Blackbird Flies: Chapter Twelve

Hope

She thought she was dreaming at first, or hallucinating, maybe.

Senara, can you hear me? Senara?

Shocked into awareness, she jerked, pulling the rope around her wrists. The gag muffled her cry of pain as the raw skin was further tormented. It also muffled her confused response of “Dragon?”

There you are! The dragon sounded pleased with themself, and she heard them add, I’ve found her! I’ve made contact. Hold on, I’ll ask. Senara, Eryl would like to know how soon you think you can join us.

How are you doing this? Senara thought, directing the words at the presence she could now feel in her mind. Before leaving the palace, the dragon hadn’t been able to hear them unless they spoke aloud, but it seemed something had shifted. She felt a definite sense of preening before the answer came.

I’ve hatched, Senara! My ability to communicate is much stronger now, although I think I can only reach you because of our bond.

You’ve hatched? She felt a deep pang of regret that she’d missed it. Are you well? Are you safe?

We are, the dragon confirmed, but I am getting difficult to hide, and I need more food than Eryl anticipated. He thinks we need to begin our journey soon. When will you join us?

Dragon, I–

Oh! I’ve chosen a name! Please, call me Blaze! The dragon, no, Blaze was so excited, they cut her off, but she couldn’t be annoyed. The pure joy of Blaze’s thoughts was enough to make a smile for the first time in days. A real smile, not some false thing put on her face to appease people who didn’t care about her. That thought brought her back to her surroundings and she had to choke back a sob. Senara, are you all right? You feel…sad? When can you join us? We miss you.

I miss you too, Blaze. You and Eryl both. But I don’t think I will be able to join you.

What? Why not? She says she can’t come–no she didn’t say why, she only just–all right, all right. Senara, please explain.

She sighed and shifted, trying to find a position that was in any way comfortable. My father changed the wedding plans and moved the ceremony to Astra. We left three days ago, heading north. I won’t be able to get away from the caravan before it’s too late. I’m so sorry. The two of you should go south without me. Don’t risk yourselves.

Blaze didn’t respond for a few long moments and Senara guessed they were conferring with Eryl. She dropped her head back against the bench, letting the tears flow. She wished she could speak to Eryl the way she could to Blaze, that way she could say goodbye to both of them.

Eryl wants to know if you’ve changed your mind about wanting to marry this prince.

What? No. He’s horrible! A gross understatement, but she couldn’t even begin to express her thoughts on Hakon. Something told her if Eryl and Blaze realized how dire her situation truly was, they might do something foolish and put themselves in danger to help her.

Then you must try, Senara. We can wait one more week before we must move on. Wouldn’t you rather come with us? Blaze sounded so hopeful it almost broke her heart.

As the goddess is my witness, I want nothing more.

Then promise us you’ll try, please? We’ll wait as long as we can.

I–Senara felt as if a bar of steel was sliding into place down her back. Blaze was right. She had a chance to choose her own path, but she had to put in the effort to take it. I’ll do everything in my power, she promised.

Good. Then we will see you soon. I’ll try to communicate with you again tomorrow night, if that’s all right? It’s easier for me to find you at night.

That brought another smile to Senara’s lips. The goddess has blessed you, Blaze. Until tomorrow, then. Please stay safe, you and Eryl both.

You as well, Senara. Good evening.

Blaze’s presence in her mind withdrew and she was alone once more. For the first time in days she felt awake, alive. She felt hope. Hakon terrified her, and after the argument with her mother, she feared no one in her family would be willing to help her, so she’d just given in to the inevitable. But she did have someone who cared. Two someones, in fact, and they believed she could get away on her own, so she must. She stared at the ceiling of the wagon, considering the challenge before her. They were three days on the road and the meeting place with Eryl and Blaze was two days south of home. That was at least five days of travel for her on foot, more if her leg continued to bother her. The caravan was moving at a slow pace, so they weren’t as far as they might have been just riding horses. That was a boon.

She’d need food and water. Probably different clothes. The gown she wore would only hinder her movement, and it was disgusting from her two days in captivity. She’d asked Hakon for a change of clothes, but he’d denied the request, stating that the humiliation and discomfort were a good lesson. She’d seen where he kept his own clothing though, in a trunk out of her reach. If she could get free of the ropes, she could steal something of his to wear. The idea rankled, but it was better than nothing. Thank the goddess for small mercies, Hakon wasn’t sleeping in his wagon, and if she remembered an overheard conversation correctly, all of the guards were taking turns guarding the perimeter at night rather than individual wagons. They’d be looking for someone or something trying to get into camp, not anyone leaving it.

I can do it, she told herself, I can slip past the guards and no one will realize I’m gone until they get underway in the morning and Hakon brings me breakfast. She’d have to take care to cover her tracks. Would it be possible to use her original plan and make it look as if she’d come across a mountain cat? Maybe. That might take too much time. Her best bet was to find a stream and take that as far south or west as she could. At least her father had left the hunting hounds behind for the journey. Another small blessing. Maybe the goddess really was watching over her. That thought bolstered Senara.

First things first. She had to get free of her bindings. She sat up as straight as she could manage and felt behind her until her hands were on the leg of the bench to which she was tied. Maybe the wood could be loosened if she struggled enough. But to her surprise, the leg wasn’t wood at all. It felt like iron, and she realized it had been worked into some sort of filigree, with whirls and loops and–she let out a gasp of surprise–a pointed curled end! It felt like maybe it was supposed to be a leaf. She peered at the bench across from her but couldn’t make out the design in the darkness. It doesn’t matter, she laughed to herself, it will work!

Taking great care not to make any noise, she set to work rubbing the cords on her wrist across the pointed bit of the filigree. After what felt like hours, the cord gave way and Senara spared a moment to bask in being able to move her hands freely for the first time in days. She shook herself out of the moment and pulled the gag from her mouth. She regretted that as soon as she bent forward to untie her ankles and a searing bolt of pain shot up her leg. She bit her tongue to keep the cry from escaping and focused on freeing herself.

She had to catch herself from falling once she was on her feet. Feeling flooded into her numb extremities and it was several excruciating moments before the pins and needles ceased pricking her. As soon as she felt confident she could move, albeit shakily, she shed her gown and moved to Hakon’s trunk, grabbing the first pair of trousers and tunic she found and fumbling herself into them. They were far too large, and she had to use the scarf that had been her gag as a belt. On a whim, she grabbed a second tunic and pulled it on, hoping the layers would protect her from the cold. Hakon’s clothes were intended for a harsher clime than Sunpeak, and though the smell of him made her shudder, she hoped the warmth of the velvet would make up for it. The trousers had deep pockets and she tucked her coin purse, feather, and map into these, glad they had still been in her possession when she’d gone to Hakon. There was no chance of finding new shoes, so she kept her leather slippers, hoping they would survive the trek.

Right. I think that’s as ready as I can be. Senara took several steadying breaths and stepped over to the door at the rear of the wagon, pressing her ear against it to listen for any hint of people nearby. All she could hear were the sounds of the forest at night, so she turned the knob and eased the door open just wide enough to let herself out. Her foot slipped on the step and she wrenched her shoulder holding on to the door to break her fall. She was pretty sure her lip bled where she’d bitten it. At this rate, it will be a miracle if I can still walk by the time I reach the edge of camp.

But she was free. She’d escaped! Well, she’d gotten herself out of the wagon. It felt like a monumental victory, first step or no. The next step was supplies. She darted to the side of Hakon’s wagon, letting the shadows hide her from the light of the campfire. A few guards sat around it, chatting, and she could make out another pair patrolling on the far side of the camp. She scanned the other wagons circled around the fire, looking for one that held supplies. She found it on the other side of the circle, close to the tree-lined road.

Moving in the same direction as the patrol, she made her way around the outside of the circle, annoyed at how pronounced her limp had grown from the time she’d spent tied up. That was going to slow her down if she wasn’t careful. Hopefully I don’t actually run into any mountain cats. It took longer than she would have liked to reach the supply wagon, and there her luck seemed to run out. A large padlock held the gate-like back shut, barring her from reaching the goods inside. “No,” she whispered, resting her forehead against the wood. “Come on, not like this.” Could she risk setting out without food and water? It was possible she might be able to forage along the way, and she had coin that she might use to buy something in any villages she came through. That felt like a big chance to take. A bigger chance than staying here and letting Hakon have his way with you?

That decided it. No matter what, Senara couldn’t stay. She’d much rather risk starving on the road or being remembered by a villager than any fate that awaited her in Astra. She drew herself up and turned to slip away from camp, only to walk right into someone who’d been sneaking up behind her. Strong hands grabbed her forearms and she stifled a squeak, eyes wide as they met the own surprised gaze of her brother.

“What are you–?” he started, cut off when she clapped a hand over his mouth.

“Shhh! Enyon, please. Don’t call the guards!”

Eyes shining with confusion in the moonlight, he glanced down at her, then nodded. Senara lowered her shaking hand and stared up at him, waiting. “Why are you out here?” He kept his voice to a whisper. “Hakon said you’ve been too ill to even sit up, let alone be wandering the camp at night. And why are you sneaking around?” He stepped back, still holding her arms and frowned at her clothing. “Wearing that?”

“Hakon’s lying,” she whispered back. She held up her hand again, shaking her sleeve so that it slid down and revealed the welts on her wrists. “I told him I didn’t want to marry him so he tied me up and gagged me in his wagon to stop me from ruining the treaty.”

Enyon stared at her wrist, then let go of her arms and took her hand in both of his. “He hurt you?” His eyes flashed with anger, then fear. “Did he–” the way he raked her with his eyes, as if assessing for some telltale sign, was enough for her to figure out what he was asking.

“He didn’t rape me,” she hissed, “he kept saying I wasn’t ‘his’ yet but he didn’t mean to let me get away.”

“But you did,” Enyon realized, looking impressed. He opened his mouth to say something else but then stopped, turning his head at the sound of some noise. “We can’t stay here.” Instead of pulling her back into the camp, he led her into the trees, which they reached just before the patrol passed by. He watched them go, frowning in thought, before turning back to her. “Stay in my wagon tonight, we can go to Father in the morning.”

“He won’t care, Enyon. He wants this deal too much, and I don’t mean anything to him.”

“That’s not true!” But Enyon didn’t look certain of his words. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “All right, but what is your plan here? If you run away, he’ll just come after you. How far do you think you can get? Where do you think you’ll go?”

She drew in a shaky breath. “I have a place. I have…someone.”

Enyon’s eyebrows shot up. He tilted his head. “You were already planning to leave.”

“Yes,” she nodded, “though not like this. I wanted to find a way to appease Prince Gram when the marriage was no longer an option.”

“Did you?”

“I did. I was going to tell you, and then Father announced we were leaving, and…” she waved a hand to take in her state. “It’s alchemy, Eynon. That’s the key to securing long-term ties with Astra.” She grimaced, but told herself not to judge the whole nation on one man. “They never developed it because they lack the resources to practice it. If Father guarantees them places at the Academy to study it and the supplies, they’ll need him to keep it up. Your angle is that something like the blight wouldn’t have happened with alchemy. Hakon told me that himself. He’s fascinated with it. Oh! And they lose productivity during the winter because there aren’t enough resources to keep lanterns and candles burning for long after sundown. If you can supply them with alchemical lanterns from the start–“

Enyon held up a hand, and she thought he was smiling. “I think I’ve got it.” He shook his head. “Father really did miss the mark not bringing you in on this sort of thing earlier. All right, so I have what I need to salvage the treaty once your disappearance is discovered. How were you going to stop him from looking when you disappeared from home?”

“I was going to let everyone think I’d fallen from my horse and been dragged off by a mountain cat.”

Enyon stared at her. “Faking your death, Senara, that’s…that will mean you can’t ever come back.”

“I don’t think there’s a place for me here.”

“This is what you really want?” She nodded, and he was silent for a few long moments. He caught her eyes. “Do you know how to get where you’re going?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t like this,” he told her, surprising her with a crushing hug. “But I think I understand.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, looking sad. “I wish we could have worked together to rule Sunpeak. I hope you’ll be happy where you’re going. Here, take these.” He pulled off his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders, then handed her a water skin he wore at his belt.

“Enyon, I can’t–“

“You’ll need them more than I do. Take this, too,” he said, passing over his coin purse. “A parting gift,” he said over her protest, closing her hand around it. “Go that way for about twenty minutes and you’ll find a stream.” He pointed into the woods. “Stay in it for at least an hour. It should hide whatever direction you go in, and I’ll cover your tracks here. If I can, I’ll delay Hakon in the morning so he can’t check on you until midday. That will buy time for your trail to go cold. Father might be willing to say you died on the road to save face.”

“Thank you, Enyon,” she whispered, hugging him back. “You, I will miss.”

“I’ll miss you too, sister. Goddess keep you.”

“Goddess keep you, too.”

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