I tripped on a root, exhaustedly catching myself against a tree trunk and standing weak-kneed for a moment to try to catch my breath. I was becoming progressively clumsier as I went on, less and less steady on my feet, less and less able to keep myself going every time I tripped. My whole body felt like a throbbing bruise. Every muscle wanted me to lie down on the forest floor and give up.
And this felt so terribly hopeless.
Why was I out here, wandering the forest alone and injured?
How could I ever find my horse in hundreds of acres of trees, when I didn’t even really know if she was alive?
But I had nothing else. Nothing to lose. Nothing to do but keep moving, keep walking, keep trying to fix the mess I’d made. So I pushed myself away from the tree and focussed on putting one foot in front of the other.
Almost an hour after I’d started walking, as the sun sank lower and lower towards the horizon, I noticed them. Bearskins. Creeping silently between the trees on either side of me, easily keeping pace. Their hungry, greedy eyes were fixed on me, glowing yellow and amber in the dying light, and my hand reflexively dropped to my hip. My sword wasn’t there. I was weaponless, surrounded on every side by dozens of monsters that could easily tear me apart.
But they weren’t attacking. They kept me surrounded, they kept their eyes trained on me, but not a single one of them stepped towards me. If I stopped walking, they paced restlessly, antsy and jumpy and skittish. They were afraid of me. Afraid of my ugly, flaming magic, most likely. It made me feel astoundingly powerful, knowing they wouldn’t dare touch me, but being this close to something so brutally dangerous raised the hairs on my arms and neck. It was so incredibly eerie.
The sun sank lower, burning the sky red and gold, and still I hadn’t even come close to finding Faith. I was tiring myself out, disorienting myself in this massive forest, and keeping myself company with a pack of bearskins–company that made my stomach twist into all sorts of horrible knots. This didn’t feel like progress. It felt like it was making things worse and I was growing desperate.
But over the next little ridge, I found a river.
Judging from the size and speed of the river (plus a pretty desperately hopeful bias), I decided it was safe to assume this was the same river the gypsy camp was built alongside. That meant that if I followed it in the right direction, I would find the gypsies and possibly even Faith. Except that I couldn’t figure out which direction would take me to the camp. I knew vaguely the direction we’d ridden to fight the bearskins, but had that been up- or downriver? I couldn’t remember enough to give myself a clear answer. I couldn’t even use the position of the sun–I’d never thought to pay attention to its location when we marched out.
I was lost. Completely and utterly lost, with a 50/50 chance of becoming found.
I could walk forever, trying to find the camp, and as injured and fatigued as I was… what if I didn’t make it? What if the gypsies weren’t even there? What if the bearskins finally realized I was too weak to hurt them and attacked me?
Feeling helpless and powerless and so horribly lost, I waded into the cold water. I walked past my thighs, up to my hips, water flowing under my dusty, ashy armour, before falling to my knees and letting the river rush over my shoulders and chest. My blood mingled with the water where it flowed past my damaged shoulder and I wished it would wash the rest of me away, carrying me along the river’s course, dumping my ashes into the lake where they would settle to the bottom.
I felt the water drag at my body, urging me to join it, to give up my pointless quest, to just admit that I’d failed and run away from all my problems. Its weight was so tempting, so soothing, and I wanted to follow wherever it might take me.
This was so, so hopeless.
But it was my fault.
I did this to Nolan. I did this to Faith. I did this to myself.
So I was going to fix it, damn it.
I felt it again, the little stirring anger in my chest, that ugly black hole where my magic used to be. It burned like a coal within my ribs, urging me up onto my feet, pushing me out of the river. I was angry. At myself, at the bearskins, at the woman who’d kidnapped Nolan, and that anger drove me on, drove me up, drove me onto the riverbank. I staggered, lungs heaving, feeling an electric energy build inside me that I could neither stop nor control, and I felt heat brush against the insides of my palms. I looked down at my hands, remembered the flames.
Small, lazy yellow tongues of fire dripped down my fingers.
The bearskins stirred anxiously in the shadows of the trees. I turned towards them, raised my hands. They pressed back, away, clamouring over one another to try to escape me. They were terrified of the magic.
The anger kicked up in my chest. I wanted to summon massive torrents of flame, I wanted to hurl them at the beasts and punish them for what they’d done to me. But I bit back, reined in the fury, held white-knuckled onto the fire in my hands. I would not let this anger overcome me. I would not let it consume me.
Because while the bearskins were doing everything they could to escape me, they weren’t fleeing randomly into the forest. They were gathering at a specific point, some of them darting off into the darkness but all of them following the same path. I walked towards them and they funnelled along that path, never straying, never breaking away.
There was something there. Something they felt they could run to. Something that made them feel safe.
Maybe it was the woman who’d stolen Nolan. Maybe it was something else.
But it was better than wandering alone in the dark.
The anger, the determination, lifted me above the pain and fatigue.
Fire clutched tightly in my hands, I took off after the fleeing bearskins at a run.
I did it. I actually wrote a LotSF chapter.
It’s horribly late (it’s currently 1:23am, whoops) but it’s done. It’s here. I did it!
It feels good. It feels really good. I am proud of myself. And I am so much happier with the way this chapter went than the way it was going before.
Again again, thank you everyone for being patient and all of that, I hope this was worth the wait.
For those who are possibly new to the whole thing, welcome welcome. I hope you enjoy.
And I hope everyone is having a good weekend thus far. I will see you all sometime tomorrow (or later today, since it’s already Sunday) for my regular posting schedule.