Her legs were beginning to wobble and her chest burn. Each breath in felt like it could be her last. The doleful church bell was calling to her, leading her through the thick forest and the cold, driving rain. Just a little farther. There was already clearing in the trees ahead. Just a little farther.
Behind her, the thunder of the horses’ hooves moved with a threatening speed in her direction.
She’d been at the gate of the village just moments ago, sitting in the rain in her worn trousers and tunic, long blonde braid hidden under her cap. It was uncanny, the timing of the church bell and the cries of panic from the back of the village. She could hear what they were saying and it was enough to get her on her feet. The wail of the horn on the wind made her move even faster, the sound echoing around her before getting lost in the thick trees of the forest. She beat out a steady cadence with her pace, running for the safety of the church, avoiding the main pathway in hopes of losing any pursuers in the overgrowth. Sanctuary could be found within those stone walls and it was the only hope left.
A low branch seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving a long bloody scratch on creamy skin. She tripped on an upturned root in her haste and fell to the forest floor, landing on her hands and knees, her cap dangling from an oak branch above her weary form. She wanted to sink into the muddy ground, to be swallowed up by the woody scent and the prickling pine needles, but she had to run.
There was an unmistakable trembling of the ground and the young woman knew the horses were close. She had to get up or they would be upon her and all would be lost. With every last ounce of strength, she got to her feet and ran.
A tall pine tree, all but hollowed out from years of rot, provided quick shelter. She ducked inside the thick trunk and huddled against the woody wall as one of the horses rushed past her. There were more coming, and still the church bell rang. She had to get there before the riders did or all would be lost. Sharp green eyes took in the texture of her shelter. She lifted her wrist to touch her soaking sleeve to the cut on her face and came away with a slight blood stain. There was only one option left now. A diversion was needed. The wood was dry enough so it should burn for a few minutes at least. If she was quick about it, the riders would notice and give pause.
A silent prayer was sent up before her body was engulfed in blue and gold flames. She only had time to hear a cry of alarm before it all went dark and warm. In the next instant she was once more chilled by autumn rain and biting winds. The thickest part of the forest was now behind her and she ran for the church again.
The cobblestone under her feet was promising, even if it was sparse. It meant she was there. Her leather boots sloshed through a puddle and she was suddenly in the small open courtyard of the church, the bell ringing in her pulse. The horses were closer now, not held up long by the strange spark she’d started in the woods. She could hear the urgent cries of the riders pushing their mounts to their limits, but she could make it. She had to make it. The tall wooden doors of the old building opened heavily and she didn’t stop moving until she was safely inside. As soon as the doors were closed, she leaned against them and looked at the two who had been waiting for her, wide-eyed.
Breathless, she reported, “The king is dead.”