Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)
(Previously: Elad and Lottie returned to the Cloak Girl’s forest to find her dying after an attack by the Witch. She sent them to find Ulaf in Khent, the last inhabited city of men under the Witch’s shadow.)
Lottie walked in something between dream and daze. The last few days had moved so fast. She had left a life behind, made two friends, gotten a fabled sword, nearly drowned, and covered more miles on foot than she cared to think about. And now one of those friends, having risked her life to help her, had sacrificed herself so that Lottie would be safe. She was not going to let that sacrifice be in vain. She would give every ounce of her life into defeating the Witch.
These thoughts chased themselves around in the fog in her brain. Memories, elusive as ghosts, taunted her with near remembrance. At times she would see a moment of her lost life, perfectly clear as if it had never been hidden from her. A few minutes later, it would be gone. Sensing her turmoil, Elad left her to her fruitless rememberings, leading the way inexorably on to Khent. At last, on the edge of the Cloak Girl’s forest, Lottie flung herself to the ground.
“Shut up, brain!” she moaned. “I need a rest.”
Elad retraced his steps. “Stick practice first.” He pointed to the westering sun. “If you rest first, I won’t be able to practice with you.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” she mumbled to the dirt. But she got up.
“If you hope to defeat the Witch, yes it is.”
The sun was scarcely more than a red sliver on the horizon when Elad finally called a stop to the practice. Sore in every muscle and exhausted, she certainly didn’t feel the truth of his statement that she was “coming along remarkably well”. All she knew was that she was on the fast track to dying. At that moment, she didn’t even have the energy to care.
She lay flat on her back on the ground, puffing in vain at the curls that insisted on twirling back into her face after each time she blew them away. Elad sat with his back to a tree, seeming sunk in deep thought. Her mind was just beginning to chase after the shadow of a memory again when his voice interrupted her thoughts.
“I should tell you that I may not be able to go in with you to Khent,” he said.
“What? Why not?” She twisted to look at him, aghast.
He shrugged, watching the grass sway in the evening breeze. “I told you they kicked me out for being a Werewolf. They made it pretty clear I was unwelcome. I seriously doubt they’ll let me in.”
“Yes they will,” Lottie said firmly. “I’ll make sure they do. If they want the Witch dead, they’re going to have to work towards it on my terms. And my terms mean you come in with me.”
He shrugged again and flashed her a grin. “Don’t have to tell me twice. But you may find them harder to convince than me. Still, I –” His sentence was cut off as the sun vanished along with his human form, replaced by twilight and a gray wolf.
“Well that’s annoying,” Lottie remarked expressively. “Hold that thought, because I’m going to want to know tomorrow.”
The wolf shook his head and barked at her. She grinned.
“Sorry, can’t understand you when you talk like that. Wait until morning.”
She curled up tightly in a huddled ball and was asleep in minutes.
She thought she dreamt in the night, but no shred of memory remained to her when she awoke to the firm prodding of a wolf’s muzzle and paws. She rolled over, trying to make sense of why he could possibly be waking her up. she couldn’t have slept more than a couple of hours.
“What?” she mumbled foggily. He barked, and it sounded impossibly loud in her sleep-fuddled mind. “Okay, alright, I’m up. What are we doing?” She was on her feet now, and as she expected, no trace of coming dawn was in the sky.
Elad trotted off into the darkness. Lottie sighed and followed him.
“I guess because you’re not in an unusual hurry that this isn’t an emergency. You just want to get going again? How much further? I mean, the city didn’t look that far on the map, not from the edge of this forest, but I couldn’t even see it last night. Are you going to want to keep pushing on all day today too? What’s the big idea?”
Elad spun around to face her, a wicked gleam in his eyes. He growl-barked something that was clearly supposed to be intelligible. Lottie shook her head and sighed.
“Right. I’ll have to wait until morning.”
He grinned wolfishly and resumed his steady trot, his message communicated.
Lottie was walking, head down, fighting yawns and weary limbs, forcing herself onward. If she had been less tired, she felt she would be able to figure out what was bothering her mind. As it was, she only sensed some big but rather vague picture-to-be in the back of her mind that had yet to loom up into full sight. She could deal with it later.
“I was just going to say that we should take only a short rest and keep going to get there as soon as possible.” Elad’s voice erupted like a trumpet beside her. Lottie jumped.
“Warn me next time, okay?” she gasped. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“Last night. You told me to remember so I could tell you. I was trying to tell you that we should keep going.” He grinned. “And warning you would take all the fun out of it.”
Lottie rolled her eyes. Then, remembering, she repeated her earlier question. “How much farther?”
“Not far. We should reach it sometime before noon. The ground slopes down gradually through a series of ridges, as you may have noticed. That’s why you couldn’t see it last night. And it isn’t that big.”
Elad’s prediction proved accurate. The sun hadn’t reached its zenith by the time they stood on the rough dirt road outside the gate of the singularly unimpressive city of Khent.
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