Fear drove her on; the image of the wolves closing in, to snap at her ankles, their lips pulled back in starving snarls. Panic swelled, forced her blindly to run, lent her legs that extra strength as she pushed beyond the point of pain. And then she couldn't feel it; the only sounds her own heart's thump in her ears, her ragged breath. Her legs moved, but she no longer moved them.
But it was not something that could last. She knew this was the last of her strength, dredged up from a well that was now run dry. The moment she stopped, the moment she stumbled, it was over. She was over. And the last thing she would know was that she'd failed.
The lights bobbed up and down in the dark, as if they mirrored her own movements. They blurred as she squinted against the freezing wind that stung her eyes. But they grew no closer.
She felt, as if she were dreaming, caught in a moment. Running on a treadmill in a dark space. Running forever.
Her muscles had given all they had to give. They were tired, cramping. She couldn't breathe fast enough or deep enough and the lights began to spin, stretching in the tears held in her eyes into stars with comet tails.
Only now there was shouting in the darkness. She heard others running and collided heavily with something that knocked the remaining breath from her and spilled her onto the ground. She tumbled, coughing, tasting blood at the back of her throat, while lights now swam above her; how, she could not comprehend.
Something sniffed at her, blew hot in her ear. She screamed, or tried to. With no breath the only sound she made was a moan.
A soft fringe of fur brushed against her. A tail wagging. A dog. The moan became a laugh, hoarse and high with relief. The lights above her were just lamps, held up by real, human hands. Not something from a dream, not death.
One of them knelt by her. He had a kind face, lines standing out sharp under the lamplight, good lines; tracks of laughter and cheerfulness, deep around his mouth and crinkling at the corners of his eyes.
"Alright now," he said. "They're all gone. There's little food to be had and they're starving or they wouldn't have troubled you. Are you hurt?"
"No," she managed. "Thank you." She looked full into his eyes as she said this, trying to show him how much it meant. He nodded and smiled to show he understood.
"Come on, let's get you up," he said and offered her an arm. She used it as someone who is drowning, dragging herself up. The weight of her tiredness held her like deep water, and she swayed as she found herself risen into the circle of faces and lights.
More arms caught her and she found she was being half supported, half carried. From darkness into light they took her, from cold into warmth. She was settled into a chair by the fire, a blanket placed around her shoulders, murmuring voices in the background, soothing like a song.
The fire was agony, the cold punishing. Her fingers and toes woke up and screamed, full of needles. But a warm drink was put into her trembling hands and, slowly, she recovered enough to begin to take notice again of what was happening around her.
She looked up into the eyes of the man with the kind lines, who nodded encouragingly. Around him in the tavern everyone pretended they were not waiting to hear what she had to say. She realized the room was crowded, the only space being immediately around the fire, where she sat.
A woman came forward a little to stand beside the man.
"So tell us, Fleet. What's the message you've brought?" she asked. "We're not so ignorant that we don't recognize your mark. I'm lady here. This is my husband, Riam. Someone has gone for Lord Tyndal, if you would rather wait."