Daughter of the Wolf-head
With the creak of stiff leather and a flurry of movement, the five of them mounted. "This way," Shin'ja said and gathering up the reins of his horse, galloped away.
Agata held her mount in, sitting firm against its fidgeting and chafing at the bit as it tried to follow Shin'ja's horse. Her mind was torn, her heart in a quandary. If she followed Shin'ja, she was losing some moral high ground. If she didn't, her uncle's men would find her. Viyan let her horse sidle close.
"He won't give you up to the General, Princess, I swear."
Agata gave her an old, cold look. "How can you know? The General's men are fiercely loyal. Shin'ja answers to the General alone. We know that."
"The General is busy avoiding the High King, Primavera. He allowed Shin'ja to accompany me. He does not ask Shin'ja to bring you in," Viyan stared through the darkness after Shin'ja, "besides, your women are fiercely loyal to you. All know that."
She turned her face to Agata and they stared at each other for several thrumming heartbeats. After a moment, Viyan gave a small sniff. She broke eye contact and backed her horse a pace or two. Her whole posture was one of calm resignation. Agata glanced across at Kait and Pilar. Their eyes pleaded with her to follow Shin'ja. Agata set her lips and pressed her legs tight against the horse's sides. She loosed the reins and the creature leaped forward, carrying Agata with it until she was swallowed up in the dark of night and the gloom of the forest.
The drum of muffled hoof beats told her that Kait, Pilar and Viyan followed close behind. The wind of her passage lifted her hair from her face. The crack of tiny twigs sounded loud and the soft crying of night time birds and small creatures gave Agata a feeling of time standing still. The fresh earth smell that happens at night filled her nostrils with a heady scent. Her blood leapt in her veins. This was thrilling, in spite of the overlay of fear that she would be discovered before getting away.
Soon Prince Gurgen and Prince Artak would lie far behind. But what waited for her ahead? Would Shin'ja lead her right back to the hand of the General? The hand that dripped red with the blood of her loyal, ill-fated women whose bodies nourished the mountain earth of Iberia? She saw a man's mounted figure ahead. Shin'ja had stopped to wait for them. As soon as he saw them, he turned the animal and headed off once more. Agata gritted her teeth. She didn't like this man in charge of her progress. The dark night offered no other option or opportunity.
She heaved a sigh and leaned forward over her horse's neck. They galloped on and on until the horses dropped into a trot of their own accord. It was a good travelling speed but the weariness crept up Agata's legs and through her body until she clung to the saddle pommel with her hands. The grey light of dawn hung over the land when Shin'ja stopped and without looking back at them held up a fist. The horses halted gladly. No longer did they pull at the bit or shuffle sideways in impatience. Shin'ja listened and peered all around. The land was clearer, no longer a tangled forest but rather rolling hills dotted with rocky boulders, clumps of trees and a wide trickling stream lying in a shallow valley.
"Here is a good place to rest," Shin'ja said.
Like the horses, Agata and the others were happy to stop. They swung off the horses with many a groan and stifled exclamation. Agata hobbled over to sit on a smooth boulder while Kait and Pilar busied themselves unsaddling the weary horses. Shin'ja brought over some dried meat and held it out to Agata. She accepted it wordlessly. He stood watching her, hands on hips. His face was blank but his eyes were alive. Agata was too tired to try and understand his expression. She just chewed and swallowed.
Viyan brought out a cloak and placed it beside the boulder. She bunched up some leaves and grass for Agata's head and handed a water skin to her.
"Drink, Primavera. Then lie down and rest. In two hours we must press on."
Agata drank, grateful for the tepid water that slipped down her throat, washing the travel dust away. She stretched out on the cloak and tucked her own around her. She was dimly aware that Q'ursha dropped down beside her and leaned against her back. The hard ground couldn't keep sleep from overtaking her. Viyan and Shin'ja took the horses to the stream to drink and set them grazing close by. Kait and Pilar settled down to rest for the first hour, staying close by their princess.
"It went just as you said," Shin'ja finished stripping his gloves off and tucked them in his belt before crouching down to build a fire, "she was so angry at first that I thought we'd be leaving alone."
Viyan remained standing; her gaze turned inward. "Can you blame her?" She tapped her thigh moodily, "It near broke my heart to do that to her and this heart is thick-skinned."
Shin'ja smiled to himself but bent to his work. His love would continue to beat herself up long after others forgot all about it. "My lord and your lady need one another. Viyan, you did what had to be done."
She turned her gaze to him then, her mouth wounded and the eyes such large, tragic pools of black that his heart turned over. "She'll never trust me again, Shin'ja."
He grunted and blew carefully on a small flame. He looked at her through the wisp of smoke and sat up on his haunches. "You underestimate the princess. In time, she'll realise you were the most loyal of them all."
Agata awoke with a start, her eyes darting about. Birds twittered in the tree nearby. The shapes of Kait and Pilar lay close by. There was warmth from the solid bulk of Q'ursha along her back. Agata pushed up on her hands. Viyan lay by the fire. Where was Shin'ja? Now Agata drew her legs up under her in a crouch and searched the terrain about. All five horses grazed peacefully over near the stream. She spotted Shin'ja leaning against a tree. His figure was relaxed. Surely he must be tired. But as she watched, his head turned slowly from side to side, scanning the country about them.
Agata looked about too. There was nothing but trees and grasses here. No thick, safe walls. No warriors to keep enemies away. An anguish rose in her heart. She heartily wished herself back in the safety of Arzen Fortress but that security was an utter sham. Dangers lurked there more assuredly than out here in the wilds. She squeezed her hands together until the skin turned white. Be strong, Princess Agata. None of those men will help you or Iberia.
She stood up. Moving carefully to avoid waking the others, Agata walked over to Shin'ja's position. Q'ursha watched for a moment and then heaved up onto his feet and followed her, stretching and yawning.
"Lord Shin'ja," she greeted without a smile.
"Shin'ja will do," he grunted.
"Go rest. I will watch."
The dark eyes watched her above those high Marauder cheekbones. The glint of amusement in them faded as he read the quiet confidence in her own. A strange expression twisted his lips but he uncrossed his arms and pushed off the tree trunk.
"Very well, lady," he said softly, a faint respect reaching his eyes.
He said no more, having weighed and measured Agata. He laid himself out on a cloak near to Viyan. Agata took his post, inexplicably pleased at the unspoken vote of confidence the warrior had given her. Nothing but small birds moved around them. A fresh breeze filled her lungs with clean, cold air and the sun warmed her shoulder where it fell through a gap in the leaves overhead. Q'ursha settled beside her and rested his great black head on her knee. A lightness touched her heart. It was good to be free of Arzen Fortress.
Sometime later a squawk of outrage came from the bundle that was Kait. She sat up and unwrapped herself hastily. "Princess, what are you doing?"
Agata saw Shin'ja open one eye and then close it again. She turned to Kait.
"What does it look like, Kait? I'm watching," a smile lifted the corners of her mouth, taking any sting from her words.
"You should be resting."
"I only just woke and sent Shin'ja to rest."
Kait set her jaw and looked around at the others. "You mean he watched the whole time?"
Agata nodded, "Seems like it."
Kait sighed, "I know you don't like it but until we get close to Narikala we are stuck with him."
"I still can't understand what Viyan is doing," Agata dropped her voice to a low hiss, "why does she make it so hard for me to trust her?"
Kait crossed her arms and tapped one foot, gazing thoughtfully over at the sleeping figure of Viyan.
"Something is afoot in Iberia," she grimaced ruefully, "and we lie in Viyan's hands now, one way or another."
Kait was right. Unless she turned around and rode back to her uncle, she had cast her lot in with Viyan and her Marauder warrior. Agata closed her eyes. She could still see Shin'ja and the General running her down in the forest, saw Shin'ja draw back his bow ready to fire at Q'ursha but for the General's command. She dropped her eyes to the smooth handle of her knife and opened them to see the long shape of him stretched out in sleep.
"This is surreal," she muttered to herself, more than to Kait, "there he lies. I could kill him in his sleep."
"I doubt it," Kait said drily, "Shin'ja is more wild creature than man. He'd hear you coming."
Anger shot through Princess Agata. "So you're a Shin'ja supporter now?"
Kait's lips tightened, "Face it, Princess. You have to accept help in whatever form it comes."
She was right, Agata had to admit. Kait moved off leaving Agata prey to difficult and unpleasant thoughts. When Agata finished her watch it was time to go. The next time Shin'ja stopped them, it was late afternoon.
"Rest until dark. We will travel through the night."
Agata nodded. "A good plan," she said curtly. She avoided Viyan's gaze and slid off her horse. The night was the quiet, sound-carrying kind. Agata couldn't sleep. She lay by the small fire brooding over her thoughts.
Far behind her in Arzen Fortress, Baba Gu also couldn't sleep. The old lady lay face down on her bed, another woman clucking over the ugly red stripes on her back. "Tis monstrous, what they did," Baba Gu said, her voice muffled by the pillow. She was remembering the time another powerful man sought the princess's whereabouts.
"Hush! Someone will hear you," the other woman urged.
"I don't care, Maria, I've been through the worst. Not even our mortal enemy, General Kazan, treated me so. I was surrounded by blood and the dead lay all about and he questioned me about the princess. I was not beaten. And I lied, Marta. He found out months later and questioned me, yet not a finger did he lay upon my back."
Baba Gu huffed derisively. "They dare to call themselves Christians, our Artsruni princes. Precious little Christian mercy did they show me, a lady old enough to be their grandmother! No Maria, cast me into the hands of that pagan rather than them."
Unseen by Baba Gu, the other woman clapped her hands to her cheeks in horror and surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. "You did some good, my dear Baba Gu, persuading Prince Ren to release the princess's woman," Maria soothed.
"Mmm," Baba muttered uneasily, "something didn't ring true with that one. Something about her bothers at me but I don't know what it is."
"Rest and fret not."
"I hope my Agata is away safely," Baba Gu sighed, "I know I won't sleep until I hear she's safe."