Senara found the stream and splashed into it, gasping at the shock of the cold water against her feet and ankles. For a moment, she had to resist the urge to just drop her entire body beneath the surface, to wash off some of the filth from her captivity. It was only a fleeting thought. There was too much that could go wrong with such an idea. As it was, she realized too late she should have rolled up the bottoms of her trousers. There was nothing to be done for it now, so she stared up at the sky, trying to make out the constellations. As soon as she identified one, she looked for the one that should be next to it pointing south and got her bearings. Thank goodness so much mythology revolves around the stars, she thought, grateful it had spurred her to study the charts. The stream angled mostly east-west, but the western side also veered a little south. She turned west and began moving.
Enyon told her to stay in the stream for an hour, but she lost all sense of time as she walked–limped, really–back toward Sunpeak. Everything hurt, especially her right leg, but her feet had adjusted to the cool water. She knew that as soon as she stepped out of it, the much cooler air would be torment. She eventually came across a series of large boulders set into the stream bed and realized they were stepping stones that corresponded with a cobblestone path on either side of the water. She shakily scrambled out of the water on the south bank, taking care to stay on the cobblestone path that wouldn’t show her footprints. The path led to a cabin in a small clearing, giving way to wide dirt road on the far side. The road, Senara realized with relief. The road back to Sunpeak.
She glanced at a small stable standing behind the cabin, wishing she could go inside and try to get some sleep until dawn. But something told her if she didn’t keep moving, she’d never make it to Eryl and Blaze. As she skirted the clearing, she came across a small apple tree surrounded by a stand of blueberry bushes. The branches of the tree were laden, and Senara plucked several, tucking them into the pockets that lined Enyon’s cloak. She also discovered a handkerchief and piled it high with berries before tying the ends together, wishing she had something sturdier to put them in. She ate several berries while she picked, sating some of the gnawing in her stomach. Before moving on, she pulled a gold piece out of Enyon’s purse and tucked it beneath some leaves at the base of the apple tree. She hoped finding it would make up to the owner for stealing their fruit. It wasn’t much food, but it was more than she’d had before. She allowed herself a small sip from her water skin and made her way to the road. She was sore, and tired, but the movement had loosened her muscles and warmed her up. She was determined to make as much of the momentum as she could and get as far away from her family as possible before sunup.
Senara walked through the next day and night, stopping often to rest, but afraid to keep still for too long. She stuck to the road, knowing it was the surest way to get where she needed to go. She didn’t encounter many travelers, and did her best to move into the woods when she heard anyone approaching. It felt unlikely that she would be recognized in her current state, but Senara wanted to avoid being seen whenever possible. It dawned on her as she traveled that this was the first time in her life she’d ever truly been alone. It was a strange realization to have, and she found herself savoring the solitude.
It may have been her imagination, but she could have sworn it got warmer the closer she got to Sunpeak. Maybe the autumn was making one last valiant stand against winter. Senara could relate, and she was grateful. If the weather had been less mild, she would have been slowed down at best, and died of exposure at worst.
Blaze made contact with her as promised, not long after moonrise. They did not commune long, but she told them she was able to get away and was headed toward them as fast as she could come. Be safe, Senara, Blaze told her. I look forward to meeting you out of the shell.
I look forward to that as well, Blaze. The thought of Eryl and Blaze curled up safe in front of a warm fire sustained her and she pressed on, praying she would reach them soon.
The dawn of her second morning found her stumbling into the outskirts of the village that provided most of the capitol’s fresh produce. From here it was perhaps a two day walk to the capitol, and beyond that, at least three days to her friends. She might reach them before they moved on, if she could keep up the pace. Her legs trembled at the thought. She had one apple remaining and her water skin was almost dry. Her vision had begun to blur from exhaustion and she wanted nothing more than to go to the tavern, get a room, and sleep for the next week.
“You there! What are you doing skulking about back here? If you want the work, you’d better get moving.”
Senara almost fell over as she turned to meet the voice addressing her. “Work?” she stammered, taking in the elderly woman waving a walking stick in her direction.
“Yes, work! Aren’t you hear to help Emond take his deliveries to the capitol?” When Senara just stared at her, she snorted. “You’re simple, then?” Her face softened. “My son was a bit simple himself. He could still do honest work, though. Come along, dear, I’ll show you where to go.” Senara was too tired to resist so she let herself be led around to the front of the house she’d apparently been standing behind. The woman brought her to a stop before a small flat-bed wagon harnessed to a pair of beautiful draft horses. An elderly man struggled to lift a bushel of raspberries into the back of the wagon and the woman nudged Senara forward. “Here’s help, Emond. Your notice on the town board worked! She’s simple, love, but she’s got two good hands. Go ahead dear, help him load up.”
Senara didn’t dare argue and she moved forward to help the man, Emond, wrest the berries into the wagon. Her wrenched shoulder screamed and her bad leg wobbled, but between the two of them, they manged it. Emond nodded to her in thanks and said, “We’ve three more of these bushels, and the sacks of wool my Maggie spun,” he nodded to his wife. “Then it’s just the eggs and the chickens and we can leave. Help me finish loading, then help me unload when we reach the city. The pay is thirty silver, twenty if you want a ride back after. Fair?” He held out a hand to shake agreement. Senara had no idea whether it was a fair price or not, but she was too focused on the fact that he’d just said she could ride with him to the city. Leaving this early, they would reach the capitol by sundown, shaving a whole day off her journey and letting her rest. She accepted his hand and shook.
She started to thank him, but stopped herself. If her father did come looking for her, no one was likely to connect the simple girl who helped a villager with the missing princess. Her clothes may have been fine when she ran away, but after two nights and one day of hard travel through the woods, they were a dusty, dingy mess. That they were so ill-fitting also worked to her advantage, she realized, as did her perpetually messy hair. Letting go of her hand, Edmond turned for the next bushel and Senara moved to help him without a word. They got the bushels loaded and tucked the sacks of spun wool in around them. One of the sacks came open and Senara caught a glimpse of the wool inside before it was retied. It looked very soft and inviting and Senara had to resist the urge to stroke it. Next went a pallet of well-cushioned eggs and then a trio of plump chickens in wicker cages.
“Not as much as I’d like,” Emond sighed, looking over the bounty. He turned and smiled at Senara, “But it will be enough to see to whatever needs Maggie and I have, and that’s not nothing.” He started to latch the gate across the back of the wagon but paused when he caught Senara’s longing glance at the open space inside. “You can ride in the back if you want to rest your eyes a bit,” Emond told her. “The chickens might like the company.” Senara nodded and he helped her climb up into the wagon bed before closing the gate.
Maggie bustled out and handed them each a small silver pail topped with a cheery pink-striped napkin. “Lunch for the road,” she explained at Senara’s puzzled glance. She kissed Emond before he climbed up onto the wagon’s bench and waved goodbye as they pulled away. Senara managed a wave back before lying down and curling up in Enyon’s cloak, the sacks of wool cushioning her back. The wagon rattled on down the road, bumping with impressive regularity, but Senara didn’t notice. She was asleep the second she closed her eyes.
Emond woke her at midday and they had lunch in companionable silence. Feeling more rested, she accepted his invitation to ride up front with her for the rest of the journey. He told her stories about his family and about his business. He claimed that his chickens were a favorite of Duke Fernan and that a shawl spun from his Maggie’s wool had been gifted to the princess by a merchant several years ago. Senara hoped that last one was true. She could recall one or two wool shawls that she’d rather enjoyed wearing and felt a pang that she would never see them again. Still, Emond’s steady stream of one-sided conversation kept her spirits up. It was a struggle for her not to laugh at some of his funnier stories, but she did let herself smile, which seemed to please him.
They reached the city two hours after sunset, just before the gates were closed for the night. Senara was still a little stiff from her travels, but the rest had done her wonders and she eagerly helped him unload each delivery. He stopped at last at a small inn in the textile district, having dropped the wool off last. “I stay with my cousin when I’m in the city,” he explained, “and I’m afraid she hasn’t got much room. But Mistress Karen here is a good sort. She’ll let you stay the night for a fair price, with food in the kitchen and a wash in the servants’ bath for a little extra if you like. Would you like me to make the arrangements for you?” Senara nodded, trying to convey her gratefulness with her eyes. A night’s sleep indoors and, even better, a bath sounded like paradise to her at the moment. “Will you be needing a ride back in the morning?” Emond asked as he led her in through the back of the inn. Senara shook her head no and he said, “All right, then. Let’s get your room and dinner worked out and then I’ll pay you what’s left of your silver.”
It was ten silver for a cot in a storage room–the inn was full, according to Mistress Karen–along with dinner, breakfast and a bath. Emond made sure she was all right with the price before agreeing on her behalf, and then he was handing her twenty coins and wishing her a good evening and safe travels. Blaze found her as she was combing out her hair with her fingers after her bath, feeling far more human than she had in days. While they communed, she did her best to split it into two braids, one on each side of her head. She doubted the braids would stay, or that they looked at all neat, but there was no one to give her disapproving looks for it and so she let it go. Blaze informed her that they’d been learning to hunt rabbits from Eryl and were having fun with it, although they had to wait until nightfall to go out. That doesn’t bother me though, Blaze assured her, I like the moon.
What else have you been learning? Senara asked, curious.
I’ve been working on flying, Blaze admitted, sounding sheepish. I think I’m supposed to start from somewhere high and jump. Jumping from the ground doesn’t seem to help very much.
Senara was surprised by this news. I thought dragons hatched knowing how to fly.
I know how to do it, came the defensive answer, it’s just that putting it into practice without my mother to help is proving tricky.
Oh, Blaze, I’m sorry.
It’s all right, Senara, truly. I will figure it out, it’s just going to take longer than we thought. Eryl says it might be for the best, since we don’t want to risk anyone seeing me flying around and coming to hunt me.
Senara shuddered at the thought. He’s not wrong.
No. So, you see, it’s nothing to worry about. His presence brightened. I have learned to climb trees! I chased a bear from the cabin this morning! Well, a bear cub, but Eryl said I was very fierce.
I have no doubt that you were, Senara told him, smiling as she tried to picture it. For the first time, she really allowed herself to believe that she would see Eryl and Blaze soon.
He went all funny and pale when the cub turned up, Blaze continued, and said I should just leave it be and we should hide in case its mother came looking for it. But it was trying to eat my rabbits! I caught those all on my own. I couldn’t let it have them. Anyway, the mother never came by so I think it was all right. Eryl was silly to worry. Don’t you think he was silly to worry?
I am sure that if Eryl was worried, he had good reason, Senara tried to keep her amusement from her thoughts. Blaze seemed to be pouting over the disagreement. But I am glad it all worked out. I should go, Blaze, and try to get some sleep. I mean to be back on the road first thing in the morning.
Oh, all right. Until tomorrow night?
Until then, she agreed.