Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)

(Previously: Lottie found out the truth of her past and of the Mistress’s real plans, and fled in fear)

Chapter 3

There was nothing but fear. Pounding a drumbeat. Firing her blood. Carrying her on. Sweat formed, beaded, running off her skin in a salty rain. Her lungs were on fire, each breath icy water hissing stinging pain in them. Scraggly prairie grass was all that passed beneath her, all she had ever seen.

Lottie’s feet ached, every muscle burned, begging for relief. Stitches gripped her sides, she was gasping desperately for breath, but though she slowed she never stopped. Exhaustion dragged her back, tying a lead weight to her. But she couldn’t stop. Not ever. She had to run, and keep running. Don’t look back, don’t stop, farther, faster! She was spent, utterly spent, she couldn’t… keep… going…

Lottie ran harder, feet pounding the ground, striking grass and dust and pushing back, forcing herself forward against the weight that pulled her down, collapsing her.

The ground was changing. Lottie scarcely noticed. But then a sharp splinter jammed into her heel, and she couldn’t help but notice. She slowed, limping painfully, dashing sweat from her eyes, fear still throbbing in her ears. Trees! More than she had ever seen before – all gathered in one place! She had only seen the trees in the castle grounds, so few she could count them on one hand. She had climbed those dozens of times, and knew ever knot and twig like they were friends. But these… Tall and majestic, skewering the sky with their pricked branches.

Lottie staggered under their welcome shade and for the first time stopped. She crouched, hands braced on her knees, wrestling the air for breath. Her thoughts like bats fluttered around her brain, shoving each other for prominence. What have I done? She’ll kill me now! Does this change anything? What am I going to do? I am so wolf meat! Do I still have a chance to go back? No! Don’t even think it, Lottie! You know you can’t! What did the vision really mean? Why am I so scared? What have I done? What should I do? I am so dead!

Bending down, she pulled the splinter from her foot and looked warily about her. She had no idea where she was or in what direction the castle lay, even if she wanted to return. But what to do? She leaned gratefully against the nearest tree and tried to think. Confusion and weariness clogged her brain, and fear still tingled through her whenever her mind strayed back to the castle shrouded with distance somewhere behind her.

With a start, Lottie recognized the sound of humming. Humming! Someone was near, and getting closer by the sounds of it. A vague rustling reached her. Lottie gave a little gasp of fear and exhaustion. Instinctively she grabbed at the branches of the tree behind her. The bark was rougher than she was used to and the branches prickled and poked at her. Her arms and legs shook as she scrambled and hauled herself higher and higher. The boughs became less and less sturdy beneath her, and finally her legs simply quit. She huddled against the trunk, hoping whoever the hummer was would either not look up and see her or would not come close enough to be a risk. The humming faded. Lottie breathed a sigh of relief.

“So you’re the disturbed mind I detected,” a soft voice said below her. Lottie shrieked and almost fell out of the tree. Gripping it harder, she peered down. A cloaked figure, not much larger than Lottie herself had they been side by side, stood on the ground, looking up.

“Um… what?” Lottie managed. She could see little of the figure besides the cloak, for whoever it was had the hood pulled far over their face, shrouding their features.

“I might be able to help you, but I cannot from down here, nor do I intend to go climbing trees. Do come down, and we can talk.”

“I don’t think so,” Lottie said, her voice lanced with suspicion. “I don’t want to come down to, or talk with, or get help from, someone I don’t know. Especially when I can’t see their face.”

The figure laughed, a woman’s laugh, amused and not offended. “You don’t know me?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.” Lottie was struck with sudden doubt. Did she? Was this the Mistress in disguise? Fear shot through her at the thought.

The women threw back her hood. Her skin was sun-darkened and crinkled like paper, and her eyes were bright stars shining out from her face. It was difficult to judge her age. Lottie thought she might be past middle age, but her hair still retained some of its old dark hue. She was smiling, but her look was one of concern.

“I meant what I said,” she said. “You are troubled in mind and weary in body. I can, and I must, help with both. It is my duty, and some might dispute my fate. The truth of that I care not. The point is that I must help you and I am willing to do so, but not while you cling to a tree. Please do come down.”

Reluctantly, Lottie slid down to the ground, half-expecting the women to suddenly turn into the Mistress and do something horrible.

“I’m here,” she said when she released the last branch. “And I thank you for offering to help me, but I don’t see why it’s so important or why you would even want to help a perfect stranger.”

The woman smile faded, but she motioned for Lottie to follow her deeper into the wood. “You do not yet understand. More lives than yours alone are hanging on you in this moment.”

 

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