbing a tree might have helped but it wasn’t possible.
Hours went by, possibly three. I trudged across the hard, uneven ground, shivering with cold. I was now lost. As far as I knew, I could be heading into the very heartland of Lharmell. After another hour the temperature plummeted some more but the sky began to lighten, and I looked around, hoping to see something that would set me in the right direction. All I saw were more black-trunked trees, their uppermost branches bare and needle-sharp. The sky lightened to a sickly yellowish-grey. I hoped that when the sun was high enough it would show through the clouds and I could get some sense of direction. And that it would grow a little warmer.
I kept my ears peeled for the flap of wings, hoping that one of those big birds would land and I could get on its back again and somehow steer it back to Pergamia. But there were no sounds. No birds heralding the dawn. They had either been killed by the toxic forest, or else were never here to begin with.
As morning wore on I began to get terribly thirsty. I had seen no water so far and the landscape didn’t allow much reason to hope for it. Even if I did find a pond or stream, there was a good chance that it would be poisonous, too.
After another hour, the bindings on my shoes fell apart. I found another rock and hopped over to it, the ground searing my feet where the fabric had disinteg- rated. Looking at the remains of my foot coverings, it seemed that whatever made the surroundings toxic had eaten through the bindings. What a terrible place this was. I tore fresh strips from my petticoat and rebound my feet. I hoped that I would reach the ocean before I ran out of clothing entirely.
It must have been nearing midday by then, but it had grown no warmer and I searched the sky in vain for the sun. The ominous clouds blotted it out too well for me to see its glow, and I had no shadow. There was nothing to do but press on and hope for the best. I travelled slowly now, dehydration and fatigue making me unsteady. My stomach was growling despite my anxiety. I would have to rest soon, but lying down on the ground was an impossibility.
Sometime in the afternoon when my eyes had grown gritty and blurred and my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, I saw a rocky outcrop. Blindly, I made my way towards it, found a flattish sort of boulder and lay down.
For an instant, it felt a lot better than struggling over the dusty ground. Then it just became hard and uncomfortable. I shifted around until I was only prodded in half a dozen places, and then all I could do was lay there.
And think of water.
Water. I’d taken it for granted my whole life. Whenever I’d needed it all I had to do was reach for it. I chastised myself for all the missed opportunities: all those times when I could have been drinking water but hadn’t. I’d never known that I should have been cherishing it, worshipping it as the elixir of life that it was. Because now that I didn’t have it, I was being driven mad. In my mind’s eye I saw myself at the high table in Pergamia, picking at all the strange food. On the table sat a goblet, filled to the brim with cold water.
I urged my imagined self.
What are you doing, Zeraphina? Drink!
But that Zeraphina didn’t hear me. She went on ignoring the goblet and for some reason I felt more desolate than ever.
For something to do with my tongue, I pulled a clip from my hair, broke off the jewel and put it in my mouth. I sucked on the small stone, trying to get my saliva flowing. It started to work and my mouth was moist for the first time in hours, and I faded into an exhausted sleep.
When I woke it was dark again. How late it was I didn’t know, but the sky had cleared up somewhat and through fog I could see a handful of stars. I realised that I would have to trek through the night again and wished that I hadn’t slept the day away. I could miss things in the dark, and besides, it was far more terrifying.
I put fresh bindings on my feet and eased myself down from the rock. My body ached all over from the tension and unexpected exercise. Black spots danced before my eyes and my heart thumped painfully in my chest, straining to push my thickened blood around my body. The temperature was almost at freezing and I huddled into the blue satin. There was even less underskirt to protect my legs now. It occurred to me that before I could be captured by Lharmellins I might die of exposure.
As I walked I rubbed my arms with the dress, trying to clean off the gold powder, which was starting to itch.
Half an hour later I felt a faint breeze, one that carried the low rumble of chanting voices. I stood stock-still, listening, my heart thumping more painfully than ever. There came to my ears a sound like a mewling kitten, frightened and alone. In the moonlight I could see a clearing up ahead and something moving around in it, but my fear made me crouch low to the ground instead of approach. I clutched my hands around my knees, trying not to shake or even breathe too loudly.
The mewling reached my ears again, and this time the call sounded like a word, a human word, like
. I opened my mouth to call back but saw a streak of white-blue light in the distance and clapped a hand over my mouth. There were several more flashes of light, all moving rapidly towards the clearing, as fast as arrows.
There must have been at least six of them darting among the trees. They were making an odd clicking noise as they closed in on the clearing. It was an almost gleeful sound, as if they were chuckling to one another.
That’s when I realised what was happening. They were hunting, calling to one another as they closed in on their prey.