Ever since the fire and their escape, Artemesa had been close enough to touch at nearly all times. When her snout wasn’t bumping the back of Cassius’ leg, he only had to let his hand drift and he’d nudge her.
His arm had been grazed by the flames in his wild chase to get to Artemesa, and while he hadn’t realised it, as soon as the adrenaline had faded it began to sting. There was little any of them could do about it, and he didn’t want anyone to try to take the pain even if they knew how to ask for healing. It would fade, surely.
More than his arm, his feet were killing him. His clothes were smudged with dirt and soot and they had been away from the Citadel for, by his count, three days now. How much longer did they have to wander through the woods?
He wasn’t even sure he knew the way back anymore.
“Hey, Oriole,” Ember chirped, kicking a stone in Rowan’s direction. “Your birthday’s coming up.”
Rowan smiled, but it looked much lesser than normal. “Yes, it is.”
As he trailed behind, Alanna dragging her feet in front of him, he grumbled and scuffed his foot against the ground. “We’ll probably all be dead by then.”
Alanna turned over her shoulder to look at him fearfully, and Ember drifted to her side to comfort her. Alanna ducked away from her to give him a scathing look. “Don’t say that!”
He held his tongue, too tired to try to argue right now. He wanted to lie down and sleep for next several years, waking only for some proper food that wasn’t the stupid berries that Rowan said weren’t poisonous. One of these days, a part of him hoped one would be.
Artemesa nosed at his burns, as she had been doing repeatedly over the last few days. It didn’t hurt when she touched them, but the warm of her breath against the already hot skin wasn’t comfortable.
His stomach twisted. How long could they sustain themselves on berries and whatever other gross plants Rowan found for them to eat? It felt like he was eating himself from the inside.
He didn’t know how long it was until the trees began to thin. The rustling of the undergrowth filled the forest around them, and there were minor tremors like the ground was shaking beneath them. When he glanced down, there was nothing.
Ahead, where the treeline broke, a slope rose up and levelled out to a silvery, glistening path, several yards wide, stretching further to the sides than he could see.
He knew without context that it was the industrial roads. The connection between the kingdoms and the towns scattered across Stellarsyl.
Rowan led them forward and to the top of the slope. Then they turned, throwing their loose and unkempt hair over their shoulder. He’d never seen Rowan’s hair so untidy before.
“Let’s rest here,” they said. “We’ll have to look for more food, but if we’ve found the road, we can find our way back home.”
“You mean, we have to find berries?” he asked, wrinkling his lip. Artemesa nipped at his hand and he swatted her away. She growled at him. “I’m sick of berries. We’ve eaten nothing but berries for the last three days.”
Ember and Alanna had already settled down on the road, and Ember was trying to use strips of Alanna’s nightgown that they ripped off to tie back each other’s hair. Rowan, on the other hand, glowered at him.
“I don’t see your crossbow on hand to bring down any game out here,” they replied, an edge to their voice. “Unless you have a better idea?”
As he bristled, Ember quickly bounded over to his side and looped her arm around his as she passed, yanking him forward. “Come on! We’re splitting up. I think we can tell which berries won’t kill us, but I’m not sure the two of you won’t right now. Let’s go.”
He allowed Ember to drag him back into the forest. The trees shuddered around them, and an unnaturally cold breeze swept through the woods around them. Ember slowed but didn’t stop.
She let go of him and punched him in the arm. He yelped, staggering away from him.
“Thank the sun and the moon that Stormy’s not here, I loathe to think about what the two of you would be doing now.” She scowled at him. “We’re all tired and miserable, Cassius. Do you think you acting like you’ve had sour milk forced down your throat help us?”
He huffed, rubbing his arm, and shook his head. “Okay, okay. Point taken. Did you have to hit me?”
“Someone needed to knock sense into you.” She grabbed his sleeve and pointed towards a clearing in the trees, where sunlight filtered in and lit up soft, mossy floor below like a beacon. In the middle, just off centre, was a glistening stream with silvery stones filling the bottom. “Throw some water on your face, get a drink, and then we’ll meet back up and return to the others with some berries. And you won’t complain about it.”
“I complain about everything, Em,” he pointed out.
She rolled her eyes and gave Artemesa an idle stroke between her ears and horns. Artemesa made a noise not unlike a purr. “Keep watch over him. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
Cassius hesitated before approaching the stream. He shivered at the icy wind, like a breath of Vigil still left in the air. It rose the hairs along the nape of his neck and on his arms.
But Ember had a point. With a resigned, heavy sigh, he clomped towards the stream with Artemesa at his side, cooing softly like a dove.
He crouched in front of the brook and felt the perspiration sink into his trousers. The pebbles shifted under his weight, and he took care not to plunge face forward into the water as he bent forward. Cupping his hands, he splashed water on his face. The water was freezing, and he gasped, flinching backwards.
When he recovered, he bent once again, this time to drink. He’d have to tell Rowan and Alanna about the stream as well. They hadn’t had much of anything in way of liquid since they’d left.
Artemesa made a strange, low noise from the back of her throat. He stilled. On the breeze, he swore he could hear the echoes of his name. Was Ember calling him?
The stone under him suddenly shifted, spilling into the river. His shins were soaked as he began to collect himself. Water collected around his legs, and the ground sunk beneath him as though made of quicksand. He tried to stagger backwards.
One of his boots got caught in the earth.
But it wasn’t the earth sinking, it was the river swallowing it. It was growing rapidly, twisting and churning like a snake across the ground. The frigid water greedily lapped up his legs. Behind him, he heard the rustle of feathers and Artemesa’s crying. What could she possibly do? She was still so small.
And then a hand fastened around the back of his jacket, and he was out of the water. He kicked out, trying to get a footing, but whoever held him held hm fast and strong, pulling him backwards as the earth began to sink and the river began expanding like lungs taking a breath.
After the first moment of being dragged, he began to reach up. At first, he’d suspected Ember. She was the strongest, and the closest.
Except she would have let him go, and as he reached up to swat at the hand hold, he realised whoever it was, they were much bigger than Ember.
“Let me go!” he shouted. He got his feet on the ground for a moment, and then he was yanked back by the collar once more and his legs cut into the dirt.
Artemesa was following and keening, her stubby wings flapping at her side and doing little to aid her.
“LET ME GO!” he cried again, thrashing in the grip. “Let me go!”
And then he was let go. Or rather, he was thrown to the ground, and when he began to sit up, he found a sword tip at his throat.
“If there’s any intelligence in that vulture of yours, you’ll tell it to stand down, or I cut your throat.” The voice was gravelly and deep.
It belonged to an equally gruff looking man, with a hideous scar curling off the upper corner of his lip. He had dark, almost black, thin hair in waves twisted back into a ponytail. His dark skin looked worn, and he looked mature but not old.
He also looked very, very strong. Stronger than any of the soldiers at the Citadel or Mishal.