Chapter 2

Mira ran hard and fast. She was breathless from the speed, but managed a weak whistle that she hoped would carry. The sound of hooves cause her to panic, but Phiero snorted familiarly as he approached and she almost cried from relief. She grabbed onto his mane and swung herself onto his back. “Go boy, go!” She dug her heels into his flanks, and he rocketed forward.

They were following her. She could hear their angry shouts coming from every side. She thanked Agwe for that. The more there were on her tail, the less that left at home. She burned with shame at the thought of her flight, and hoped with all her soul that she had done right.

The day blurred past and soon the sun began shrinking behind the horizon, but Mira continued her relentless drive through the forest. She didn’t know how long she’d been riding; she followed no trail, and the low hanging branches of the trees tore at her clothes and scratched her arms and face. She winced periodically at the stinging strikes, but she thought she could still hear the drumming of hooves behind her. They had come specifically for her; she knew that now. If only she knew why! But the only hope for those left at the stables was for her to draw the attackers as far away as possible. All the same, she had no plans to surrender. She set a punishing pace and knew that Phiero was a far more superior animal than any of the steeds ridden by the enemy. She would lure them away, lose them in the dark, unfamiliar forest, then return when it was safe to see what, and who, was left.

The face of her father flashed before her suddenly, and the pains inflicted by the surrounding trees seemed insignificant in comparison to the ache that arose in her chest. Exhaustion began to sink in, and the two coupled together broke her resolve, causing her to slump on the back of her great steed and give way to the sobs of a broken soul. Mira was fortunate to have a horse like Phiero. He continued to carry his charge away deeper into the wood without her direction or urging. They rode on through the night for hours, until the great war horse could not go another step, and Mira, bruised and battered and utterly exhausted, literally fell from his back onto the forest floor. She remained where she lay and slipped into a fitful sleep of fatigue.

* * * * * * * * *

Mira’s eyes fluttered open as the first light of dawn crept through the canopy of trees. A headache pulsed along with her heartbeat, and her eyes stung from last night’s tears and lack of sleep. Her back ached from sleeping on the gnarled forest floor. Her arms were scratched and bruised from the flight, and she guessed that her face fared the same. Phiero whinnied softly as he drank from a small streamlet. “Clever horse,” Mira whispered in his ear. “Even in the pitch of night, you found a campsite with water.” She knelt and splashed the frigid water on her face. It momentarily increased the throbbing of her head, but ultimately made her feel more human. She was about to wash her hands and arms, when a breath of a noise triggered a sense of anxiousness.

With one swift, fluid motion, Mira unslung her bow and had an arrow nocked and pointed to the small copse of trees before her. She let her dulais flow through her. She hoped that her tatus would intimidate whoever was hiding there, if nothing else. She was too tired to hold onto the flow for very long, so she called out, “I know you’re in there. Come out or I’ll shoot, and I don’t miss.”

There was a faint rustle as a man’s head protruded from the growth. He had a small smile on his face and both hands raised to the air, showing he held no weapon. “Mercy! I mean no harm,” he said with the smile spreading. Mira’s condition left little room for wit, and she did not appreciate the apparent humor that this man found in the situation. He was tall, and broadly built with dark hair and blue eyes, like her own, but where her’s were more of an icy blue, his were a brilliant turquoise. They were rather striking. The people of Oshyian were all dark and blue eyed, but if she had learned anything from her father’s nightly stories, it was that even one of your own cannot be wholly trusted. And pretty faces usually meant the most trouble. She spat hotly, “Why were you sneaking up on me?”

“Same reason you’re pointing an arrow at me right now. I heard a noise and didn’t know what I would find. So, I opted for the quiet approach instead of barging right in to introduce myself.”

Mira slightly relaxed her bow arm. His manner and method suggested no threat, but she did not dare release her dulais and kept her arrow nocked. His coloring labeled him as Oshyianan, but most of her race avoided the forests, and his presence this deep in the trees aroused her curiosity and suspicion of him. “What is your business here?” she questioned, if not in a friendly tone, at least less acidly then she had spoken to him earlier. His gaze flicked momentarily to the trees behind her. It was so quick, she would not have noticed if her dulais weren’t flowing. Without hesitation, she whipped around and released her arrow, then fell to the ground unconscious – a small needle protruding from behind her ear.

A wail came from behind the leaves. “Ahhh! She almost took my ear off!” A second man stumbled from his hiding place, dropping his dart gun and holding the side of his face gingerly. He was just as tall as Sorren, but much leaner. His reedy limbs made him look gangly and uncoordinated, but his reflexes were the quickest that Sorren had come across. Until now. Blood trickled from the wound through Knox’s fingers, staining his hair. Mira’s arrow had taken a bite out of his cheek and had nicked his ear. His gray eyes burned with indignation.“Of all the…”

“Don’t curse Knox. There’s a lady present.”

“She can’t hear me! And anyways, I almost just got an arrow lodged between my eyes. She could have killed me, Sorren! One more inch to the left,” he groaned dramatically at the thought of his near doom. “I think I’ve earned the right to one or two curses.”

Knox continued to rant, and Sorren knelt beside the now insensible Mira as more men began filtering out of the forest’s cover. One of them, it must have been Neil – he had been stationed on the outer perimeter – had seen her crashing through the trees just before dawn and sent out an alert. Based on her being alone and apparent blind riding, they had decided that she more likely needed help than posed a threat; so they had followed her rather obvious trail, surrounded her, and waited until she woke. Sorren had insisted upon secrecy in case she was in fact dangerous as well as to avoid frightening her.

When he saw the state she was in, tranquilization became the only option. This girl was not one who would come quietly. He had taken a great chance in signaling Knox when he did. Knowing the girl’s condition was worn and tired, he had thought it safe; but she had reacted much more quickly, and with greater accuracy than he had anticipated. She was even more worse for wear up close, and Sorren was again surprised by her rapid detection of Knox who, for all his ranting and raving, could actually operate rather silently. Her dulais must be strong to have retained such potency in her exhausted state. She was older than he expected. By her height, he had judged her to be about sixteen, but quickly adjusted his guess to nineteen or twenty. Her nose was dotted with a few faint freckles that gave her face a charm despite the scratches and scrapes she had acquired on her journey. She had fair skin, which probably accounted for the freckles. Sorren wondered absentmindedly if she was prone to sunburn. Arrnava was a good three days ride from the borders of Treslan and there were dark circles under her eyes suggesting she had been riding non-stop for at least that long. He lightly trailed his fingers along the right side of her face, and a light sparkle of blue glistened through the details of her dulais tatu. She was beautiful. Sorren cleared his throat and stood.

“Simon, see to the horse will you?” The white stallion was in a state over his fallen mistress, and Sorren didn’t want the magnificent creature to harm himself. Simon was only thirteen and a wiry sort of lad, but a genius with horses. The boy was doing his best to obey orders but was struggling to catch the swinging reins of the antsy Phiero.

“Tell Knox to stop hollering, will you Sorren” he pleaded. “The stallion won’t even let me get near him with all that screeching.” Sorren laughed and threw a rock in the direction of the still complaining Knox.

“Stop your whining man or we’re going to wake her up and give her another shot!”

Knox glared at Sorren and started toward him with fists ready, when laughter trickled through the trees seizing his attention. He charged through the foliage in search of his comrades bellowing, “You want something to laugh about, eh Bher? Who else is with you? Declan? If it’s Wynn, that nose pincher! So help me…” until his voice trailed off.

“Well managed, sir” Simon said with appreciation. “It won’t take me but five minute now.”

“Then get to it boy, and quit yapping.” Sorren teased good naturedly.

A large, burly man approached Sorren and put a hand on his shoulder. He had a head of snow white hair and a full black beard that belied his years. “The men have finished scouting the area. It seems that whoever was following her either lost the trail – which is unlikely – or just couldn’t keep up with her pace. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else out there.” He nodded in Mira’s direction. “I’ll carry her back if you wish.”

“No thank you Quintus. She may be a bit of burden, but she’s my burden,” Sorren said smiling. “Simon and Knox will ride with me. You and the rest of the Tirim fan out and form a perimeter around us. Keep your eyes open and meet us back at camp. Aeodan will want a full report tonight.”

Quintus barked a brisk “Yes, sir” and melted back into the thickness of the forest. Sorren grimaced slightly at the big man’s display. Simon had done it too. He hadn’t meant for the Tirim to have a designated leader, but lately they had all taken up calling him ‘sir’ and asking his opinion before making decisions. He led most of their meetings and delegated most assignments too. Sorren himself had even begun referring to them as ‘his’ men. He sighed raggedly. At least they followed out of respect and not fear. He had had enough of that kind of leadership to last a lifetime.

Sorren lifted Mira’s limp form gently onto his horse. Her petite frame took up little extra room on his saddle if he held her close, which he did, with the same small smile that involuntarily crept to his lips the first time he saw her. Knox returned; apparently the others had evaded him and he had given up the search for someone to pummel. He held a bloody rag to his ear and swung into his saddle with less adeptness than usual, grumbling about his ‘near fatal’ wound. Simon leapt onto his own mount with more dexterity and followed Sorren with a subdued Phiero in tow. All together, they formed a rather sundry crew.

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