Whisper of the Wilding Woods: Chapter 6
A rude awakening and a daunting ascent.
Aline came awake to the splash of an icy cold drop of water in the corner of her eye. Blinking rapidly, she shuffled sideways only to immediately bump into something hard behind her. Confused and disoriented, she sat up. Needle-thin claws raked her head and pulled sharply at her hair. It was only after swiping away the offending tree branch that she remembered where she was and how she’d gotten there. Breathing a small sigh of relief at not having been caught by her pursuers, she leaned her back against the tree trunk and looked down at the lump of a boy sleeping beside her. Wrapped in his cloak, hood pulled far enough over to cover his face from the rain dripping through the branches, it was impossible to get a good look at him. He was smaller than Aline, that much was clear. Lying curled up as he was, he reminded her of her younger brother Jören. Though, Jören would have been the only other of her siblings to be as unhappy at the prospect of sleeping in the wilderness as she was. Unlike her older brothers who were always being scolded for shirking their studies to go hunting or train with swords, Jören had preferred the library to such physical pursuits. Aline smiled at the idea that Jören might at that very moment be ensconced in his favorite reading chair beside a crackling fire, but what little joy the image brought was short-lived. Thinking about her brothers and the palace library brought on a fresh wave of sorrow. If the soldiers had attacked her carriage and killed Evaline and all the others.
Aline bit her cheek and blinked away hot tears, willing herself to tamp down the memory of what had happened to Lady Gerda. Now was not the time to think of such things. Not if she wanted to keep from crumbling and falling apart entirely. If the Magus’s soldiers managed to catch up with her, she’d never see her family or her childhood home again. And even if she did manage to evade capture, Goddess only knew if she would survive the coming days. Already she was exhausted beyond measure. Her stomach was a bundle of knots, her lips cracked and bleeding. Aline’s legs ached so fiercely she doubted they would bear her weight. Her feet were nearly frozen, and a tentative wriggle of her toes revealed something squishy between them she was certain was blood from weeping sores. Her feet were ill-accustomed to walking more than the few minutes it took to traverse the farthest length of the castle grounds. Once the effects from the herbs she’d been given had worn off, Aline had spent the rest of the night and ensuing day in a sort of waking nightmare, stumbling frequently and having to use her hands to pull herself up rock and root and dirt across terrain upon which no civilized person should ever be expected to travel. It had almost been worse when she’d managed to plod along without tripping for a while. Without the distraction of looking for her next hand or foothold, she’d been stuck endlessly reliving the gruesome horror of having her guard and tutor slaughtered before her eyes. Even now she could hear the fearful cries of Lady Gerda’s desperate last moments echoing in her head.
And this boy. He’d come out of nowhere to save her. She hadn’t fully understood what it had cost him until his harsh tirade after she’d collapsed, too tired to walk another step. The specifics of his speech were hazy, but the anger over the loss of his father had shone through bright and clear. He blamed her for that, and was he not well within his rights to do so? Aline could hazard a few guesses as to why this mysterious Magus might want to kidnap her, but what had she done to deserve such a thing? Her father was using her to solidify a trade relationship. That was all. Not to prevent a war or unite two nations as one, but as a bargaining tool to acquire lower tariffs on the import of Baerdish whiskey, along with a few other lesser goods. It was all but meaningless to anyone but the select few who stood to profit from increased trade between the regions. For that, Aline had been made to give up everything she knew and loved in order to marry a stranger. For all her status, she was utterly powerless. She’d coaxed her father into granting her this one bit of autonomy so that she might travel in secret to see what kind of man she was about to marry, and where had that gotten her? Aline’s shoulders sagged, and her chin drooped toward her chest, eyes burning afresh. Lady Gerda and her father’s men would still be alive. The one bit of control she’d tried to exert over her life had resulted in the death of her entire retinue. People who’d been just as powerless to avoid their fates as she. And what of this boy? He’d already lost his father because of her, but what would become of him if those soldiers caught up to them? They wouldn’t hesitate to slit his throat. He certainly didn’t look like he’d have any chance of fighting back, not with one bow and the little knife at his hip.
Another raindrop managed to sink into the gap between her cloak and the exposed nape of her neck just to the side of her thick braid. The involuntary shiver made her muscles stiffen and seize, triggering a wave of biliousness so fierce she retched once before clamping a hand over her mouth. At the sound, the boy shot awake, a dagger at the ready before she even saw him un-sheath it. Goddess, had he been sleeping with it in his hand? What if a sleep tremor had caused him to lash out and cut her? He looked feral. Teeth bared. Eyes wild.
“It was only a drop of rain,” she said, annoyed by the quaver she heard in her voice. “Down my neck. It startled me.”
The boy closed his eyes a short moment, inhaled softly, then nodded. When he opened his eyes again, the wildness was gone. In its place, a grim determination smoldered. He cocked his head to the side as though listening intently, then let out a sigh and shifted to a seated position. Knife still clutched tightly in his fist, he stared at Aline for several awkward seconds before speaking.
“We shouldn’t have slept so long. If those men haven’t caught up with us yet, they can’t be far behind. If you have to piss, do it now. The forest is thinner here, and we’ll be exposed once we get moving. Better to keep moving as long as we can. Use the far side of the tree if you need privacy.”
Aline’s heart fell into her stomach. She was too upset about the news they’d be moving on again so soon, she almost forgot to be affronted by the boy’s suggestion she pass water where he might be able to hear every drop. Come to think of it, she hadn’t gone in quite some time. There was a slight pressure indicating a need, but it was far from urgent. She was tempted to hold it and plea for more time to rest, but one look at the boy made it clear it was an argument he would not brook.
Still. Some things just were not done.
“I refuse to debase myself in front of you,” she said, lifting her chin high in an unconscious imitation of her mother giving orders to her children. “If you insist we continue immediately, and I beg of you to consider otherwise so that I may have a while longer to rest, you could at least give me the courtesy of letting me find a secluded place to do my business.”
The boy looked at her with what she was beginning to think of as his mooncalf face. As though her every word brought him only puzzlement and confusion.
“Those men,” he said, stabbing the air in the direction from which they must have come the night before, “are trained soldiers. They are hunting you. I’m already putting a great deal of faith in the hope that they’ve fallen behind while attempting to navigate around our shortcuts through the cliff faces, but even a blind man can find a kicked-out privy patch reeking of stale piss. You do understand this is about survival, don’t you?”
“I…” she spluttered, trying and failing to hold onto her indignity. “It’s just not done! You expect me to…? Right here?”
“Good a place as any,” the boy said with a shrug. “And it’s not like I’m going to watch. I’ll just pretend you’re a boy, okay? Or a horse. Horses piss in front of people all the time. It’s perfectly natural.”
Aline didn’t even know what to say to that. A horse? This was absurd. She was absolutely not going to relieve herself crouched beneath a tree like a bloody street urchin. There were rules around these things for a reason. Her tutors had taught her that decorum was the very backbone of civilization. Could anything be more indecorous than dropping her trousers in front of a strange boy in the middle of the forest? It was worse than unbecoming. It was inconceivable. Unimaginable. Impossible to even consider.
It was also becoming more urgent with every second she dwelt on it. It really had been a long time. She dimly remembered a shamefully involuntary release while huddled on the floor of the carriage after seeing her guards cut down, but nothing since then. How long ago had that been? At least a full day and two nights. Could that be healthy? This thread of thought made her need even more imperative. The boy sat still and resolute as a stone, utterly impassive and impervious to her outrage. He was right about the men following them, and she knew it. Soldiers could be gathering outside the tree even now. Aline twitched nervously at the sudden call of birdsong high above them. Better to shame herself before the boy who’d risked his life to help her than to be caught in the act by soldiers who would only be resentful at having been made to chase her.
Seeing no way to avoid it, Aline shifted herself onto her hands and knees, then crawled around the base of the tree. The trunk was wide, but not so wide it provided any real sense of privacy from her companion. At least the tree’s needles were thick enough that she could face outward and pretend she was looking at a fancifully adorned privy wall. It was a stretch of the imagination, but it helped ease the horror of her present reality.
“Turn away,” she said over her shoulder. With nothing left to do but get it over as quickly as possible, Aline set about trying to work out the machinations of untying her trousers and finding a suitable position in which to relieve herself. The trousers weren’t overly difficult to undo, but with her legs cramping so badly she had to bite back the urge to curse as she crouched in the awkward space, she could not for the life of her make sense of how to complete the act without soaking them.
Too weak to experiment with positions, and too exhausted to care any longer, she simply let go and left it to fate. As fate had it, she managed to spare herself further indignity of urinating on her trousers, but what did come out burned fiercely and was little more than a painful series of droplets that reeked so fiercely, Aline wondered if it wasn’t blood instead of water.
“Not enough to drink and too much walking,” the boy said matter-of-factly when she finally made herself decent and crawled back to him. Blessedly, he didn’t elaborate on what exactly had signaled her discomfort. “We’ll find a water source once we’re away from here. There’s nothing to eat, I’m afraid. Maybe we’ll find something along the way.”
“Where are we going?” Aline asked before the boy could crawl out of the tree.
“Higher up into the foothills,” he said. “Then on to the meadows if we have to. I hope we’ll lose them before then. It’s already cold to be in the meadows. Right now it’s important we keep moving.”
Aline had strong thoughts about the boy’s plan, but it didn’t seem prudent to argue at that very moment, so she followed when he crawled out from beneath the tree. Her body protested when she stood upright, joints and muscles screaming in protest as she attempted to stretch them. But she was not to be afforded the luxury of warming up to the task of trudging through the wilderness. The boy gave her a sharp glance, then strode off, leaving her no choice but to follow.
Every step was agony. Sharp pain shot through her heel bones when she stepped down on them, rippling through to her toes each time she shifted her weight forward, followed by a sensation like a firebrand pressing against her shins. Her calves were knotted and hard as stone, and her knees felt as though they might pop free at any moment. Not to mention the soreness in her hips from sleeping on the ground. Sheer exhaustion had kept her from waking throughout the night, but the bruised patches made it quite evident she’d rolled back and forth several times. None of this was as difficult to ignore as the throbbing slash in her arm. Nauseating pain pulsed from it in waves each time she moved, and the bandage was so tight it made her fingers tingle if she let her hand dangle by her side when she walked. Holding it up helped some, but made it more difficult to balance and sweep branches and undergrowth away from her face when following the boy’s convoluted route through the forest. In a sense, she understood the rationale behind his actions. In another more immediate sense, she would rather have risked leaving a more obvious trail in order to move more freely along easier terrain.
Beneath it all there was thirst. And hunger. Aline tried not to lick her lips, for it only made them sting and seem drier afterwards. Her throat was parched and raw, making it difficult to breathe properly as they toiled ever upwards through increasingly rocky ground. Her hunger had surpassed the mere desire for sustenance, manifesting a shaky weakness she could not seem to shed. Her stomach had already been cramped upon awakening, and it now seemed to twist inward on itself like a cloth being wrung free of water. When the boy finally motioned for a halt and pointed to a small spring, she fell to her knees and lapped at it greedily. This had the unfortunate effect of splashing into her gut like one of the physicker’s purgatives, and she was soon retching the thin acidic contents of her stomach into the stream where it was thankfully carried away by the current, saving her from the lingering stench of shame made tangible.
“Save me the lecture,” she said, wiping a strand of saliva from her chin. “The water has washed away any possible contamination.”
“It’s my fault,” the boy said with surprising concern. “I should have warned you to go easy, but it didn’t even occur to me. I’m more tired than I’ve ever been. Perhaps I’ve been driving us too hard.”
Aline’s relief almost made her tear up. “I could use the rest. If only a few minutes.”
They sat silently, taking in turns only small handfuls of water that did little to slake their thirst. Birds chirped gaily in the trees, insects flitted busily about them, and dappled sunlight warmed their faces. Aline felt she could lie down and sleep again, the loamy grass beside the spring far more inviting than the prickly ground beneath the tree where they’d made their bed the night before. Though the water eventually filled her belly to the point she could drink not another drop, it did little to diminish her gnawing hunger. She tried to rest while she could, but every rustle of leaves or creak of a tree made her flinch in fear that the soldiers had finally caught up to them.
“My name is Kaeleth,” the boy said quietly, almost as if reminding himself of it.
“Aline,” she offered in return. “I’m sorry about your father. Truly. I didn’t know him, but he seemed a good man.”
The boy let out a sharp little laugh, then catching himself, frowned and continued in a low voice. “No, you did not know him. He was the best of men. Better than I could ever hope to be.”
“I didn’t mean to give offense.” Aline bristled at the insinuation in his voice. “Look, I don’t know who those men are or why they’re chasing me. They also murdered people I care about. Whatever is happening here, fate has thrown us together. I am in your debt, but if we’re to survive, we will need to work together.”
Kaeleth’s eyes narrowed. Aline could see the tension in his jaw, the slight motion of his teeth grinding together. Then he nodded.
“I don’t suppose the why of it matters,” he said. “My father used to say that if you can’t change the situation, you must control the terms. There’s a tall cliff an hour’s walk from here. Much higher and sheerer than those we’ve scaled thus far. If we can climb it and cut the guide ropes, those men won’t be able to follow us.”
Aline took a last drink from the spring, then rose on aching and unsteady legs. Ignoring the protest of her muscles and the pain radiating from her wounded arm, she steeled herself for what was yet to come. Happy as it made her to think of being safe from her pursuers, the idea of climbing anything higher than that which they’d already scaled was terrifying to the point of making her consider her chances with the mysterious Magus who seemed so desperate to capture her. Within minutes of walking, she began to catch glimpses of the stark grey of the cliff face looming between the spaces at the tips of the trees. Before long, the clifftop rose high above those same trees, dwarfing them and disorienting Aline when she craned her neck to peer upwards.
“You can’t be serious,” she said when the boy—Kaeleth. She’d best get used to that—stopped at the base of the cliff. “It’s too high. We’ll slip and die!”
Kaeleth adjusted the bow on his back, then looked upwards. “There is a way,” he said. “It will be difficult, but I first climbed it when I was only six summers old. Keep your weight on your feet so as not to overtire your arms. Watch me and place your hands where I do.”
A chill wind blew along the base of the cliff and a hawk circled the air above them before gliding down into the forest in search of some unseen prey. Aline shivered. What would happen if a gust of wind lashed them while they were near the top? The rock up near the summit looked as sheer as the glass of the Ancients in the royal family temple. It was madness to contemplate ascending such a thing.
She was given no more time to fret. Kaeleth had swept his cloak behind himself, then latched on to the edges of a blocky section that formed a set of treacherously steep natural stairs. This close to the ground, it didn’t look too difficult, so Aline waited until he was a body length above her, then made herself step up to the rock. The edges were large and easy to grip, and if she didn’t look down or let herself think of the fall that awaited even a momentary lapse in attention, it wasn’t so bad. It was nothing she’d describe as pleasant, but she felt a growing sense of accomplishment as she navigated the near-vertical path.
“This is where it gets tricky,” Kaeleth said when she joined him on a wide ledge with a broad tree growing out of it. The branches of the gnarled old tree swept outwards before straightening, as though it was doing its best to fly away from its precarious cliffside perch.
Aline looked down and immediately regretted it. Hands scrabbling at the rock, she pressed herself flat to the wall and closed her eyes. It was only with Kaeleth’s help getting to the security of the tree trunk that she was able to open them again.
“There’s a chimney here,” Kaeleth explained, scampering toward a place at the far end of the ledge where there was a crack so large he could step inside of it. It was just big enough for him to stand sideways. “We’re going to have to climb it. It’s not far and the technique is simple. I’ll show you how to do it, then let you go first so I can watch you from below. Are you paying attention?”
Aline took a shaky breath, then nodded. She watched the boy press his hands to one side of the inner wall of the crack, lay his back against the other, then hop his feet upwards, slapping the soles on opposing walls. By shuffling his upper body and then hopping his feet up, he was able to inch his way up the crack.
After he’d maneuvered himself a few feet up, he released his feet and dropped back to the ledge. “See? Easy.”
Easy? Aline edged her way to the crack, feeling at least marginally safer within its confines than out on the exposed ledge. She pressed her back to the wall then placed her hands opposite as Kaeleth had done, then, summoning the spirit of every adventurer in every book she’d ever read, committed to hopping her feet up without further hesitation. Then she promptly slid down the crack, skinning her knee through the fabric of her rough trousers and bashing her toe in the soft boots when it shot violently downwards to connect with the rock.
“You almost had it,” the boy said. “You just need more pressure. Really push your back into it. Once you have your feet in position, you can sink down and your weight will do most of the work of holding you in place. Try again.”
Once again pressing her back to the wall, this time really pushing as hard as she could with her hands, Aline counted silently to three, then kicked her feet at the two walls. She clenched her eyelids shut and let out a squeak in anticipation of the resulting fall, but to her surprise, she was stuck fast. The heel of her back foot was nearly up by her bum, and as she experimented with easing the pressure on her hands, she felt she could nearly sit there and entirely release her arms without falling. Not that she was keen to try it. Walking her palms up the smallest bit, she jerked her back upwards, locked herself in place, and moved her feet up as quickly as possible. Again she stayed firmly wedged in place.
“That’s exactly it,” Kaeleth said before glancing over his shoulder. His smile was strained when he looked back. “Now keep going. All the way up. I’ll be right beneath you the whole way.”
Not willing to spend any longer in this position than she had to, Aline continued to inch her way upwards. It was slow going, and she was loath to look down to confirm her progress, but every scuffling little inch she gained was another inch closer to the top. Her palms were sweaty, the wound in her arm stung more fiercely than ever, and the soles of her feet burned hot inside her boots, but she was doing it. She was actually scaling the crack.
“Just a bit farther,” Kaeleth said from beneath her. “There’s another ledge. Pull yourself up and you’re done with the hardest bit of the whole climb.”
The idea of being nearly to the top of the crack filled Aline with a flush of pride. She could scarcely believe she’d made it all on her own. None of the childhood clambering along the low stones of the inner castle wall compared to this. The rock beneath her palms and boots was gritty and rough, yet devoid of any feature she might properly grab or step on for purchase. It was only through the seeming magic of the boy’s odd shimmying technique that she was able to keep from sliding back down.
As if thinking about the improbability of it all had somehow broken the spell holding her in place, Aline’s foot slipped. With no opposing force to balance it, her other foot followed immediately after. Without her feet to support her, she felt her palms and back begin to lose traction next, sliding with agonizing slowness until something grabbed her foot and pressed it upwards. She looked down in time to see Kaeleth wedged in the crack below her, supported entirely with his feet and using both hands to lift her own feet into position before she fell and took him down with her.
After a panicky bit of scrambling upwards that was more Aline scraping her palms and shins against the rock while Kaeleth hefted her weight from below, she was able to grab the lip of the next ledge and heave herself onto it. Kaeleth followed a moment later, out of breath and pale as death.
Aline followed his glance down the cliff face and discovered that it wasn’t only the effort of propping Aline up that had so unnerved him. Down in the forest, trekking single file through a small clearing Aline remembered to be roughly a twenty-minute walk from the base of the cliff, were five cloaked men with swords at their hips.
“No time to rest,” Kaeleth said. “I don’t think they’ve seen us yet since we were hidden while in the chimney, but we’ll be completely exposed on this next bit. We have to get out of bow range quickly.”
Aline swallowed the lump in her throat and scanned the cliff face above. It was as devoid as the inside of the chimney had been, but with no opposing wall to press against. A weathered hempen rope ladder hung down the middle of the wall, swaying idly in the breeze. It looked less sturdy than the ladders they’d climbed the day before, and they were already high enough off the ground there was no doubt now that a fall would be fatal.
“We’ll have to go one at a time,” Kaeleth said. “Those men will be back in the trees any second now, and we must clear the ladder before they emerge. From there we can climb the rest of the way hidden from their sight. Do you want to go first or second?”
Neither was appealing. Since she’d be alone no matter which she chose, Aline scooted toward the ladder and took hold of it with both hands. The hemp fibers were rough and scratchy. Palms still sweating from her trip up the rock chimney, she reached as high as she could, then stepped onto a rung and began to climb. The floppy nature of the rope ladder made it twist and bend away from her with each step. Kaeleth had advised her to keep her weight on her legs, but she couldn’t seem to maintain a position in which her legs weren’t swinging away. Either she had to keep her arms so extended it was difficult to step up, or her bum would sink downwards, forcing her to hang on arms that were already tired and weak. After several minutes of difficult climbing, her forearms were so inflamed she began having difficulty keeping her fingers closed around the rope. By the time she reached the top of the ladder, it was all she could do to cling to the rungs with her fingertips, breath escaping in ragged gasps as she hauled herself from one step to the next.
At long last, she was able to step onto another ledge. When she looked down to ensure that Kaeleth had begun to climb, the precariousness of her perch overwhelmed her. Falling to her knees, she leaned against the cliff wall, whimpering softly with her eyes closed until once again she felt the gentle touch of Kaeleth’s hand on her shoulder.
“We’re almost there,” he said, working feverishly to haul the ladder up behind him. “The rest is easy. Rest a moment.”
The sound of someone shouting far below them jostled Aline from her thoughts. She opened her eyes and resisted the urge to look down. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was clear enough that they’d already begun to climb. The notion of arrows flying up from below was enough to make her stand and inspect the way forward.
“They’ve discovered the chimney,” Kaeleth said. He’d cut the rope ladder free from the heavy iron rings it had been tied to and was now busy tying one end to his belt. “They won’t get far without this, and it will take them days to find a way around. Are you ready to keep climbing? We’ve a ways to go yet.”
Aline licked her lips and thought of the spring. The sun hadn’t yet crested the edge of the cliff, but the climbing had made her too warm for her cloak. With no way to carry it, she couldn’t remove it, and the thought of a night without it was too grim to consider leaving it behind.
“Will there be water above? My legs and hands have cramped. I don’t know how much longer I can continue.”
“There’s a river not far from the cliff edge,” he said. “A half hour’s walk at most. The sooner we begin climbing, the sooner we can drink. There are sorelberry bushes near the river, and if we’re lucky they won’t have been entirely picked over by foraging animals. We can rest awhile and eat something.”
Under any other circumstances, Aline would have said that she could not have made it another half hour of walking let alone climbing the rest of the cliff that still towered above them, but with the only alternative being to lay down and die, she began to climb. Kaeleth trailed behind so that he could tow the rope ladder with him, ensuring their pursuers had no way of making use of it to bridge the featureless expanse of wall that was all that separated them from their quarry. It was easy enough to pick her way through the blocky edges and ridges of rock, meandering back and forth along the cliff face wherever suitable hand and footholds presented themselves. A few times, she wandered off course, but a word from Kaeleth set her back on track. As she climbed, she could not fathom a boy of only six summers ascending this same route. Kaeleth had clearly loved and looked up to his father, but had the man been mad to bring his child up such a dangerous climb?
Soon Aline was too tired to think. The sun was on them now, warming the rock such that it reflected the heat back onto her. The wind she’d so feared down below would have been a blessing had it not disappeared entirely. There wasn’t so much as a gentle breeze to cool her down. Her head swam from thirst and hunger, and her movements became clumsy. Kaeleth had climbed much closer to her now, often taking hold of her boot heel to guide her foot someplace it would find more secure purchase. Hours had passed by the time she pulled herself over the top of the cliff and rolled onto the wide, flat top.
Kaeleth’s head appeared over the edge, then the rest of him as he stepped nimbly up to join her. Turning to look out over the edge, he hauled the length of rope ladder up and untied it from his belt. He then dragged the ladder to the trees and set about coiling before stashing it beneath a dense bit of shrubbery. When he was satisfied with his work, he collected several blocky stones, which he piled up in front of the bush in a crude pile.
“In case we need it later,” he explained when he saw Aline watching. “I’d rather not go down the way we came, but it doesn’t seem prudent to rule out any options.”
The idea of climbing back down the cliff made Aline shudder. She picked herself up and brushed dirt from her thighs.
“Is the river really close by?” she asked.
“It is.” Kaeleth nodded toward the trees. “And I promise a good long rest once we reach it.”
“Then let’s continue. If I don’t drink something soon, all this walking and climbing will have been for naught.”
Kaeleth didn’t need to be told twice. He didn’t hesitate and ask if she was certain she was ready. He simply turned and marched off into the forest. Aline followed, dismayed to discover that it was hotter beneath the trees than it had been on the cliff face. Despite the shade, the air was still and muggy. The briskness of the previous day and evening was a distant memory, and the sun blazed brightly in the patches of clear blue sky that were visible between the treetops. Insects descended on Aline, flying into her nose and ears, even lodging themselves in the gunky corners of her eyes when she tried to blink them away. Only some of them seemed interested in biting her, but the incessant buzzing and the sensation of their tiny legs and wings on her skin were almost worse. After a few minutes of this, Aline pulled the hood of her cloak over her head despite the heat, holding it tight in the front to minimize the space in which insects could harass her.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Aline felt the air become noticeably cooler. A breeze stirred for the first time since before the rope ladder, and a downright chill wind blew through the trees. Aline slipped her hood back and was greeted by the burbling rush of water flowing somewhere nearby. The insects seemed to prefer the dank stillness of the forest, for they quickly lost interest in her. Tired as she was, Aline felt a spring in her step when she finally saw the clear blue water of a river flowing up ahead.
“Careful,” Kaeleth said when she hurried the last few steps to the water’s edge. “Those rocks are slippery and the water is ice cold. You’ll not want to fall in here unless you’re keen on going back down that cliff in a hurry.”
Heedless of his warning, Aline shrugged off her cloak and let it fall to a heap in the grass. The water flowed swiftly, splashing up over the small boulders that lined the bank. She hopped nimbly from one rock to the next, practically falling to her stomach when she reached one low enough that she could lean forward and scoop water into her mouth. The water was indeed bone-numbingly cold on her hands each time she submerged them, and soon the front of her trousers and shirt were soaked through from lying on the wet rock. Wishing she could strip down and dive into the river, Aline splashed water over her face, then ran a wet hand across the back of her neck, thrilling in the little shiver that rippled through her.
When she’d drunk until her belly sloshed and the chill became too great, she retreated the way she’d come, though considerably more carefully this time for fear of falling in and being swept away with the current. Once back in the short grass at the river’s edge, she plopped herself down next to her cloak and lay back to let the sun warm her. Secure in the knowledge that her pursuers could not reach them, she let herself relax for the first time in days. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend Lady Gerda sat nearby, clucking a remonstration over this decidedly unladylike behavior while Berthold and his men watered the horses and did whatever it is soldiers did when they weren’t riding or attempting to slide their swords into someone else’s belly.
“I found some sorelberries,” Kaeleth said, startling her from her reverie.
Aline opened her eyes and prepared to snap that one did not sneak up on a lady in repose, but the sight of his cloak bunched up into a pocket and overflowing with vibrant purple berries erased her annoyance of his effrontery. Unwilling to look a glutton in front of the boy while he popped berries into his mouth one by one, chewing with careful deliberation, Aline forced herself to sit primly with legs folded to one side, mirroring him instead of gulping handfuls of the lusciously sweet berries. They were perfectly ripe and juicy, popping between her teeth when she bit down on them. Sorelberries were a rare delicacy in her homeland, and she could scarcely believe they were so abundant here.
“There’s a place further up the river where we can make camp tonight,” Kaeleth said after they’d consumed every last berry, even the tart, underripe green ones. “It’s best if we assume those soldiers will try to find us, but it’s a two-day hike to the nearest path that winds up to the top of the cliff. We’ll have to keep putting distance on them when we can, but tonight can risk a fire and a proper sleep. With luck, I can hunt and get us something filling for dinner.”
The idea of a fire and rest sounded wonderful. Though her body protested every movement of standing up and walking again, the water and berries had done much to invigorate her. While she walked, Aline watched the boy. Despite everything he’d done for her, all that he’d lost in order to save her, she couldn’t quite bring herself to trust him completely. How might he react if he learned who her father was? Though she was the youngest of many, and her marriage was to the prince with a considerably more modest inheritance, she was still royalty. If the boy were to realize how much he stood to gain by turning her over or ransoming her himself, might he not betray her in an instant? In her experience, people rarely acted out of the pure goodness of their hearts. Even without knowing the true height of her station, the boy surely believed he’d come into a sum of money as a reward for returning her safely home. Until she was absolutely certain she was safe from the men hunting her, either back with her father or delivered to Prince Dainéal, Aline was determined to preserve the secret of her identity.