The storm had filled the rivers and streams to the point of overflow. Great swathes of the valley were flooded, tiring my horse and leaving him bad tempered. I had no time for his antics. Kicking my heels into his flanks, I urged him onward past the marshes, across the deserted homesteads and into the borderlands.
The freedom of being away from camp was overshadowed by urgency. Normally I would have savoured every exhilarating moment of the gallop through our tribal lands, unfettered by the demands of being close kin to the Chief of our tribe. Most of the time, I felt the watchful eyes of the elders and their wives as I went about camp. It was like every decision I made was subjected to their judgement.
It was suffocating. I managed to break free of them as often as I could, making good use of the excuse that my mother needed herbs for her tinctures and ointments. She had taught me a great deal about healing, but there was still so much left to learn and she was adamant that I would follow in her footsteps.
When the sweat on my pony’s neck began to froth, I knew I’d pushed him too hard. Slowing to a trot, I let him rest and drink his fill at a stream close to the woodland topping the cliffs. The sun was already high in the sky without a cloud in sight. Just when I needed cooler weather, spring decided to play its tricks and overheat my horse to breaking point.
I’d tarried for as long as I dared, before yanking on the reins and leading the pony up the last hill into the forest. Here, at least it was shaded. Glancing about me, I found a fair crop of ivy and plenty of wood, but it was all soaked through.
I unhitched the willow loop with the suspended branch fungus and hoped to the gods that it was still smouldering. It certainly felt warm to the touch, but I was unsure whether it was sufficient to ignite the kindling I’d brought along. Swinging the mushroom around in the air, I could hear a faint crackling sound. All was not lost.
Now all I needed was some dry wood to burn. Collecting what chunks I could find on the way, I built a little pile of logs at the southern-most edge of the forest next to the cliff face. My intention was to use the sea breeze to breathe life into the fire and dry out the sticks. It took longer than I expected to get the blaze roaring and longer still to gather enough evergreen to smother the flames.
After all that struggle, the billowing blue grey smoke took my message high into the sky and with it all my fears. All I could do was wait and hope that it was enough to summon him to my little hideaway without drawing unwanted attention from the Duros.
By mid-afternoon, my gut was growling with hunger. I ate the stale bread and took my bow and arrow in search of food. Hunting was not one of my strengths. Every rabbit I saw bolted before I could even get an arrow nocked, let alone aimed.
A lucky opportunity came after hearing the tell-tale crow of a male pheasant. For once, I was already in the perfect spot downwind of him and ready with my weapon.
That was when I felt the cold metal of a blade at my throat.