Delwind and Amaria had been walking about fifteen minutes, in total silence. Their packs were weighed down with food and full waterskins. Delwind’s sword was sheathed and belted, and Amaria’s quiver was strapped over her back. Her hood was up again to protect from the bitter wind that was gusting from the mountains. Delwind didn’t feel the cold – he had lived on the edge of the mountains all his life.
‘I’m so … tired,’ Amaria yawned, putting a hand over her mouth. ‘It must be nearing midnight now, surely.’
‘It’s only been about an hour since sunset,’ said Delwind. ‘We need to get as far away from Thorsbridge as possible now, because those soldiers might have horses. We need to find a good hiding place.’
‘Aren’t you tired?’ she said, swallowing another yawn.
‘No, I have to stay up late sometimes to make sure we get the harvest in.’
Amaria fell silent, considering this. Where she came from she had to go to bed early, and never had to do any physical work. She was starting to regret running away from home.
‘We need to walk quicker,’ said Delwind anxiously, looking behind him. ‘They could be following us, and if we’re further away we’ll be harder to find.’
‘Oh, for King’s sake stop moaning, will you!’ Amaria burst out suddenly. ‘How will they see us when it’s pitch black?’
‘They might hear us if you keep talking like that,’ said Delwind quietly.
‘Shut up,’ she snapped.
Silence fell again, tenser and more awkward. Delwind was surprised at Amaria’s sudden outburst, and Amaria was feeling slightly ashamed of herself.
In fact, had they been talking, they would not have heard the rustling of the bushes behind them.
Delwind spun on his heel, drawing his sword. Amaria had her bow out in seconds and shot the soldier in the head as he emerged onto the path. His comrade came out behind him, about to blow a horn; Delwind charged forward and cleaved the horn in two with a two-handed strike that followed through and cut off the man’s arm. The force of the strike forced the soldier backwards – he hit his head on a tree, fell to the ground and moved no more.
‘See?’ said Delwind. ‘We’ve been walking for about half an hour and they can still find us.’
But Amaria was still silent. Her hands were over her mouth and she was looking at the soldier she had shot dead with shock. Once again, tears were sliding down her face.
‘I killed again …’ she said faintly. ‘What am I turning into? I’m supposed to be a pr–’
Luckily for Amaria, she was interrupted before she could finish her sentence. Had she blundered on, she would have revealed her true past. Other men had advanced, and Delwind had pulled her down to avoid an arrow soaring towards them. More volleys were spraying from their direction. Delwind pulled Amaria off the path after him and felt one lodge in his pack.
Amaria swiftly climbed a tree for height advantage, and using a branch to shield from the arrows coming in their direction, she return fired, being swifter and more accurate than their attackers. Meanwhile, Delwind had edged behind them in the shadow of the trees. A swordsman turned to face him, as did a dozen archers. Dodging and deflecting their shots agilely, Delwind stabbed forward with his sword, and to his surprise, the man crumpled, dead, on the floor.
Delwind had no time to register shock. More arrows were flying, fletched with electric blue feathers. Using his sword as his main defence, Delwind blocked most of the shots, but had to dive behind the thick trunk of Amaria’s tree to avoid the rest. Amaria dispatched the rest of the men then jumped down to the ground.
Now the shock was sinking in. I have killed a man, thought Delwind. He could still feel the jerk of pain that the man had given as the sword pierced him, could still see the terror in his eyes …
‘It’s strange, isn’t it?’ he said quietly, still sitting where he had dived for cover.
‘Yeah,’ said Amaria in a subdued voice. ‘I’ve never felt so empty.’
‘But we had to,’ said Delwind with conviction. ‘If we hadn’t, they’d only have killed us.’
Despite taking part in sparring competitions and practising with his brother, Delwind had never, ever killed anyone. Now he felt nauseous, drained and culpable
‘How do you know?’ said Amaria. ‘Why wouldn’t they have just taken us prisoner?’
‘They were shooting at us!’ said Delwind angrily. ‘They were aiming right for your head, if I hadn’t pulled you out of the way – well …’
They fell silent, yet again, and turned back to the path.
* * *
It seemed to be a long time later when they were eventually too tired to carry on. They didn’t want to stop for fear of more soldiers, but they were now so far away from Thorsbridge that the torches that lit the town at night could no longer be seen through the trees. Finally they reached a secluded spot under the roots of a fallen tree, and set up camp. Relieving their shoulders of their heavy packs, they sat down against the straggled roots of the oak and listened to the night in silence.
‘So, what did you do when you were a child?’ said Amaria.
‘Not much, really,’ said Delwind offhandedly. ‘The farm’s been the most important part of my life, it’s the thing that’s earned our food, our house, everything Dad used to get for us.’
‘How could you leave it so easily, when we don’t even know where we’re going?’
‘It wasn’t easy. The only reason why I did it is because wherever we are from now on, Ildar’ll be looking for us, mark my words. If we’re in Thorsbridge, they’ll kill every last one of the villagers until we surrender. I’ve grown up all my life with those people, and I’m not letting them suffer for something I’ve done.’
‘You didn’t kill that spy,’ said Amaria. ‘Why should they blame you?’
‘I’ve still spilled Ildarine blood,’ said Delwind. ‘Under their laws I’m sentenced to death.’
The sound of the word ‘death’ seemed to wake Amaria up.
‘But I’ve done worse than that!’ she moaned. ‘I actually killed that spy!’
‘Yeah, and you killed loads of those soldiers back there,’ said Delwind. ‘So did I. Even though we’re in Chalea, we’ve still killed men from Ildar. And that’s why we have to defend ourselves. If we don’t, we’ll die either by hanging or falling in battle. What would you rather do?’
Amaria looked shocked at Delwind’s matter-of-factness.
‘What – so you think that we have to kill all of these men to stay alive?’
‘What would happen if we didn’t?’ Delwind demanded. ‘They’d run off, tell the others exactly where we are, then they’d have half a legion on us! We wouldn’t survive that. All we need to do is stay hidden, and get to Rockhelm as fast as we can.’
‘What do we do when we get to Rockhelm?’ said Amaria.
‘Take a boat down to Lionforge and tell the King.’
‘We can’t go to Lionforge!’
‘Because we can’t!’
‘Because – it’s dangerous! Those men will be after us! They’ll know we’ll head that way.’
‘They can’t block us from passing down the whole mountain range,’ said Delwind. ‘They think we’re going the quick way, across the plains. But if we go to Rockhelm first and take a boat, we’ll be fifty miles south of where they’re expecting us to turn up! Anyhow, they won’t dare turning up close to Lionforge, otherwise the King will know straight away that they’re here.’
‘But – but – ’
‘Where else are we going then?’ snapped Delwind acidly. ‘Over the mountains? South?’ He laughed sarcastically. ‘I don’t think so. We’ve got nowhere else to go, and the King needs to know.’
‘Can you actually control a boat?’
‘No, but there’ll be people in Rockhelm who can, surely they’ll –’
‘Have you got enough money to pay them to take you to Lionforge and back?’
‘No, we’ll just have to stow away, or do work on one of the goods barges. They always have vacancies, there’ll be a space somewhere.’
‘Fine!’ Amaria folded her arms and leant back against a gnarled fist of root that was jutting out from the lower branches. Delwind looked at her superciliously.
‘There’s no need to be so stroppy,’ he said solemnly. ‘Why do you have such a problem with going to Lionforge?’
‘It’s … complicated,’ said Amaria. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Is it so bad that you’d die before you went?’
‘Stop being so dramatic,’ she said, ‘does everything really have to be about living and dying?’
‘I’m just trying to be realistic. So, is it so bad that you’d die before you went?’
Amaria thought for a moment.
‘No,’ she said finally.
‘Fine, you won’t have a problem with it, because you will die if we don’t go. I’ll die too. If you don’t come with me, I’ll go without you.’
And on that note, Delwind turned over onto his shoulder, away from Amaria, and went to sleep.