The sea’s sweet aroma filled the air, signalling that Phyllis Cove was not far away. Viggo and Agnita stood on a riverbank with their shoes off, enjoying the feel of cool water on their bare feet as their horses drank. She looked over at the field of growing wheat. Something must have caught her eye. It matched the shade of her hair, which glowed in the light.
“I feel such a strong urge to run right now,” she said.
Viggo laughed. “Then I’d have to catch you and drag you back here. Do you really want that?”
“No,” she said sharply.
She looked pretty, almost angelic, but he knew better.
“I am sorry for being the cause for this petty mission,” she said, looking over at him.
There was something about the way she spoke. It was obvious that she was not born of noble blood, but she seemed far more educated than the tavern wenches in his home village.
“Do you know how to read?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” she breathed. “My father made sure I was taught. The convent in town held reading and arithmetic lessons every summer. Of course, back then I was cross at having to go to school when I’d rather be outside playing, but I owe my parents so much for allowing me to discover the magic of knowledge.”
“You seem very smart,” he blurted, instantly feeling a blush warm his face.
“Thank you,” she said, appearing taken aback by the compliment. “Knowledge is power, as they say.”
“Is it?” he challenged.
“Those in power possess great levels of knowledge, I believe.”
He shrugged, looking away, hoping to appear unaffected by her beauty and sharp wit. “We should go. The horses have had plenty to drink and we need to cover more ground before dark.”
They remounted and rode through the fields. In the corner of his eye, Viggo saw her mount catch up to his. He looked over and laughed at her silly grin.
“Race you to the forest?” she called.
He shook his head in mock sternness, then urged his stallion into a gallop. She caught up to him and raced ahead.
“Agnita, slow down. The trees!”
She pulled on the reins and he could hear her laughter long before he caught up to her again.
“You fool,” he laughed.
“Losers are the fools!”
“I let you win.”
“Liar,” she said smugly.
He shook his head as she raised her chin in mock superiority. She wasn’t so bad, after all. In all his life, he had never met a girl who was anything like her.
“I should lead the way,” he said, growing serious as they rode deeper through the trees. “We don’t know what’s in these woods.”
“The same things that are in most forests,” she said nonchalantly. “Shy wolvins and harmless birds and rodents.”
“I am being serious. We need to be cautious. Neither of us are familiar with this area.”
She gestured for him to go ahead of her. He scanned the area, listening intently for anything that seemed off. If something did spring out at them, he’d have no idea if he’d be able to fight it off. The thought made him shudder.
“If danger comes, I want you to ride away as fast as you can,” he said. “Can you do that?”
She gaped at him. “And just leave you behind? No way in hell.”
Her sharp tone took him aback. If there were fearsome creatures prowling in the darkness hungry for small humans, they’d know exactly where to find them.
“Keep it down,” he said, shaking his head at her. “We don’t want to attract all the predators right to us.”
The coast was clear for the moment, but he heard more than enough tales about rogue horses, vicious unicorns, violent dragons, and other wild things that surprised people who travelled in forests. He relaxed a little when they made it past the thick of the woods in uneventful silence.
“As you can see, nothing is amiss,” noted Agnita.
“We did not know that before entering. You would be wise to take life a bit more seriously. You’ve been lucky so far, but life does have its surprises.”
Her annoyed sigh reached his ears, but she said nothing else. He glanced at her over his shoulder.
“I hope you remain with Lady Jaquelline and accept her charity. Not only would it be a waste of my time if you didn’t stay with her, but you could also get yourself killed.”
“I will stay for as long as I can. I’m not an idiot, you know.”
“Where in the blazes would you go otherwise? Use that learned mind of yours, girl.”
“I think far more than most people realise!” she snapped.
“Maybe you should think more about the things that matter so you’ll stop forcing people to go out of their way to waste their time for you!”
“Well then,” she said coldly, looking away from him.
Just when he was starting to like her. She tried to ride ahead of him on the thin trail, but he blocked her passage, forcing her to stay behind. He glared at her over his shoulder.
“I was just trying to help,” she said. “That’s why I was found half-dead by the army. I saw some Ustrunian spies when I was resting under a bridge to get away from the rain. When I saw that they were riding in the direction of the camp that Frenz was staying in, I rode to go warn them. My horse died on the way. Then I … got lost.”
He winced. She had been through a lot. He couldn’t imagine how frightening the experience must have been, but surely she had to see that she was just one girl.
“The fate of the cause doesn’t rest on you,” he said.
“I could have helped warn them before the attack,” she said.
“You would be a better service to your country if you stayed put at home instead of taking soldiers away from their duties so they can escort you across the country. The fate of that military camp was never in your hands. Norforth has spies just like the enemy has theirs. It was out of your control.”
“I did not ask to be sent to Phyllis Cove,” she said icily. “I clearly stated that I wanted to stay and help out at camp! Do not blame me for this trip when I had no choice in the matter.”
What a selfish wench.
“I have a friend rotting away in some bloody prison as we speak! I could have gone for him if it wasn’t for you.”
“I am sorry for your friend, but -.”
“Just pray that when I finally reach him, he won’t be a charred corpse.”
A sudden shriek sent needles through Viggo’s ears. He looked around to see what made the strange noise. He exchanged a bewildered look with Agnita and rode ahead of her, seeking out the creature.
“It’s in the trees!” cried Agnita.
He followed her horrified expression up to the treetop.
“Ride,” he said, without looking away from the sight.
She rode away. Viggo kept his eye on the large, dark creature hovering just above them on a tree branch. He couldn’t make out its form in the thick-needled leaves, but its pupil-less yellow eyes focused on him with predatory interest. It didn’t seem to notice or care about Agnita’s departure.
It stared down at Viggo with a gaze that reminded him of a vulture. His breath caught as a slender reptilian body slithered down the length of the tree. It was long like a snake, but it had four short legs. It stopped at the bottom and shrieked again. Heart racing, Viggo drew his sword.
“What in the devil are you?” he asked it.
Half snake, half something else, it bore its sharp teeth and slithered toward him. Viggo’s horse reared and he held on with one hand, trying to keep his sword-bearing hand steady. The stallion reared again and he couldn’t hold on any longer. He let go of the reins and tossed the sword from the other in order to avoid a detrimental landing as he fell. He landed on his side in the dirt as his horse ran away.
He picked up his weapon and the reptilian-like animal froze. The dragon lunged at him and Viggo lashed out at it with his sword. The blade did not break through its thick scales. It did not even flinch from his assault. Viggo focused on its smooth, unprotected neck and stabbed at it when it lunged again, but the creature dodged the attack. It sprung up on its hind legs, dancing eerily, deliberately. Viggo could only stare until he got his bearings.
It returned to all fours and circled around him. He braced himself for a powerful impact; it leaped at him. He stabbed it just below its neck. It screeched and backed away. Red blood seeped from the wound.
“Get lost!” he shouted, feeling foolish, but it was the first thing that came to mind.
It hissed at him again with mad eyes. Then it darted away, disappearing into the thick brush. He leaned against a tree, panting from the near-death experience. He wiped tears of exhaustion from his eyes. Agnita appeared from the shadows and walked toward him. She was supposed to be far away, but the fool stayed behind.
“Viggo,” she said quietly.
“This war. This damn war!” he shouted.
She stepped closer as he composed himself. “I got your horse,” she said. “I was able to entice him with one of the apples. So, I’ll go without breakfast tomorrow.”
He sniffed, looking away from her. “It would take much longer with only one horse carrying us both, so thank you for that, but you shouldn’t have stayed back. If it killed me, it could have gone for you.”
“I have my bow and arrows.”
He shook his head. “You barely know how to use them, am I right?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed loudly. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. You saved both of us from that thing. I owe you my life.”
He turned his back on her and kicked at the dirt in anger. There was something about her, how she looked at him, the purity of her intention, that set him off. He wanted to hit himself for feeling sad. If he was going to cry, it should have been for Otto.
“Give me a second,” he said.
She walked away to give him the solitude he needed. Finally, a moment alone. Her presence wasn’t good for him. He wished he could be surrounded by men again, people who could defend themselves properly if such an attack happened. He took in a long breath of the fresh outdoor air. Fear still hovered around him, but the threat was gone. They were safe. There was something dragon-like about the creature, though it neither had wings nor fire-breathing ability. He thanked God for that.
“I am not a hero,” he said, waving her off as he walked up to his horse. “The only reason why I’m doing this task is because I failed a previous mission. It is better that you hate me than idealize me.”
She looked hurt, but he didn’t care. She deserved to feel bad.
“Come on, we need to go.”
They remounted and she kept her distance, riding well behind him. He should have talked to her more, knowing they would likely never see one another again when he left her at Phyllis Cove, but he couldn’t bring himself to say much. Something ached at the pit of his stomach and he wanted it to go away. He didn’t want to become attached to her. He didn’t want to look at her anymore, but that seemed to be all he could do when she was close.
When they set up camp for the night, Agnita got the horses settled by the riverbank while Viggo started up a fire. Their silence continued throughout the evening as they shared the final piece of beef jerky in front of the modest fire. He’d ripped it in half and gave her the bigger piece. She was skinnier than him, she needed it more. She thanked him quietly, seemingly afraid to speak. He sighed, looking at her even though it pained him to do so. After days of travel, she was still a pretty sight, being delicate, yet strong in her own way.
“You have been good company,” he said quietly. “Forgive me for my foul mood.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “That was quite a fight you had with the dragon. Duty or not, you were brave to face it and take it down.”
He glared at her. “If something like that happens again, I want you to ride away quickly. Don’t look back. Don’t stay behind and watch. This mission will be all for naught if you die. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said, slouching.
He got their bedding ready, careful to keep them far enough apart, but not too far. He had to be close enough to protect her if anything happened. He fell asleep staring at the stars that night. When they awoke at dawn, he sat up and watched as she finger-combed her hair and brushed leaves off her clothes. He gave her the last apple from his pack. She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, waving her off. “Eat it.”
She ate it quickly, selfishly, and then helped him pack up their things. Back on their horses, they rode beneath pink skies at a quick pace, alternating the horses’ gaits between gallops and canters for the first hour. They stopped once at a watering hole outside of a small town. Though they were quiet, he exchanged a look with her as they waited for their horses to drink. He would never forget her pretty eyes that reminded him of blue skies. Frenz was a lucky man. After the war, he would claim her to be his wife. That was clear to everyone who saw the way he kissed her back at camp.
As they rode onward, the breeze became fresh and salty. The sea was close. When the first tall building of Phyllis Cove came into view, Viggo urged his horse to run faster. Agnita’s horse caught up with his and they rode together. They slowed down once they hit the city’s cobblestone streets.
He pulled out the map that Commander Ulen gave him that marked Lady Jaqueline’s location. He frowned as he stared at the paper and re-confirmed the location of the lady’s house.
“Are you all right?” asked Agnita.
“Just finding out where we need to go.”
“Why do you think the dragon backed down instead of fighting you to the death?” she blurted.
He nearly laughed at the question. Being surrounded by quaint homes and quiet townspeople was such a contrast from that violent moment. He preferred not to think too much about the ferocious creature that nearly killed him.
“It could be a few reasons,” he began, “I don’t care to think about that right now. I need to get you safely delivered to the lady so I can be on my way.”
Her jaw dropped. “Do you still think of me as nothing more than a package to be dropped off?”
He shook his head. Girls took everything the wrong way.
People stopped and watched them pass through. With their dirty clothes and wind-matted hair, they stuck out. Phyllis Cove was still remarkably prosperous. There were benefits to living in a cove.
“Looks like they have never seen a female in trousers before,” grumbled Agnita.
“I think it has to do with how dirty we look.”
She cringed, looking down at her clothes. He laughed.
They rode in silence until they reached the far end of town. He stopped his horse in front of a modest, but well-built home with a beautiful flower garden out front. The home of Lady Jaquelline. Agnita had already dismounted and was tying her mare to the fence post.
“Can I have a brief moment with her before we go there?” she asked.
“I don’t have time for this,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Her eyes were watery and she looked away from him for a moment. He sympathized with her, but other people were in far worse predicaments. She dawdled by the horse with a forlorn expression.
“Agnita, we have to go to the front door now.”
She hung her head and followed him. He glared at her. “You will be safe here. Stop pouting like a child.”
She crossed her arms, refusing to look at him.
“Try not to be such an ungrateful brat, will you?”
“Easy for you to say,” she shot back.
He knocked on the front door three times. A dark-haired older woman who was rather pretty answered the door. Her large hazel eyes warmed at the sight of them. Agnita was going to be in good hands.
Agnita took a deep breath, grasping her bow tightly, as she took in the refined beauty of her new guardian. She carried the grace that was expected for a woman of high birth. Her wide-set eyes were kind, putting her at ease.
“Greetings,” she said, looking from Viggo to Agnita. “Ah, you have arrived at last!”
“This is Agnita, your new ward, whom I have escorted from Commander Ulen’s camp. She is to be brought into your care until it is safe for her to return home to her parents.”
“Very well then,” said the lady good-naturedly.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Agnita.
She had no idea how to curtsy properly, so she didn’t try. Lady Jaquelline reached over and placed both of her hands on Agnita’s shoulders.
“You won’t need to use that bow and arrow here. I assure you Phyllis Cove is the safest place you can be right now and I am so glad you’re here. Though I cannot replace your mother, I hope that you will come to love this place as much as I do.”
A pang made Agnita flinch as she thought of home. Her parents. Maiden’s pasture. The hill that she and Frenz used to race on. It was all so far away. The thought made her stifle a sob. An elbow gently poked her in the ribs. She looked over at Viggo.
“Thank you for your kindness, Milady,” she said quickly, amazed at how deeply her mind wandered as she stood there on a fine lady’s doorstep.
Viggo bowed gallantly. The sight would have made Agnita laugh if it were not the last time she would see him.
“I must return to my duties,” he said. “Good day to you, ladies.”
Panic flashed through Agnita. Though she and Viggo were far from friends, the thought of never seeing him again was a painful tonic to swallow.
“Please be safe,” she said quietly, turning to him.
His blue eyes widened. If she wasn’t mistaken, he looked like he might miss her, too.
“Do not do anything spontaneous for the next little while, all right?” he asked.
“I will try not to.”
“Safe travels,” called Jaquelline.
Viggo locked eyes with Agnita. Then he turned away.
Another part of life ended. All that was familiar fled with Viggo. She was on the other side of the country with a total stranger. He walked briskly back to his horse, mounted, took the other horse’s lead, and rode away. Agnita watched him ride away.
“How kind of the army to have that boy escort you here. You will miss him, I’m sure,” said Jacqueline, joining her on the porch.
“Yes,” said Agnita. “I will.”
They stood together in silence for a moment.
“Let’s go inside and I’ll have a bath prepared for you. You must be exhausted.”
“Thank you, M’lady.”
As they walked through the door into the beautifully decorated house, the sound of obnoxious drumming filled the air. Battle drums. The Norforthian army didn’t march to that sort of beat. It was too brutal.
Losing her balance, Agnita leaned against the wall.
“No,” she breathed.
It couldn’t be. Viggo had only just left. The enemy was supposed to be miles away.
“What on earth?” asked Jaqueline, going to the window, confused.
“They’re coming!” cried Agnita, hearing the tremble in her voice.
“The army has sent a regiment to protect us?” asked Jaquelline, raising a thin eyebrow.
“No. It’s the Ustrunians,” said Agnita. “We have to run, M’lady.”
Martin closed the manuscript he was reading and jumped down from the thick branch of a tall tree. The incunable was still secure in his hand, one of the few published works where the pages were all bound together between hard covers. He preferred the format to scrolls, but the technology that was needed to bind and print pages together was very costly. It was not something that a press could afford to make during wartime.
He cast a glance over at the dark sea. Phyllis Cover was a beautiful place. It was Mother’s idea to settle there and she chose well. The great body of water was just as beautiful on a cloudy day, if not more foreboding. He felt rejuvenated after taking some time to catch up on reading about war history. The subject was still fitting and applicable to the present. If only kings studied the past wars in great depth. It might have stopped them from resorting to violent battles in the first place. Though the subject was far from light, it had been a long week of physical work rebuilding carts and he needed to exercise his mind instead. Somewhere, Engulf still journeyed over the countryside for home. In another month it would snow. God willing, he’d make it to safety before winter temperatures swept across the land.
Martin turned away from the sea and surveyed the hills where the lone unicorn must have loomed. He had the strangest feeling that she was watching him from a distance. He started back for home, looking forward to a conversation with his parents over dinner. They had helped him tremendously with his business from donating funds when needed them to helping him with some of the cart building. They seemed convinced that his idea was as good as anything that they could come up with. They were accustomed to running general stores and with the lack of supplies, such a venture was difficult to start up.
The carts were selling. He would never become wealthy from the business, but he made enough money to pay his parents back and have extra left over to invest in building a house soon. It was the first time in his life that he was able to give back to Mother and Father and it was also the first time since the war that life was beginning to feel stable.
At the sound of low, repetitive rumbling, Martin stopped. It wasn’t thunder. It was something else.
“Battle drums,” he said as soon as the thought entered his mind.
He took a deep breath and ran as fast as he could for home. His long legs covered more ground than usual as he forced them to move faster than he ever had before. Above his rapid breathing, the drumming grew louder, chasing him like a spirit.
A distinct rumbling sounded close by, causing him to freeze in shock. Right before his eyes, a herd of black unicorns raced ahead, running away from the sound of the battle drums. The largest unicorn, the stallion, ran ahead of the rest, shrieking in agitation. Even though the herd was several leagues away, he had to cover his ears with his hands. Once they returned to the mists in the highlands, he continued on his run for home.
He reached the village and sprinted down the street to the house. He all but broke through the front door and bent over to catch his breath.
His mother went to him. “Martin! What is wrong?” she cried.
“Can you not hear? The Ustrunians are coming. We need to leave!”
She stared at him, appearing unable to move. “How can that be?”
“That general is neglecting his duties again, I see!” Father shouted angrily.
“We need to gather food and blankets and load the wagon as soon as we can,” said Mother calmly. “Martin, can you make sure our neighbours are secure in their wagon? They have so many children. God, I can’t believe this.”
Martin raced over to the house next door. The woman cradled a baby in the wagon while the father frantically loaded food and supplies. They had five children, all of whom were running or jumping around. He helped the man load up some boxes and then rounded up the small children.
“A very big enemy army is coming. Can you be very good and go with your parents in the wagon?” he asked them.
Realizing their peril as the drumming grew louder, the little ones gathered inside of the wagon. The mother gave him a grateful nod. Once the father was in the wagon, he urged their horse in motion and were on their way down the busy street. People were already fleeing like wild animals trying to outrun a terrible fire.
He rushed back into his house to help his father pack and carry out a couple of barrels of supplies. Mother carried a box herself, set it in the wagon, and hitched the horse. Father ran to her, gathered her into his arms, and kissed her.
Martin stared at them in surprise.
“I need to see if anyone else needs help,” he said.
His parents shot him a frantic look.
“No! They will hear the drums!” cried Mother. “We all need to get out of here now.”
“I can’t just let them get stuck here like sitting ducks. I will catch up with you soon, I promise.”
His father gave him a stern look. “Son, please get in the wagon and run with us while we still have a chance.”
Martin matched the older man’s intense glare with his determined one. “Let me help them, Father. It won’t take long.”
“Only if you ask the blacksmith if you can borrow one of his horses and ride east with us when you are finished helping. Do you understand?”
Martin took his mother’s hand. “I love you both.”
“Hurry up, then!” she cried.
He ran down to the end of the street to knock on the first home on the left. “Everyone prepare to leave you house. The Ustrunians are coming!”
An elderly man opened the door, glaring at him. “I thought you were more mature than those other fools your age,” he snarled. “Guess I was wrong.”
“Sir, please listen to the battle drums!” cried Martin.
The man stepped outside and watched the mounting panic on the streets. Some of the people were already riding or running down the street.
“My hearing is terrible,” said the man, grimacing.
“You must leave now! Do you have a horse?”
“I’ve got an old mule. Bear with me, kid, and I’ll take care of myself. You oughtta get outta here yerself.”
A burly hand rested on Martin’s shoulder. It was the blacksmith. “Best jump on one of my horses and catch up with your family. I brought in three extra ones from the farm. They are tied next to the tavern.”
“I will leave after everyone is safe.”
“Just don’t risk your own life for them. You’re so young.”
“Boys younger than I are fighting in battles as we speak.”
It became difficult to think as the battle drums grew louder. Across the street, Martin found another young couple struggling to load their children into the wagon. He helped them pack everything in while the parents minded their boisterous brood. When they were ready to be on their way, he found a family trying to pack food and other belongings into their large wagon.
“There is no time for all of that!” he shouted. “You should ride out of here while there’s still a chance to beat them.”
The man shrugged and looked at his wife, who appeared torn with indecision.
“Let’s go,” she said, sadly casting a gaze upon her yellow stone house.
The enemy was so close that they could hear their rapid marching that shook the earth. The young couple exchanged horrified looks with Martin. They hopped in their wagon and rode off. The task to help get everyone out of the town seemed endless, but Martin was not going to leave until he knew that everyone was going to make it out. Even as the ground trembled beneath his feet, he ran over to another group of people struggling to leave.
Brother and sister travelled deeper into the thick woods. The young dragon perched herself on Erne’s shoulder and chirped. Erne laughed as the dragon planted her front legs on his head, appearing to be perfectly comfortable.
“Are you really sure that she will survive on her own now that she’s relying on us?” asked Helena.
“Do not let her small size fool you. She was born to fend for herself. One day she will fly. Imagine that, Helena.”
“If only I could be there the day that she flies.”
He glanced down at her with a warm smile that she couldn’t help but return. Having her brother close by made her soul feel at peace. She wouldn’t be alone in letting go of the dragon. Once they reached the edge of a steep ravine, Erne knelt on one knee. Their dragon crept down his arm, jumped to the forest floor, and pawed at the moist earth with her front legs. She stood on her hind legs and titled her head to listen to the surroundings.
“She seems happier here,” sighed Helena.
Her older brother wrapped an arm around her. “She is. You should say good-bye now.”
She knelt next to the tiny reptile which scurried up to her. “I will miss you so much. Thank you for helping me to believe in fairy tales again.”
The young dragon locked eyes with her. Nothing other than intelligence resonated from the creature’s gaze. She blinked and then darted into the bushes. Helena stood, taking in the realization that new friend departed forever.
“I will never see her again, will I?”
“Dragons rarely show themselves to humans. Be grateful for that.”
“She would remember me if she saw me again.”
“She may, but she’ll travel far from here where no humans live. One day you will live far away from here, too. Just know that you did the right thing.”
They retraced their steps to leave the forest behind. She tried concentrating on the flowers that flecked the woods to stop herself from crying. Erne was with her and she had no right to be sad.
“You’re so brave, you know,” he said.
She decided not to argue with him, but he caught her doubtful expression.
“Never doubt your strength, Helena. I’ve seen girls your age as I’ve passed through other cities and towns. Many of them are hysterical and flighty, but you are calm and thoughtful, despite what you have been through.”
Helena shrugged. “I feel like I am none of the words you just used to describe me, but who am I to disagree?”
“You need to believe in yourself more. I believe in you.”
“Very well, then,” she said, forcing a smile.
He wrapped an arm around her again as they walked out of the woods. She leaned against him. Her mind wandered to the future, to the war, where he would be. Why was it always so difficult for her to stay in the moment?
“Erne, when is your ship leaving?”
He placed his hands in his pockets, which was always a terrible sign. A chill rushed over her. He only did that when he was nervous about something.
“We leave in two days.”
Though she was not surprised, her sadness deepened at the thought of having to say good-bye to him so soon after losing her dragon.
“Let’s make the most of tomorrow,” she said. “Before you return to hell.”
“You are fond of tragic words, aren’t you?”
She had no idea how he could act so cavalier after everything that happened to their family, to their country.
“I wasn’t meaning to be funny.”
She stopped, looking at him intently. “Please don’t go, Erne. We need you here. Things have been so hard without Papa.”
He closed his eyes. “I know, but our country needs me even more, my dear Helena. I need you to be very brave. Mother will need you if anything ever happens to me.”
Helena hanged her head as dread clenched her heart like a vice. It hurt so much that she felt like crying, yet she couldn’t. Her eyes remained dry.
“It is so painful to be alive,” she said.
“It won’t be this way forever,” he said calmly.
She wondered then if he really knew anything about life.
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