From the top of a hill, Verrel looked out over the valley ahead. The gray, desolate lands sprawled before them, swamp and forest, meadow and mountain blending haphazardly together. A wolf howled in the distance. Verrell barely managed to suppress a shudder.
He had only travelled into the wilderlands once before, then in the company of a small army. The memory of that journey through treacherous lands inhabited only by foul creatures and worthless vagabonds gave him nightmares for years. To say he dreaded this trip, in which he would be protection rather than protected, would be an understatement. Their lack of an actual destination, with instead the goal of simply surviving fourteen days, made matters worse.
Of course, Verrell would never think of refusing to go further. He loved Noemi too much for that. She was his friend, she was his princess, and if the succeeded, she was his future queen.
Garrin’s horse drew abreast of his. “This is a foolish idea,” his friend grumbled. A dark scowl covered his face.
Verrell quieted his own apprehension to reassure Garrin. “It will be difficult, I know, but we have to keep Princess Noemi away from the dragon.”
“You think I’m worried about it being hard?” Garrin scoffed. “The difficulty doesn’t matter. The plan is every ounce of insanity and stupidity. There’s only two weeks left before the prophecy’s averted, right? How the blazes do they expect that to happen now? Oh, yes, a strange night has bad news. Let’s send the princess out where there’s no chance at all that she’ll find her true love, and even better, into a place where she’s nigh on impossible to defend! As far as strategies go, this one’s rot.”
Garrin’s face was thick with anger by the end of his rant. Verrell tried to think of a response, but the knight interrupted, calling their attention to the land.
“We’ll head toward the forest,” Trace’s intended pointed to the clump of trees to the south. “It’ll give some cover. Then we make for the mountains and skirt to the east. We’ll circle back around their other side.”
In a tone that sounded polite but Verrell recognized as mocking, Garrin said, “That’s an interesting plan. What makes you choose it?”
The wrinkle in the knight’s brow told Verrell the newcomer recognized Garrin’s comment for what it was. His estimation of the man rose. Trace’s beloved was perceptive. Maybe he’d better take the time to remember the man’s name.
“It affords the most cover,” he answered, “and it’s unpredictable. She’s excellent at tracking, but going in a straight line would make it far too easy for her. It’s far more difficult for a dragon to fly through trees than for us to ride through them. Our goal is to keep the Princess alive for fourteen more days, not to pass through the wilderlands, so the indirectness matters not.”
“Please,” Noemi’s sweet voice rose for the first time since they left her parents, “call me Noemi.”
The knight nodded. “Yes, Princess Noemi.” Verrell doubted that was quite what Noemi was looking for—but even he often affixed “princess” to her name.
The knight and Trace led the way, with Princess Noemi behind them and Verrell bringing up the rear with Garrin. Knowing Garrin’s eyes and ears were on high alert, Verrell rode forward to come aside the princess. She sat tall in her saddle, shoulders tense under her warm cloak. The only parts of her that moved were the swinging end of her unadorned ponytail and her dark, watchful eyes.
“Princess Noemi,” he greeted her.
She didn’t look away from their surroundings, but she answered, “What is it, Verrell?” Her voice was kind but unusually quiet.
“You shouldn’t worry,” he tried to comfort her. “We’ll all lay down our lives to protect you.”
She did look at him then. Her eyes, usually full of humor or kindness, were sad. “That’s what I’m afraid of, Verrell.”
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