Chapter 63 - Tracks
They discovered the tracks just below a destroyed section of the castle wall. Deep parallel ruts joined the main road in places and veered off in some areas while in others they became almost indistinct.
Marcus maintained a pace that wore at the women, but he didn’t stop, and they didn’t complain. He kept to the shadows and avoided human settlements. The time for them to return passed without him slackening the pace, and although they glanced at each other often, they followed without comment.
They traveled farther and faster than a man on a horse could have, and before dawn, they still hadn’t found a place to wait out the sun. Just as the first light colored the darkness, they spotted an old abandoned house and found what remained of the pantry.
It was just big enough to fit the three of them if they sat half upright. Marcus sat down, held out his arms and they leaned against him, using his chest for a pillow. They fell asleep quickly from their exertion. Marcus wasn’t comfortable, but he wasn’t uncomfortable either.
He felt guilty for nearly getting them killed in his effort to escape the thoughts in his mind, and for pressing them so hard. He slackened the pace the next evening and made sure they had a safe place to rest, well before dawn. They worried about him, but their manner of travel didn’t encourage conversation.
They continued for three nights and only stopped to allow the sun to pass. They didn’t question his haste, nor complain as they flitted through the darkness as if they were never there. It was as if some dark thought of fate drove him and they felt it too.
When the moon rose on the fourth night, they came upon the ruins of yet another large structure and what must once have been a fountain with a small marker to one side; the only one of eight to remain almost intact.
Curiosity drew Alena to it, but she spotted a glint of something shiny. She wiped away the grit and dirt for the darkness to reveal a glowing scarab beetle, perched in full flight, with a smooth piece of lightly colored glass embedded in the body and something caught inside. Marcus removed the glass with the tip of his knife and revealed the mark of the monster carved into the stone underneath.
The night air acquired a chill, the stars seemed less bright, something flitted into the shadows, just out of their sight, and the sound of the crickets became a screech of warning. They almost expected an attack, but nothing happened, and as abruptly as it started, it stopped. The sensation of its presence didn't subside as quickly.
“We will go back; we can continue the search from this place. We’re about a day from the coast so the boat won't be far,” Marcus decided, and they agreed. It made more sense to have the ship nearby, and it would give them some sense of security.
They used the same route to return, and this time Marcus set a relentless pace. He knew where they were going and where they would find shelter from the sun. They were alone and far from help, with an enemy that may be closer than they imagined.
Two nights of travel brought them back to the beach. Byron sat staring out over the water as if he didn't wait for them for six nights.
He greeted them with genuine pleasure at their return and lifted a waterskin from the bottom of the rowboat which Marcus gave to Alena. She drank as only the starving could, but with a measure of control. Rowan had no restraint once the container touched her lips, and the first drop of blood hit her tongue. Marcus didn’t take it from her, but Alena did. She tried to hide her sympathy from Rowan, but Marcus caught the glint of anger in her eyes when she glanced at him.
He drove them too hard, and he didn’t blame them for being irritated, but he struggled to shake the awareness that death was at their door.
They were both asleep in the rowboat before they even reached the ship. Byron glanced at them with concern, and Marcus noticed how tired and worn they looked. Guilt stabbed at him.
“Hard journey?” Byron asked with the slightest touch of recrimination in his voice, and Marcus sighed.
“Yes,” he admitted without explanation, while he made himself drink his share in slow, small sips. Once they reached the ship, he lifted Alena into his arms, and she didn’t even stir in her sleep. He jumped from the boat and onto the ship in one powerful movement, without even jolting her. He took her to her bunk and tucked her in before he returned for Rowan.
He climbed down the rope latter in order not to jostle the boat and picked Rowan up. She made an odd noise in her sleep, and for someone who usually woke at the slightest sound, she didn’t even notice when they landed on the ship or when he tucked her in. His fingers lingered on her cheek, and when he glanced at Alena, she wasn’t asleep anymore. Something in the way she looked at him, made him feel guilty, but then she closed her eyes, and he didn’t know if he imagined it, or if his guilty conscience was to blame.