The Forgotten King – Chapter 7, Part 3
February 6, 2019
Not wanting to dwell on this thought, she turned instead to a different subject. “I was supposed to be married a couple of years ago,” she said. “He was the son of a wealthy landowner in our city. Philip. He was a good man. But we heard that Mered was mobilizing an army not far to the south. Veren was the last strong outpost in the southern region. A group of young men—including Philip—decided to attack Mered’s army, hoping more than believing that he hadn’t built it up strongly enough. They were wrong. Most people don’t realize Mered has been moving for hundreds of years, planning and organizing, because his name only entered our history a few years ago. It’s easy to see now how foolish this plan was, but at the time I admired our men for their courage. Mered’s men killed all but one of those who went to fight, and the last was only spared to come back and tell us what had happened. These men were good, young, and strong. They would have been an ideal addition to Zaric’s army. But he didn’t save them, either. Whatever his reasons, they must be good ones.”
“Do you miss him?” Neil asked. “Philip.”
“In a way,” Helen replied.
“Did you love him?”
“In a way. I admired him, respected him. Yes, I think I did love him. Mostly, I try not to think about any of it. Philip is gone now. As a governor’s daughter, love wasn’t the most important qualification for marriage. My parents wanted me to think about the people I could influence more than I did about myself, which is always a good ambition. Philip would have made a good governor and I would have made a good governor’s wife, once life calmed down.”
“But now, you’re hundreds of miles away from that future. Do you think you’ll ever find it again?” Helen didn’t want to find the words to reply. Neil continued on a subject of his own. “My parents weren’t exactly popular in our village. They told such strange stories and believed odd things. The sort of things you tell and believe, actually. The chances of finding a girl willing to marry their son weren’t great. I never could have been interested in the daughters of any of the men in the village, anyway. Such empty-headed brats. They only cared about how much money a man could make at market or in trading with other villages and how profitable his land was. And since there has never really been anything interesting about me, I didn’t have much chance.”
“What makes you say you aren’t interesting?”
“I like to be left alone. Having a wife and family would have complicated that. Ambition isn’t my strength, either. As long as I have enough, I’m satisfied. In the end, I couldn’t leave what my parents had worked so hard to build.”
“You left with me,” Helen pointed out. Neil didn’t answer.
“If I told you that I’m afraid we won’t find Larisa in time,” Helen stated slowly, measuredly, “that my parents will be dead by the time we reach Zaric, you would understand how I feel.”
“No, Helen, I don’t understand. You’re not supposed to be like me.”
This brought a smile to Helen’s face, which soon turned into a soft chuckle. “Frightening,” she said with a mock shudder. “Thank you for putting it all into perspective. I will do everything I can to avoid being like you.”
Neil smiled himself. He liked to see that positive expression on Helen’s face and was glad he had put it there. “After seeing that garden,” he said, “I almost believe Zaric knows what he’s doing.”
“You will have to do better than ‘almost believe’ if you expect him to help you.”
They laughed, but Helen stopped abruptly. She stood in the middle of the path and put out her arm to stop Neil. Though it was hard to tell, she thought she could hear the sound of a horse’s hooves in the distance behind them. From the look on Neil’s face, despite the fact that the sound was so faint, she could tell that he heard it, too. Without saying any more, they started to run.
Soon they reached the trees, moving at the same pace as much as the trees would allow. The sound behind them was growing louder. It only occurred to Helen for a brief moment that whoever was following them might not want to harm them. It seemed more likely that wasn’t the case. It hadn’t been so far. The clear fact was the sound of only one horse, and the clear idea of whom it could be on that horse propelled them forward. It wasn’t worth taking a chance.
As the sound came closer, it was obvious they wouldn’t be able to outrun their pursuer. The horse didn’t have any trouble keeping a fast, steady pace through the trees, and Helen and Neil couldn’t run fast enough to outrun him. The impulse to get away gave way to the simple desire to find a place to hide. Neil found a tree with a branch hanging low enough to reach and stopped, pulling himself up onto it with more skill than Helen would have imagined. Then, he reached down and grasped Helen’s hand, helping her to climb and swing herself up. They climbed up a little bit further, until they were well hidden by the branches and leaves below them. With their backs against the trunk, they tried to breathe without a sound and waited.
The horse slowed down as it tried to make its way through the trees, its sound winding and filling the air so that it seemed to come from every direction. Still, it was apparent that the horse was coming closer to where they were hiding. Helen pressed herself harder against the trunk of the tree, hoping that somehow this would make her even less visible. At the same time, she was trying to think of a plan in case they were caught.
There was no mistaking that the horse was following their path. The horse’s black head came into view and Ian soon passed directly under them. Neil gripped the branch he was sitting on until his knuckles were white, but didn’t make any of the sounds Helen expected him to make—no gasp, no sharp intake of breath. Ian cast his eyes around the forest, peering through the leaves and branches and trunks. He went past the tree a few yards, then stopped and circled back. Though Helen was sure he couldn’t see them, she wasn’t sure that he couldn’t sense them. Unconsciously, Helen held her breath. From a distant corner of the woods, the sound of something falling heavily to the ground echoed. In a swift motion, Ian urged his horse in the direction of that sound. Helen relaxed.
They waited until the sound of the horse’s hooves died down, then waited a few minutes longer before lowering themselves from the tree. A comforting breeze took Helen by surprise as it moved through the trees. Once again they turned north.
“We’re getting close to the lake country, aren’t we?” Neil asked in a muted tone.
“I believe so,” Helen answered. “I’ve always wanted to see it.”
An unexpected sound made Helen stop and look around a little more attentively. At first she thought it was Ian, though she hadn’t heard the sound of his horse returning. For a few seconds, she thought she heard a voice. Yet it was different from Ian’s voice and she wasn’t even sure she had heard it at all. It might have been her imagination, but she was sure she had heard her name. If it truly was real, this voice was warm and encouraging and it made her feel comfortable.
“What is it?” Neil asked from a few feet ahead of her, a look of concern on his face.
“Did you hear that?” Helen asked him in return.
Neil was obviously confused. Helen glanced around again, then stepped to him. She knew she would feel foolish once she had told him, and instead attributed the voice to the fact that she was tired. “Never mind,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The gaps between the trees were becoming wider. The sunlight spilled down more brightly now. There was an unnerving blindness in the depths of the trees, and the leaves and branches made her feel as if people were watching her constantly, though always hidden, so the increased visibility relieved Helen. The path was almost clear ahead of them. With this balance of security and visibility, she hoped they would make good progress. Neil’s foot came down a little too heavily on a twig, and he grimaced as it snapped loudly.
“Don’t come any closer,” a voice said sharply, and they stopped as a woman stepped out of the trees, holding a bow with an arrow ready to spring.