They emerged from the filth of the sewers into thick, dewy brush. Cassandra scrambled up the rocky incline that bordered the city’s culvert, panting. Nathaniel followed after her, sword in hand. Her hands and legs were caked with fetid mud. She wiped them on the grass as she surveyed the wooded copse that surrounded them. Something was missing.
“Where are the horses” she asked.
“I… they should be here.” Nathaniel cupped his filthy hands to his mouth and trilled a mock birdsong. There was no response.
“Nathaniel… where are the horses? How are we…” she trailed off, understanding.
They shared a look in that glade that spoke of death. He went to her and wrapped his warm, strong arm around her.
“I can fight them off… you must run now.”
“No, Nathaniel. We run.” And she grabbed him.
No sooner had they reached the end of the culvert did they hear the sound of hoofbeats approaching. Nathan had his sword, but she was unarmed. Still running, she dipped down and grasped a sturdy fallen branch in hand. Mother,she thought,they will not take me a second time.
“Go, I will hold them off.” Nathaniel pushed her over the crest of the hill.
“No, I willnotwatch you die. If you die, we die together.” She pulled him by his shoulder and the two of them went tumbling down.
“What is wrong with you?”
“Me… what about you? Were you always so eager to die for others or is it just maidens you care for?” On her feet in a moment, she grabbed him and hauled him heavily off the ground.
“Remember when we stole all those apples from farmer Veron? He sent his dogs after us, and they lost us once we crossed the river. We just need to cross the river.”
“This isn’t like Veron’s orchard, Cass.”
“We just need to get to the river. Come on!”
The two of them ran, merciless thorns and brambles raking their legs to shreds. The thick branches whipped at her face as they flew over the mouldering underbrush. Through the pounding beat of horse hooves, she heard the water roar. She glanced back over her shoulder. She could see the slashes of red through the green.
They stopped. The river was high and rushing wildly beneath them, too dangerous to ford even on horseback. They were trapped.
“We can jump.” He said.
“Yes. We jump. I leave my sword and belt, and all my armor and we jump. The current should take us miles upriver, faster than they can follow us.”
“If we don’t drown!”
“Listen, we can do this,” Nathaniel began to strip down, throwing his sword and belt to the ground. He pulled off his shirt. His naked, dirt caked body glowed but as he turned she saw his back. There were deep, twisted scars that ran all the way down his body from shoulders to hips. The Prince’s justice.
“We must jump.”
“We must. Or, we die.”
“Mother, save us,” she whispered.
Nathaniel screamed. He was struck. The still quivering shaft of an arrow stuck out from his leg. Cassandra could hear more arrows whizzing by her. She looked down at the galloping water, her heart thundering in her chest. Her toes gripped the sandy earth as she shut her eyes, poised to lunge into the surely frigid water.
She felt a rough hand seize her wrist and she was thrown to the ground. She clawed her way towards the water’s edge.
“Not that fastprincess,” the foul smelling soldier kicked her to the ground and placed his muddy foot on her back.
“The others will be here soon enough, but until then Morris needs to know you won’t run off anywhere.” Cassandra twisted and squirmed under his foot. She looked over at Nathaniel. He was gone.
The guard’s leg twitched as she heard the dull grit of metal against flesh. A warm rain fell on her neck and the backs of her legs. The soldier’s head tumbled across the grass by her face. Nathaniel’s sure hands gripped her prisoner’s jerkin and lifted her, she screamed.
“There will be others, we have to go… now.”
It was too late. The vanguard had reached her. Their horses loomed up around them, their rider’s arrows notched into bows. Nathaniel shifted his sword hand, favoring his healthy leg. The horses whinnied nervously.
“Then it’s too late.” Nathaniel’s voice was flat, almost cold.
“I love you,” she said.
“Thornn ordered you taken alive, princess. He didn’t say anything about the other one. Don’t make us hurt him to make a point.”
The horses shifted and a few bucked, throwing the novice riders to the ground. Nathaniel reached over hand held her hand. Through the trees, Cassandra glimpsed the yellow-red eyes of the wood-walkers. They stalked silently into the clearing, their thick pads tamping down the dead, wet leaves. Their huge, white teeth bared against the men’s steel. Cassandra smelled blood.
“Archers, what are you waiting for? Shoot!”
Cassandra saw the archers’ hands shaking. They still clung to the Mother’s words. They had been sung the green hymns like she had and knew that despite the Prince’s dictate, they still honored the ways. That was when the wolves turned.
“I said shoot,” the captain said.
The wood-walkers had been a plague on the land since the Prince took power, stealing men from their houses and babies from their swaddling beds. Not even the armored were safe from the wood-walkers, they tore full grown soldiers down from their saddles without nicking their horses. No one was safe.
“I order you to shoot the ‘walkers,” he screamed.
A single arrow flew and a storm of chaos broke loose. The largest of the wolves bounded, faster than a hawk, and knocked the Captain from his saddle. He hit the ground next to her, the claws of the wolf digging through his chainmail and into his chest. The eyes of the wolf looked as big as gold saucers. She could see the tiny red veins that pulsed in them. She could not look, would not look, as the wolf tore his throat out.
“The wolves will keep them busy, you… run.”
“I cannot leave you to them, they will surely devour you.”
“Grab my arm, help me.”
They slipped down the banks of the river, the sound of pitched battle behind them. Cassandra could see that Nathaniel was woozy from blood loss. He favored his good leg less and less, and she had to stop twice to pick him up from a stumble. The others would likely be drawn to the sound of the fight, so they had precious minutes to escape and Cassandra was determined to make the most of that time.
She did not know what made her look up. There was no sound, no snapped twig or rustle of leaves that should have set her ears upon it, but she looked up anyway. Through the darkened mist of the autumn wood she saw the glow of a wolf’s eyes.
Nathaniel’s weight sagged on her shoulder. She saw the snout of the wolf twitch. The walker could smell their blood. Their eyes were locked on each other for long, breathless moments. All sound died in her ears and she could not hear the rushing of the water, despite its closeness. The wolf padded out through the trees and stood not an arms-length from her.
“I shall take him,” it said.
Cassandra’s jaw slacked and she felt her legs go loose. Nathaniel collapsed on the ground next to her, his weight too much for his wounded leg to handle.
“If you’re want to live, you’ll place him on my back and the two of us will away from here.”
“This must be a waking dream.”
“This is no dream, youngling. Your life… all our lives are in danger. Now… place him on my back.”
“I don’t. I don’t know if I can lift him.”
The wolf trotted over to Nathaniel’s body and lay down next to him, pushing its muzzle under his shoulder. She grabbed him and pulled him onto the wolf’s back, Nathaniel’s arms hung bonelessly by its side.
“Now, we must away. My brothers shall finish the rest of them.”
“Where are we going,” she asked.
“…to the resistance.”