* * *
The group traveled in silence for some time. Varlaine had offered to share his horse with the mercenary woman, and she’d obliged; it was an offer that Eryn had questioned at the time, and now, with a stranger sitting behind him in the saddle and reaching around him to grip the reins, he found himself just as worried. Eryn kept Cassius on the ground, the griffon’s heavy footfalls falling heavier than his rider could manage if she were stamping along with them. He had no idea what they were searching for, perhaps a cave or a shack somewhere hidden in the woods, but the group was still plodding on a well-travelled road. He found himself wishing the awkward silence would end.
When he could stand it no longer, he finally opened his mouth to speak. When he did, the noise of his tongue moving, of his lips parting, turned Naz’s eyes off the road and down onto him. Her look made him feel smaller than he already was, and so he stayed quiet, and her gaze returned to sweeping the thickets around them. Varlaine let out a sigh that turned both of his companions’ heads, before Eryn sighed a notch louder and leaned over Cassius to pet his neck.
Finally, the stronger woman behind him cleared her throat. The noise made ‘Laine jump, and he jerked to sit up straight, back against her armored chest. When she spoke, it was quiet; Eryn didn’t appear to acknowledge her presence any more than she was required to, which meant it was on Varlaine to respond.
“You two look like you came from the castle,” She acknowledged, in her scratchy, serious tone. The young prince nodded in response, looking down over himself briefly; royal purple robes stained with mud, lined in gold trim and cords that hung down past his chest. Eryn, too: The griffon-bound girl’s dawn-orange shirt and riding pants were perhaps less commonplace for a guard, as a trainee, but her armor was unmistakably emblazoned with the seal of Revengard’s royal line.
“Yes. We left a few days ago,” He answered, after a moment of plodding along on horseback. Naz slowly bowed and raised her head in acknowledgement.
“Then you’re fleeing the coup. You certainly look like a royal.” It was an observation, not a question.
She was quiet for a short while, and he could feel her stiffen behind him even through the metal of her stolen armor. Then she relaxed, taking in a deep breath and holding it before releasing it to the side. “Do you know of the outcome?” When that did not get her an answer, Varlaine felt her arms squeeze in around his sides hesitantly. Then she drew back up, keeping her eyes off him and onto the road. He appreciated the shift in attention.
“If we’re going south, we need supplies. Water, food, clothes. There’s naught to be done for her armor, but you need to burn these robes,” She advised. He lowered his head in response; while he was young, he wasn’t wholly ignorant. Her embrace, simple and short as it had been, had to mean something. So did the insistence that his raiment be destroyed. While he didn’t know the outcome of the attack, he had assumed his father and the royal guard had driven it back. Days on the road avoiding people and towns until they could find somewhere safe had not told him otherwise, and the hope that he would be able to return home after finding help in the duke of Fort Skyvlan, a friend of the king and someone he trusted for aid, was in large part the reason he was still able to stay upright.
“I don’t know where to get those,” He answered honestly. “We have no money. And if we enter a town like this, I’m afraid of being discovered.”
“We’ll handle that when we get to town. There will be some things for you to change into, and bedrolls we can take. We’ll see what we can scavenge.” He noticed that when she talked, it was usually in shorter bursts, as if it pained her to speak. After every pause, he saw her throat work in a swallow. The hoarseness to her voice perplexed him, but, having little reason for her to tell him about herself, he kept himself from asking about it.
Eryn interrupted his musings before he could decide if it was a sickness or an injury with a callout. “Hate to interrupt you two, but I think we’re getting close.” Her head nodded forward, directing attention
‘Laine looked up to where she was indicating and drew in a sharp breath. Behind him, Naz took one of her own, then let it out slower. Ahead of them, a line of half a dozen pikes stood in almost a fence-like array; at the top of each was a head, in varying states of decomposition from coarse white skull to fresh meat, a handful of crows picking at the most intact.
“Don’t look.” An instruction from Naz. “Either of you.” He followed the suggestion, turning to glance at Eryn, who stared for a moment longer before digging her heels into Cass’ side. The griffon trotted on, and ‘Laine’s horse followed after.