By the time they had cleared the steep section of the road everybody was exhausted. The horses were shaking and covered with white froth. Keri did not feel that much better, though she hoped she was merely feeling drained, not covered in sweat. She had her doubts though and just thinking about her made her skin crawl. The others looked no better than she felt.

The effort in climbing that stretch of road had accomplished one thing at least. Whether because of the passage of time, or because they got away from the influence of the forest, there was enough light to see by. The forest was still gloomy and in fact darker than just prior to the worst of summer thunderstorms she had ever experienced, but it was no longer pitch black. The light might be faint, but at least it was natural once again. Unfortunately, the comparison of the gloom underneath the trees with the darkened sky just before a thunderstorm broke loose was apt from another reason as well. The entire forest around them had that same heavy, breathless, quality that presaged the kind of weather that flattened buildings and flooded entire provinces.

Panting heavily, Keri said, “We need to rest a moment. The horses are spent. And so are we.”

Even as she said it she knew it was a terrible idea, but she couldn’t stop herself from speaking. In part because it was true that they were all exhausted and ready to collapse, but in a greater part because she had simply opened her mouth without consciously deciding to say the thing she did.

Talya had been waiting for them at the top of the slope. From the look of it she would dearly love to lean against one of the trees that bordered the path so as not to fall on her face, but had left only just enough self-control to keep herself from doing so. The strange, and dangerous, pale woman knew more about the forest than anybody present, except for Melissa, but that even stranger outlander did not say much if she could avoid it. Keri herself had only half remembered ancient stories and ballads to go on, and many of those pre-dated the Kingdom itself which made their accuracy questionable at the least. At best they were children’s stories, because only children could believe in magic.

Except, a treacherous little voice told her, what other explanation was there for all the impossible things that had happened last night?

Brandt and Talya both nodded absent minded and slowed down to stop moving entirely. Keri did not like the look on their faces, but she herself felt curiously detached as well. She was looking at what was happening around her but could not bring herself to act.

The three had stood more or less idly around, probably all of them wondering like Keri did why they had stopped, for several minutes until Melissa caught up with them.

The tall woman looked, in Keri’s opinion, even worse than she herself no doubt did. Where before she had looked tired and somewhat scared — assuming of course she had actually seen what she thought in the near absence of all light — she now was ashen faced with dark circles around her eyes and stumbling every other step.

Nevertheless, she wordlessly picked her way through the three silent companions who were all but blocking the path and, taking the reins of Snowflake out of Keri’s nerveless fingers, continued as if she hadn’t noticed the others. That she had to push Talya out of the way slightly was proof that she deliberately ignoring them.

With a tired snort Keri’s horse jolted into motion, and, with a more angry snort, Brandt’s big war-horse followed after a moment.

Seeing her beloved Snowflake disappear around a corner jolted Keri out of her strange paralysis.

“What are we doing?” she hissed. “Standing around like this.”

“Tired,” Brandt complained.

Keri gave him a shove in the right direction, which made him stumble into Talya.

The pale woman snarled and suddenly had a knife in both hands that Keri hadn’t seen her drawing. Before she could use them on the big man Talya manage to rein in her instincts. She shook her head in an uncanny resemblance to a dog shaking out his fur after coming in from the rain.

“The dark … take me,” she said in a low voice, as low as she could come to actually growling, “I’m beginning to really hate this forest.”

Keri couldn’t see Brandt’s expression, but everything about his posture shouted ‘unhappy’. He also seemed to be staring at the knifes, but that was understandable as they were less than a centimetre from his throat and his face. To his credit he didn’t get angry or scared.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said “before it thinks of something else.”

That sent the three of them walking after Melissa, tiredly and with dragging feet.

“We shouldn’t be this tired,” Keri mused. “I’ve travelled this way enough to know that this stretch of road isn’t really all that long. Or steep.”

Brandt, who had fallen in next to her, leaving Talya to bring up the rear, nodded “I came this way three days ago,” he confirmed “we had to walk the horses but that was all. Maybe a hundred paces with that switchback, but that was all.”

Keri asked, confused, “Switchback? There isn’t a switchback on this stretch of road.”

From behind Talya interrupted “There were six that I counted.”

Brandt said something that sounded quite rude in an obscure language that Keri didn’t know but had only ever heard spoken once. By an envoy from the far south. At the King’s court where she’d been roped, by losing a bet, into being part of the evening’s musical entertainment.

She looked up sharply at him, before she could control herself and concentrate on the path again, and thought to herself ‘Not simply a nobleman’s by-blow. He’s been at court. And long enough to be taught.’

Keri didn’t see if he had caught her gaffe, concentrating as she was on the path before her, just to prevent herself from trying to figure out more of the mystery mercenary.

“There was more than one for sure,” Brandt said “and I am certain there was exactly one when we travelled to the Midway Inn.”

He lightly touched Keri’s chin to make her look at him. Keri managed not to flinch at the unexpected touch. “Are you absolutely sure there was no switchback in the road?”

Keri wanted to make light of the question, but she understood the seriousness. “This is my third time travelling from Aeldburh to the autumn festival in Glivenr. First two times there was a steep, rocky, stretch of road about a candle mark, mark and half, in from the western edge of the forest.”

Brandt didn’t repeat his cursing, but it was clear he wanted to.

“It changed the road three days ago, before this Oboru ever arrived.”

Keri felt a stab of panic almost overwhelm her. Only with great effort did she resist the urge to run away as fast as she could. “And it took away the light.”

She couldn’t bring herself to add ‘and it froze us in place’. None of the others brought it up either. Probably as uncomfortable with the implications as she was.

From ahead the voice of Melissa came drifting back “All head is in.”

“Do you mean it is all our imagination?”

“Know word not… yes?”

“I’ll take that as a yes too,” Keri muttered, adding in a normal tone of voice “It means that we must have spent hours travelling up and down that same stupid stretch of road.”

Brandt said “It also means we’re a mark from the edge of the forest, and it should be late morning or at worst early afternoon, seeing how tired the horses are.”

“Make that two of your candle-marks,” Talya interrupted “we’re exhausted too.”

Brandt nodded regally his agreement. Keri thought it was a good thing that Talya couldn’t see that. Even occupied as she had been with trying to keep Oboru alive and the long periods of complete darkness between frantic activity, it had been impossible for her not to notice the tension between the two. Under different circumstances it would have amused her to see the two fight when they both felt they were the one who should lead the little group. Right now it was distracting, and more than a little inappropriate.

“I think we should try to make it one anyway. No telling what else this forest will try to throw at us.” Keri shuddered “And I’m not eager to find out.”

Keri picked up speed, or tried to. Her initial burst of speed, quickly petering out as the quite real exhaustion caught up with her, caught both Brandt and Talya by surprise, leaving them to scramble to catch up.

“At least we know that the forest is still chasing us somehow, or it would not try to keep us in place.” Brandt said.

“That’s not comforting.” Keri objected.

“Yes it is.” said the other three. Though in Melissa’s case her reply was limited to “Is.”

Keri stumbled as she missed a step due to her surprise of the certainty expressed by the others. Brandt steadied her.

“We can prepare for the next attack if we’re certain it is coming.” He explained.

Keri winced. “It makes you sound eager for a fight.”

Brandt took a breath, as if to answer, and then fell silent. It was a strained silence, which made it clear to Keri that he had some bad memories that he didn’t want to talk about. There was a story there, she knew, but probably not a song. Her typical audience wanted songs about heroes going out to slay armies of enemies and rescuing princesses. The King didn’t exactly approve of those, as he felt those reflected badly on both his daughters and his ability to keep his country safe, but he, like all predecessors, had long learned to accept the inevitable. Ordinary people wanted songs and stories about heroes. The nobility, if they wanted any story in their songs at all, wanted songs about what they thought of as ordinary people. Keri, caught in between, had learned to give each what they wanted and to keep her scoffing at the subject material firmly behind a mask that pretended enthusiasm. Brandt’s history appealed to her as a collector of tales, but it couldn’t appeal to her as an entertainer.

To break the uneasy silence, Keri began to sing softly the first song that popped in her mind. It was a silly ditty about star struck lovers, and the inanity of it almost made her stop again. Singing did seem to lift some of the heavy oppressive atmosphere though, so she kept at it.

As they kept walking away from the forest it became harder and harder to keep going on. It felt to Keri as if she was dragging a heavy weight behind her, with straps bound tightly around her chest that made breathing increasingly difficult as well. And every step she took added a little extra weight she had to lug with her.

In the end she fell to her hands and knees in the mud, completely out of strength as well as out of breath.

“I’m sorry. I can’t go on,” she gasped.

It was Brandt who grabbed her under her arms and hauled her on her feet. He was breathing heavily too and his face was pale and looked pinched.

“Are we out of the forest yet?” he asked, his expression not hopeful and making it clear what he expected the answer to be.

Both Talya and Melissa shook their heads, confirming what Keri already feared. This resistance and lack of breath was the forest still trying to prevent them from leaving, which really only made sense if they were still inside the forest. Steeling her resolve as well as she could, given her exhaustion, she tried to take another step.

Only to find that she couldn’t make her leg respond to her wish for it to move.

There was an old bard in the Kingstown college who had been caught in a rock slide as a young man and had miraculously survived breaking his back. The bards had taken him in as a teacher because he couldn’t walk any more, and even though Keri never had taken any of his classes of advanced composition techniques, they still had ended up talking many evenings. He had told her that even after all these years he still sometimes forgot that his legs wouldn’t respond to him. He would decide to get up and could even feel his legs respond, only to have nothing happen and the ancient pain of his loss creeping up on him again. He’d been a little drunk at the time he admitted to that, and it had become one of Keri’s personal nightmares, the fear of being unable to walk ever again.

The unexpected panic swept away the few remaining mental blocks she had long learned to erect in her mind, that the exhaustion had not already ground down to nothing. She uttered a strangled cry of despair as for the first time in years the hated visions swept through her and dragged her with them into some nightmare world where everything did feel more real than anything, and nothing actually was.

Spinning around and around at a nauseating and disorienting speed she saw the faces of her four companions flash in out of the bone chilling cold fog. Their expressions deformed and twisted grotesquely in expressions of fear and despair and pain. And guilt.
As the cold numbed her, and her vision began to fade to black at the edges, she saw hands grasping at her and her companions, from the fog. They were followed by arms and then entire bodies. Though most of her vision, confusing as it was by the wildly swinging movements, was now limited to a small spot with fingers of black creeping into it, Keri got the impression those weren’t bodies so much as corpses. She couldn’t be certain of the colour any more, which still appeared a blueish grey in a world that was losing colour as quickly as it narrowed down. The last thing she was certain off that she could still recognise were the faces of Talya and Melissa, both twisted into barely recognisable expressions that Keri for some inexplicable reason felt were a strange blend of guilt and recognition. After that it was just flashes of increasingly washed out and darker colours. And then nothing.

When Keri finally stirred again, with the worst headache ever not caused by too much cheap wine, she found herself on Brandt’s horse. With Brandt behind her propping her up.

“Urgh” was her not most intelligent comment ever, but her mouth was bone dry and tasted as awful as her head felt. Her second attempt to say something came out sounding much the same, though this time she had meant to say ‘water’.

“Welcome back,” Brandt said quietly. “There was some concern that you had caught the same thing that Oboru has. I decided to load you on my horse and get us all out of this darkness cursed forest as quickly as we can. Talya wasn’t feeling so great either so she got to keep Oboru on your horse. And Melissa … made it clear without words what she thinks of horses.”

He paused briefly, “Now, care to tell me what happened?”

Keri felt blood rush to her face, something she really could have done without considering how her head was already pounding.

Knowing there was no way to avoid answering the question entirely she whispered “Panic attack. I’ve had them since I was a young girl.”

She didn’t have to fake the hint of tears that leaked into her tone of voice “Normally I can keep them under control better.”

Brandt’s arms closed around her a little more tightly. “Enough has happened to give all of us a couple of nightmares. You’ve nothing to feel ashamed of.”

Keri knew better, but really didn’t want to talk about it. She was glad that Brandt couldn’t see her face because she didn’t think that right now she could control her expressions and she had the impression that he both noticed a lot and was inclined to ask unwelcome questions.

His embrace did feel nice though. A little nicer than was smart to allow herself to indulge in, if her growing suspicions were correct about him being a fair bit higher ranked nobility than the common mercenary he was rather poorly pretending to be.

It wasn’t until several miles later — while she kept telling herself that a few more moments wouldn’t mind — that she suddenly jolted upright, clipping Brandt painfully in the chin with the top her head.

“Ouch,” Brandt exclaimed at the same time that Keri said “Snowflake!”

She tried to turn her head but mostly managed to lose her balance and had to grab on to Brandt’s arms to steady herself.

“You put Talya on Snowflake?”

“If that is your horse, then yes.”

“He can’t carry two.” Keri said urgently.

Brandt’s voice had a hint of command in it “He can and he has. They’re both small enough not to burden him.” He sighed, “Besides, we’re going slow enough that Melissa can keep up with us. Your horse will be fine. Better than most of us.”