Night surrounded them. Wrapped in a blanket of darkness, Alwen and Rikard moved down the empty road, putting silent miles between them and the
The night was alive around them, but Alwen felt as though she were dying inside. Tears slide down her pale cheeks as she moved numbly with the motion of the mare. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked down the moon kissed road. Unbelievably, she had lost two homes in a matter of days. A strangled sob escaped her throat. She missed Widdowa. She knew the old woman had sacrificed herself to save her. A tear slipped off her cheek and hit the saddle with a muted plop. She wished so many things. She wished for her mother, for her father, for Tucker.
Closing her eyes she willed his image to her. His face bloomed in her mind’s eye. His tousled hair, eyes bright with mischief and glee. Suddenly, his face contorted, shifting from a smile to a silent scream. His twinkling blue eyes filled with terror and pain. A blinding white light filled Alwen’s brain. Crying out in pain, Alwen shook herself violently, tumbling from the mare. The horse cried in surprise, tossing her head and dancing to the side as Alwen toppled to the ground.
Rikard pulled his horse to an abrupt halt, turning at the commotion. Seeing Alwen laying on the ground, he dismounted, hurrying to her.
“Alwen? What is it?”
“She’s in my head.” Alwen’s voice was weak and tear choked. Rikard lifted her from the ground and wrapped her in his arms, stroking her hair.
“Alwen, she can’t hurt you now. I would see her coming.” Smiling, he tapped his head. “Oracle, remember?”
Alwen nodded, chewing her lower lip. “I was just trying to think of Tucker, my brother. But she’s tainted my memories. I want my family back, Rikard.” She sobbed, collapsing against him, wetting his shoulder with her tears.
Rikard held her while she cried, stroking her back and placing soft kisses to her forehead. After a time, her shoulders ceased shaking, her tears stopped, and she lay limp against his chest.
“I apologize. You must be weary of drying my tears.” Alwen attempted a watery smile as she lifted her eyes to him.
Rikard wiped a stray tear from her cheek with his thumb, smiling at her. “I’ll dry your tears anytime, little one.”
Her heart stuttered at his touch, a small smile crossing her face as she met his gaze. She wanted to say something, but words left her in the wash of his warm brown eyes. She cleared her throat, then rose slowly, dusting off her dress.
“Uh, here horse,” she called, her voice light as she moved cautiously toward the mare. The horse whinnied and tossed her head, sending her silver mane dancing.
“There, there. I’m sorry I frightened you.” Alwen stroked the mare’s smooth cheek, whispering to her as she calmly lowered her head onto her shoulder.
“She needs a name you know.” Rikard said, mounting his stallion. “This boys name is Carbon.” Rikard grinned and patted the stallion’s neck.
Alwen mounted the mare, lifting the reins and moving her to stand beside Rikard.
“I suppose it would be alright. I mean, she is mine now, isn’t she?”
Rikard clucked to Carbon and the duo continued down the road. Alwen watched him as she was lulled by the movement of the horse and the rhythmic clicking of her hooves. Alwen’s eyes began drooping as her mind floated away from the pain of the last two days. She just wanted to sleep. She was so tired.
Leaning forward, she laid her tired head against the horse’s neck. The warmth of the animal spread through her, she smiled when the mare nickered to her. Alwen stroked her shoulder. “You need a name girl. How about Brisa? It was my mother’s name. She was beautiful like you.”
Alwen wrapped her arms around Brisa’s neck and let sleep take her.
The hard packed earth bit into the tender skin of Alwen’s back causing her to awaken with a moan. Feeling as if she’d only been asleep minutes instead of hours, she sat up stiffly, wondering when they’d stopped to make camp. She placed a hand to her aching head as another moan escaped her. The sound of the horses swishing tails and soft snorts calmed and comforted her. She blinked against the oppressive darkness, shivering against the tingles in her spine.
The night air caressed her exposed flesh, chilling it instantly. Whimpering, she pulled her cloak tighter around her, pulling her knees to her chest as she cocooned herself, fighting for warmth. Tiredly, she watched the last of the dying embers glowing fruitlessly, fighting a loosing battle for life.
Yawning, Alwen closed her eyes, pondering what had awoken her. She cried out as a blast of icy wind hit her, chasing the breath from her lungs, throwing her back against the hard ground. Alwen fought to catch her breath, screaming with her mind for Rickard as she was blasted again, this time by light. Brilliant and blinding shot out all around her, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut with pain. Whimpering, she lifted her arms in a feeble attempt to protect her from the harsh white glare.
Slowly, she lifted herself into a sitting position, opening her eyes a squint. Immediately tears flooded her vision. She sniffled as she struggled to stand against the constant push of icy wind.
“Rickard!” She screamed, only to have her voice swallowed by the furious wind. She blinked, opening her eyes and looking around for the source of this sudden gale. Rikard sat six feet from her, his legs crossed, hands calmly resting on his thighs. His brown hair tossed about his head, his cloak billowing behind him like dark, sinister wings. His eyes once warm and brown, were now distant white orbs. Alwen stared at him in shock and fear, her fingers white knuckled on the ties of her cloak.
“Rikard?” the sound was a whisper, her voice strained through her fear. Her eyes darted up and down him as she took a tentative step forward. Blinking against the harsh light, she closed the distance between them. Her heart pounded against her ribs, feeling as if it were trying to break free of her chest. Swallowing her fear, she leaned toward him, arm extended.
As her fingers brushed his shoulder a blast of wind hit her hard in the stomach, throwing her backward and slamming her into a tree. Collapsing at the base of the tree, she gasped for air as pain erupted through her body.
Her eyes lifted as a distorted voice filled the air, rendering Alwen speechless. Tears slid down her cheeks as she realized the voice was coming from Rikard.
“A prophecy is told this night
Know its truth by blinding light.
In eight years time a child divine
Faced with greatness beyond her time
To fight a power of darkness grown
Marked is she with gifts unknown.
Only she will upset the throne.
But heed these words of caution dear
For one alike you soon will fear.
Power a lustful thing you’ll find
If her eyes you do not bind.”
Rikard gasped as the white light left his eyes, returning them to their natural color. His eyelids fluttered as the driving wind ceased. Groaning, he collapsed to the ground.
Alwen rushed to his side dropping to her knees beside him. Gently lifting his head she rested it in her lap. Murmuring his name she stroked his soft brown hair as tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Rikard, please wake up.” Her voice was soft as she cuddled him, rocking back and forth. She had never before witnessed an oracle receiving a vision. It had frightened her. But what frightened her more was Rikard’s unconscious form.
The night wore on and still Rikard slept. Alwen sat next to him, stirring the small fire now and again. She drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. The soft noises of the horses were comforting in the quiet night.
Her stomach grumbled painfully, but Alwen ignored it, not wanting to leave Rikard’s side to get her pack.
Every so often he would stir and groan before going silent again. Pulling her cloak tight around her shoulders she rested her head on her knees to wait out the night.
Sunlight broke through the surrounding trees to rain down warm rays upon the duo. Alwen stirred, wincing at her tight, stiff muscles. Rolling the kinks out of her neck she inhaled deeply the savory scent of roasting meat.
“I won’t ask if you slept well, but are you hungry?”
Her eyes, sore from grit and lack of sleep, watched him in disbelief. Was this the same boy from last night? Pulling at blades of grass, she watched him.
“Are you feeling alright?” Her throat was sore from the chill of the night, her voice was full of concern.
“I feel great. I can’t remember the last time I slept so well.”
The grumbling of her stomach prompted her to move closer. Sighing she lifted a fresh, warm biscuit to her lips. Taking a bite of the fluffy biscuit she pondered over his mood. He seemed perfectly fine. She felt suddenly foolish for worry. He had been going through this most of his adult life.
“We’re out of water. I believe there was a stream not far from here.” Alwen stood and collected their canteens, then headed in the direction of the stream. She stood watching the crystal clear water rolling over rocks worn smooth by years of the endless flow.
Her eyes followed the water as it dipped and turned flowing around a bend and out of sight. Dropping to her knees on the soft grass, she dipped her fingers into the sweet, cool water. After a time, she heard Rikard approach.
“Don’t you tire of chasing after me?” Her voice was soft, her eyes locked on a river salamander, but she had no doubt he heard.
“I wouldn’t have to chase you if you would stop running.” Flashing a grin she couldn’t see, he settled beside her. Reaching out he took her hand, absently running his thumb over her knuckles.
She started, as if in a trance. She was surprised to find her cheeks were wet.
“I was just remembering. Do you remember last night?” She lowered her eyes to their joined hands. She wondered if he realized how easily he touched her.
The babble of the brook and the call of birds filled the ensuing silence. Finally Rikard sighed, running his fingers through his wavy brown hair.
“It was bad.” It wasn’t a question.
“It scared the hell out of me.” She looked up at him then, her pale blue eyes large as saucers. Impossibly blue. Rikard brought her hand to his lips, brushing them against her skin.
“Sometimes they scare the hell out of me too.”
“Do you know what it means?” Shivers danced along her arm. His lips were so soft.
Rikard’s eyes clouded over, making her sad. She loved the honey brown of them.
“Sometimes the meanings are so clear it hurts. Other times, I have to blunder through them. And that can take a while. This one will take me a while.”
“I’d like to help. If I can.”
Rikard pulled her close, an easy gesture that turned her world upside down.
“You’re helping. Just by being with me, you’re helping.”
Time stood still as they sat together by the stream. Birds called and sang, curious squirrels came to investigate.
“We should get moving. We might reach the outskirts of Brownstone by nightfall.”
Nodding, Alwen gathered the canteens then followed Rikard back to camp.
The day turned out to be a complete opposite of the previous night. Long monotonous minutes turned into equally long hours. The soft thud of the horses’ hooves sent Alwen into a trance. When Rikard suggested they stop for lunch she sent up a prayer of thanks as she slowly dismounted. Rubbing her sore bottom she tethered Brisa loosely to graze.
“Do you think Muldora will come looking for me? I suppose she saw me, Widdowa did call my name. She must know I survived.” Chewing her lower lip in worry, Alwen stroked Brisa’s neck.
Rikard heaved a frustrated sigh; taking her hand he led her toward a fallen log.
“Sit.” His voice was commanding as he knelt beside his pack, removing the leftovers from breakfast.
“Eat.” He thrust a biscuit and meat at her. Saying nothing more, he sat beside her and bit into his own biscuit.
Alwen chewed slowly, considering. Their pace had been painfully slow, making her worry she was at fault. Throughout the night she was plagued by night terrors, making sleep something of the past. Even now, Alwen struggled to stay awake. Her body yearned for nothing more than to rest. Stretching out before the log, her eyes slid closed throwing her into blissful darkness.
It was dusk when she opened her eyes. Firelight played over Rikard’s features. White smoke ringed his head, wafting into the night from the ornate pipe he held.
Shivering against the chill, she pulled her blanket tighter around her shoulders and moved closer to the fire.
"Thank you for the blanket." She said softly, unnerved by the distant look in his eyes. "Why didn't you wake me? And when did you start smoking?"
"I didn't wake you because you need the rest. Do you think I don't know how little you sleep at night? If you do sleep, that is." His voice was matter of fact, keeping his gaze on the dancing flames. "And I've been smoking for over a year now. It helps me think."
"I feel like I'm slowing us down. I fall asleep every time we stop. If not for me we'd have been there by now. I feel like you're mad at me." Alwen hated the whine in her voice, yet she couldn't stop it.
Rikard tore his gaze from the flames and pinned her with an icy stare, causing her to shiver at the cold penetrating look.
"Damn it, Alwen. I know you've been through hell, but where has the brave young girl I once knew gone?" Dropping to his knees before her he gripped her shoulders, his fingers digging into her tender flesh.
"You are but a ghost of yourself."
Tears filled her eyes at his words. She leaned into his hand as he brushed at her hair off her face, his voice softening.
"We must stay strong if we are to succeed. I've been thinking about my vision. It's about both of us. I fear our part in this puzzle is only beginning.
Rikard opened his arms in invitation enveloping her when she pressed against his chest. Unable to resist, he pressed his lips softly to her hair.
Alwen smiled, curling into him, listening to the steady beat of his heart.
"Never let me go." She whispered her grip slackening as she drifted once more toward sleep.
"Never." Rikard murmured to the night.