“Does Margaretta believe herself to be subtle?”
Isadora turned on the gelding she’d been given, a beautiful and quiet dappled grey who responded well but had a penchant for spooking at leaves or the wind.
Mishal looked down at their two horses. “She’s certainly not fooling anyone.”
Except nobody else mentioned it. Gracia had even leapt on the idea, when Margaretta proposed that she and Mishal be given two of their limited supply of horses. And she could understand the desire to keep Mishal in good shape, not wanting to push his leg more than necessary, but they had been back on the road now for nearly a week and there was no switching. Everyone else had been rotating mounts, to make sure walking and riding time were distributed equally.
But nobody said anything. It was starting to drive under her skin.
“We’re nearing the ruins,” Mishal pointed out. “Margaretta estimates that it’s little over a week’s ride forward from here, perhaps longer with our pace. We agreed to mention it before the ruins. I think we should—”
“Ask her right now,” she finished, with a growing swell in her chest and a sharp intake of breath. “This is ridiculous.”
Mishal blinked, caught off guard, but she spurred her gelding forward towards where Margaretta was walking beside the leading carriage. Smoke was blowing out in dark, mephitic puffs towards the sky.
She pulled gently on the reins and leaning back, as Mishal had taught her, to slow her horse. Margaretta glanced up at her, looking no less pleased or irritated than normal. Good, a neutral mood. It was better than a foul one, as Margaretta had been inclined to so regularly.
Behind her, riding on the edge of the step up to the carriage’s door, Gracia didn’t glance up at her. She was watching the horizon with a troubled expression.
“Why are you singling Mishal and I out?” she asked. “Normally you encourage our curiosity. Back home, when we had questions, everyone was quick to answer. Now you’ve gotten angry when we ask, when we put ourselves forward. Have we done something to earn your ire? We’re not kids anymore.” She frowned. “Why bring us along if you didn’t intend for us to do, or learn, anything?”
Hoofbeats echoed against the road beside her, as Mishal caught up to her. Margaretta’s face remained impassive, but Gracia’s expression twitched.
“Neither of you have committed any misdeeds, but I will remind you that only one of you has come of age. And very recently, might I add.” Margaretta glanced forward, the strands of her pale hair not caught in her braid blowing around her face. “Do you imagine I make decisions with ill intent towards the two of you? If I had sent Mishal back to the Citadel, what happens when bandits set upon him again? Gillian used to be apart of the guard in the City of Bells, she has experience and strength. Thom is an experienced stablehand and rider. Yes, Mishal, even more so than you. You are good at many things, and your desire to constantly further yourself are commendable. Thom has ridden since he was a child and does not spread his attentions to other places.”
“And my leg?” Mishal asked.
Margaretta glanced up at him, incredulous. “You would ask me to have let that infection spread? Would you enjoy having only the one leg?”
Isadora exchanged a glance with Mishal. Had they been overreacting? The way Margaretta laid it out… She frowned in frustration down as a crack in the road below them, trying to redirect her anger.
“What about this secret thing that will give us access to the ruins?” she asked. It was the only thing she was more certain Margaretta wouldn’t be able to explain away.
A stormy, irate frown crossed Margaretta’s expression for half a moment. She glanced past Margaretta, however, towards Gracia. The healer was watching Margaretta with a worried gaze and, in that moment, met Isadora’s gaze.
“I know you won’t accept my explanations, but I don’t know what reason I’ve given you that would cause your distrust,” Margaretta said finally. “I promise the two of you, it is something I’m certain of. We’ve been cultivating this for years—”
“Margaretta,” Gracia said in a hush.
“—it is very likely to be the key—”
Isadora’s gelding halted, threw his head, and backed up with haste.
She reached forward to bury her hands into his mane and fist her hands around the tufts of it. Her heart thud in her chest. This seemed a bit of an overreaction to leaves—
Mishal’s mare stopped and, in an instant, reared. Mishal, much better at balance than she was, immediately adjusted his stance and held out as she rose. When she came back down, she began yanking on the reins and puffing.
The other horses were all reacting similarly, in a panic. She clutched the reins and her gelding’s mane and fastened her legs firmly around the gelding’s flank.
Margaretta was calling for everyone to halt. Someone’s horse turned and, ignoring his rider, took off straight into the southern forest, towards the rise of jungle beyond. Into the Wilderlands.
“Wait!” she tried to call after them.
The word has fallen only partway off her lips when great roots of the trees rippled and split from the earth. Wood creaked and keened, and the roots lashed about like vines. Her mouth fell open and she flinched as, though the rider had disappeared, she heard the shrill cries of the mount and the scream of his rider.
“Keep on the road!” Mishal shouted, yanking his mare under control. “Don’t let them run off!”
Her gelding was hopping now, fighting her grip on the reins and dancing backwards. Mishal caught her gaze and shook his head. Don’t give him an inch of leather.
She tried to lean back more, but the fear of the horse rearing as Mishal’s had caught her off guard. Another horse was bolting, back in the direction they’d come.
And the ground was shifting. The trees were uprooting themselves on both sides of the roads. Earth cracked and gouged itself into pathways. Pathways that water poured into, water that had no apparent origin, and began to rise towards the industrial roads.
The road itself was splintering. The cracks she had noticed beginning to increase in frequency were expanding and growing, like glass shattering. The earth was swelling beneath it, rising up.
“TURN THE CARRIAGES AROUND, TURN EVERYTHING AROUND!” Margaretta was bellowing, as the road ahead of them fractured and began to rise into crests.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Mishal said beside her. He was keeping his mare, who was hopping as well beneath his firm seat and steady hand, under control, but barely. “Not on the industrial roads.”
“Isadora, Mishal, GO!” Gracia shouted. She had leapt from the carriage and was helping Margaretta redirect its path. Its mechanical legs worked fervently to keep marching forward, while the two women attempted to strong-arm them into a new path.
Two more screams, that of another horse and its rider, rose in the crescendo of the rending earth.
She turned her gelding away from them. What was she meant to do? Ember would, if she were here. But she knew nothing about the mechanics of the carriage, and if she didn’t get her horse under control…
A shriek split the air, deafening. Not human, and not from a horse. She had begun back up the road, back where they had come from, and made the mistake of glancing back.
Lightning was splitting through the sky. There were no thunderclouds, nor growing darkness on the horizon, but there might as well have been. There was two outlines rising over the crest of the road that was working to stretch towards the sky. They were fast getting bigger, and her heart dropped to her toes when she saw their wings beat, lightning spitting out from them in high-pitched crackles.
Mishal was still near the carriage, shifting his reins to one hand. He was going to dismount.
Then came another screech, it was from one of the bird-figures, and her gelding leapt forward and reared.
She slid ungraciously to the ground and landed on her ribs, yelping at the sudden burst of pain. Her gelding, free of her commanding grip, took off a gallop back down the road. One of the birds—they were close enough now she could see them, a pair of young rocs—shrilled again and arced sharply into the sky, before diving towards the retreating figures followed by a trail of lightning.
Gripping her ribs, she fought to regain the breath she’d lost in her fall. Pain laced her side as she sat up.
She glanced back. Mishal had stopped and turned to watch the roc sail overhead, eyes huge. Then he caught her gaze and turned his mare around and away from the carriage. As he spurred her forward, the ground shot upwards and dislodged the carriage immediately, sending it rolling off and into one of the newly formed rivers that was beginning to flood over atop the road.
Margaretta and Gracia were tossed forward but managed to stay on the path.
Mishal yanked his mare to a halt beside her and held out a hand. “Get on,” he panted.
She forced herself to her feet and took his hand. Without much warning on his part, Mishal yanked her up. She yelped as the pain bloomed through her arm—Mishal was strong—and spread down her ribs.
But she was pulled up and got the momentum to throw her leg over the mare until she was in the saddle, pressed to Mishal’s back. She wrapped her arms around his torso, and, against Mishal’s steadiness, realised she was shaking.
Mishal glanced backwards, towards Margaretta and Gracia, and she could feel his hesitation.
“GO!” Margaretta shouted, waving her hand. “GET BACK!”
“I can’t—” he said, under his breath.
“Mishal, we have to,” she said. She squeezed tighter. “Mishal.”
He turned their horse. One roc had dived for the walking carriage, shrieking in delight as it tried to sink its talons into it. The other roc was already lifting into the sky, carrying something—probably someone—limp towards the clouds, lightning arcing off its body and lighting up the already bright summer sky.
Mishal didn’t wait for another cue, squeezed the mare’s side, and slackened on the reins. Like a cannon, the mare took off, hoofbeats thundering over the road.
She buried her face into Mishal’s shoulder and shut her eyes so tight that it hurt. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears, until that and their strides were all that she could hear.