By all accounts the Professor recovered swiftly. Kintra didn’t return to the house. She saw that the horses were tacked and ready for their riders, once Farron had been out with a mug of soup and a chunk of bread and filled her in on the details. Or tried. She held up a hand as he started to recount the story and shook her head. He gave her a pat on the back, telling her they would be leaving as soon as they had eaten, and then went back to the house.
They now rode in silence following the River Err that created a natural border between Anusia and Erania. Kintra focused on the river surface, pretending to watch for ripples as fish grasped for the small flies skittering, just out of reach. Farron rode next to her, his leg almost touching hers. She couldn’t decide if he was being thoughtful or territorial. Or both.
Helian rode alongside Vlarimar who was recovering well now, and Petra lead the way. Zorbel was to Kintra’s left. The big man half dozed in the warm sunshine, trusting his horse to follow the others.
She was tired too. Her eyes felt like sandpaper. But there was no way she could relax enough to even consider sleep. Erania. Home. Swallowsmere was two days ride from the border, and her family, at least three. It seemed like another life, and yet…
‘There are riders coming swiftly.’ Farron loosened his sword and pulled a knife free from its sheaf. She followed his gaze. Petra had halted, and Zorbel, instantly awake, rode to the front to join her.
The riders wore the livery of Erania’s nearest kingdom, Portuta. There were four of them, and they didn’t slow, galloping past without so much as a glance.
‘Odd,’ Petra said. She looked at Helian and then at Vlarimar. Both shook their heads.
‘Let’s carry on to the next town, but be wary,’ Zorbel said.
They carried on. Farron’s leg was beginning to get irritating, and she nudged Sorrel, the mare nimbly side stepping away. Farron glanced at her, but quickly looked back at the road. He was nervous, everyone was nervous, and it really wasn’t helping Kintra’s mood.
It was mid afternoon when they arrived in Borivo, the town that claimed to be ‘The Gateway to Erania.’ Last nights antics were taking their toll on them all now. Comments were clipped short, and no one even attempted to break the mood.
‘I know an inn. We deserve a bed and decent food,’ Zorbel said, taking the lead.
‘Perhaps local gossip will enlighten us on those riders,’ Petra added.
Farron was riding close again. ‘Do you have to ride on top of me!’ Kintra blurted.
Farron looked at her, eyebrows raised, a half smirk playing across his lips.
‘Oh, stop it!’ she said, angrily. ‘You know what I mean.’
He hid his surprise quickly, his face becoming uncharacteristically blank. He bowed his head and muttered, ‘Very sorry your highness.’
She glared at him, but he looked away, falling back to the rear of the group.
She followed Helian’s stiff back. Had he heard? She sighed loudly. She was tired, hungry and in need of a bath. He looked back at her, but her scowl stopped any words that might have left his lips.
The inn was simple, but comfortable. The food warming, the ale good and cold. Zorbel had booked the rooms, not thinking to ask who was sleeping with who. Irritation reared up once more as he handed out the keys. Couldn’t he have asked if she’d wanted to share? But then, everyone was sharing. She could hardly complain. And to swap would mean sharing with Helian. She didn’t look at Farron as she grabbed the key.
‘I’m going for a bath,’ she said. No one said a word as she left the bar and made her way up the staircase to the upper floor. The fire was blazing under a pan of hot water, when she entered the room, and the tub was almost full. She added the extra pan, filling it back up and placing it on its hook in the fireplace. She stripped her dirty clothes and climbed carefully into the copper bath. It took a few attempts to bear the temperature, her legs becoming red with the heat, but soon she was submerged, her eyes closed. Bit by bit her body relaxed. As it did, something in her chest gave way, and she began to cry. An urge to run as far away from Erania as she could, overtook her. And then she felt guilty for even thinking of abandoning her family, stuck in some prison for the last five years, while she had at least had her freedom. It was fear, she realised. Fear of going home, fear of the changes in her, fear of being rejected by her family, fear of going back to an old way of life, fear of being caught…and fear of the place within her that she kept denying. The place where Wild Fire burned hot with power, igniting something inside that she didn’t understand and she didn’t know what to do with. An urge to let it all loose bubbled up with the tears. She gasped, sitting up quickly.
‘No!’ she shouted jumping out of the bath. The movement helped; the feeling fizzled back down to a low burn. She stood, breathing heavily, dripping on the woven mat. It was suddenly too hot in the room. She pulled fresh clothes from her bag and dressed, not bothering to dry herself. She stumbled from the room, into the courtyard and to Sorrel’s side. Throwing the tack on her horse, without thinking, she leapt into the saddle and clattered over cobblestones following the road that led West into the setting sun.
Sorrel galloped willingly along the roadside, throwing up clods of turf. Her mane whipped up around Kintra’s face, creating a cooling breeze. They passed a board, large and brightly coloured, the lettering in an elegant script. The Eranian border.
The heat drained from her and she pulled Sorrel up sharp. What was she doing? The horse shook her neck and tugged the reins, reaching to grab a mouthful of grass. She had left behind a fat wedge of hay and was eager to make up for it. Kintra kicked her onwards forcing her head upwards, and then turned sharply back towards the town. The sun lit the road ahead of her, casting long evening shadows, and illuminating four riders coming straight towards her at a gallop. Hurriedly she gathered up her reins and steered Sorrel back off the road, setting off at a trot, hoping to seem nonchalant.
It was the same riders, in Portuta livery. They passed her by, only one glancing in her direction. He pulled his horse up and shouted as she trotted off.
‘Hey! You there, miss.’
She stopped and turned in the saddle.
‘It’s not safe to be out here after dark. War is upon Portuta and may encroach over the border. I suggest you make haste’.
‘I will. Thank you.’ The man set off again after his disappearing friends. Kintra dug her heels into Sorrels side and the mare leapt forward, flattening her ears, and swishing her tail. She gave a lopsided buck and shot off back towards town.
War. More war. She had to tell the others.
When she got back to the bar they were gone. She ran up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door to her room. It was empty. She banged on Petra’s door. Farron opened it and took a breath, relief showing. Then he frowned and grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her into the room and closing the door.
‘Where the hell did you go?’ he snarled.
Everyone was in Petra’s room. Helian stood, his eyes on her.
‘There’s a war,’ she said, the words tumbling from her mouth.
‘We know,’ Petra said. ‘The Sorcerers are using Vlarimar’s father once more. This time they are rooting through Portuta looking for you, and him,’ she said pointing at Helian. ‘They know you are alive.’
‘But how…?’ She looked quickly at Vlarimar, anger rising. He raised his hands.
‘It wasn’t him,’ Petra hissed, ‘It was most likely those elves.’
‘I said we should have killed them,’ Kintra yelled.
‘Be quiet Kintra,’ Farron said firmly. ‘These walls are made of wood. Now where the hell were you?’
She looked at him with one of her, who the hell are you to ask, stares. It had no effect. He looked down at her his face unmoved. Then he turned away and walked over to a chair, throwing himself into it, his head thrown back to stare at the ceiling.
She perched on the bed next to Zorbel. ‘Don’t disappear again,’ he warned. ‘We thought someone had grabbed you.’
Guilt. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quietly. Helian sank back down on the other side of the bed. She couldn’t bear to look at anyone, instead she watched a spider spin a silken thread between two picture frames on the wall.
‘We all need sleep,’ Zorbel said. ‘Now we know Kintra is alright. I suggest we do that and reconvene in the morning to discuss what to do next. None of us are thinking clearly right now.’ There were a few mutters as everyone agreed.
Kintra followed Farron back to their room. He said nothing as he threw off his clothes and got into the half cold bath water.
‘Shall I pour in the pan of hot water?’ she offered.
It took him a minute to look at her. ‘Kintra…don’t ever do that again.’
‘I’m sorry. I had to get out into the cold…’
He stopped her with a raised hand. ‘I don’t care why you did it. Really.’ He stared into the dirty water. He started to speak, then sighed and lay back. ‘Just don’t do it again.’
She turned away, undressing before getting into the bed. The mattress was soft, and her limbs sank readily into it. She didn’t hear Farron get in beside her.
Sometime in the middle of the night she awoke to his fervent hot kisses on her neck, his hand cupping her breast. She turned to find his mouth with her own.
That night was different. He was trying to tell her something. She just wasn’t sure what. But within her a tendril rose up from her stomach to her chest, burning, with a warmth that grew stronger the longer he locked her body to his own. It wasn’t Wild Fire.