Daughter of the Wolf-head
YA adventure fiction
Agata's sleep was restless and filled with shadows and troubling dreams. She woke suddenly and sharply in the dark pre-dawn.
Q'ursha still lay at the foot of the bed, snug behind the drawn curtains of the bed closet. A deep restlessness gripped Agata. The thrill of dread caused by Prince Gurgen's attack had followed her into sleep and now she must escape. She must get out of the fortress walls and clear her head in the fresh, open air of outdoors.
The curtains twitched back under her hand. The room was dark but she could make out her clothes chest. She swung her legs off the bed and wriggled out.
"Going somewhere, Princess?"
Agata, midway through belting a soft tunic over fitted leggings, jumped. The hair stood up on the back of her neck like staring fur of a startled cat.
"Kait! What are you doing there?"
Kait was slung back on an upright chair, one leg hooked over the arm and her long sword lying naked across her lap.
"Pilar and I took turns to keep watch through the night. We're taking no chances, Princess."
At the sound of her name, Pilar emerged, fully dressed, from the room in which she, Kait and Baba Gu slept. Her hair was tousled and she rubbed her eyes sleepily.
The sleepiness vanished when she saw Agata dressed in her old gear.
"Are you leaving?"
Agata shook her head, "I need air, Pilar. Come, let's take the horses and our weapons and hunt."
Joy lit Pilar's face.
The three women met no one as they stole through the slumbering fortress.
Only Q'ursha's nails made a sound as they clicked on the stone floor.
The deep night air was cool although high summer was upon them.
The stables lay in deep shadows.
The sweet smell of hay blended with unmistakable scent of horse. Agata breathed in deep, delighting in it. Hooves shuffled in the dimness. No one was about and the women had three of the prince's steeds saddled and ready to go in minutes.
The postern guard challenged them, stepping across their path, his spear blocking their way.
"Where do you go?"
"The princess goes to hunt, guard." Kait had lost none of her authority.
The guard lifted a lamp and searched their faces.
He dropped the spear.
Once out, the horses picked their way down the steep, winding path and Q'ursha dashed ahead, ears flying. Once on the flat, Agata pressed her heels into the gelding's sides and he flew away. The thunder of hooves behind told her that Kait and Pilar were racing in her wake.
The terrain soon changed from flat to undulating hills. The reined the horses from the mad gallop into a ground eating trot, moving into the thicker spread of trees.
"Not much further ahead," Kait said.
They pulled the horses down into a walk, gazing about keenly.
"Time to dismount," Agata swung her leg over the pommel of the saddle and slid to the ground.
She lifted the bow over her head and stepped carefully across the ground with Q'ursha right on her heels. He knew to stay behind her and not crash about in the undergrowth.
Creeping through the bushes, every sense alert, Agata finally felt free of the fortress walls. She pushed Prince Gurgen to the back of her mind and lost herself in the hunt. She and her women moved with stealth until at last they heard the distant call of the birds they sought.
A flutter of wings and three arrows sailed through air.
"We got something." Pilar called softly.
They brought down six birds before Agata was ready to go back to the fortress.
Pilar tied three birds to Kait's saddle and three onto her own.
Reluctantly, Agata turned the horse toward home. She revelled in the bunch and surge of the gelding's muscles and how easily he carried her across the ground.
She urged him along until he launched into a smooth, surging glide. How she loved this feeling of power and speed! Kait and Pilar streamed after her with Kait calling out a warning to take care. Agata didn't care. She gave the gelding a looser rein and sped forward, the wind whipping renewed colour into her cheeks. This was living. No more would she return to the smothering walls of the fortress where her uncle constrained her freedom and where foreign princes were allowed to accost her with impunity.
She breathed deep the cool, clean air.
The gelding stumbled and Agata was jolted from her exulting thoughts.
She hit the ground with a thud and her shoulder ploughed through the soft ground. It gave way to a drop and Agata bounced and thumped over and over, her arms splayed at, trying to clutch at tuffets of grass to halt her fall.
With a final thud, she landed at the bottom of the long, grassy hillside. She lay still, processing the event, trying to clear her thoughts. At last, the world stopped spinning but her breath refused to come. She was terribly winded. Slowly she forced the reluctant air in through her nose. It was just as difficult to push it out again through her mouth. Motionless, Agata concentrated on getting the air into her starving lungs.
Although she couldn't move, she saw Q'ursha leaping down. A cold, damp nose shoved into her neck and licked her face.