Miranda heard Barlow coming down the alley. She placed Esseldan over her shoulder and put her breast away. When Barlow arrived at the stable, he put the bucket down with a careless splash and allowed them each one drink before he washed himself. Miranda watched as he poured out the dirtied water. She would have liked the opportunity to wash. The day was muggy and getting hotter.

And her nightmares stuck to her mind like her sweat stuck to her body. Although ignorant of the ways of war, Miranda sensed that her dreams possessed an ominous accuracy and she affirmed her decision to leave Droxy before the Atrophane arrived. However, she still had to think of a way to get out of the town. Despite his negligence and irresponsibility, Barlow somehow monitored Miranda quite closely, and leaving without his knowledge would be difficult.

But things were no longer a matter of her suffering. This was a life and death situation for herself and the children and she would have to find a way to flee, with or without Barlow.

By now, he had helped himself to a generous portion of their food supply. His thoughtless plundering of their supplies disgusted Miranda but she contained her criticism. While he was occupied with breakfast, she decided to risk speaking her mind.

“Barlow, let us leave Droxy. It is not safe from the war here.”

He snorted derisively. “You do not even know what you’re talking about. When the country turns to war, it is best to be safe inside the castle.” He gestured to the surrounding stone walls as if they were his chorus that would promptly sing in agreement.

Carefully, Miranda continued, “But Droxy is where the Horde will surely attack.”

“You just don’t want to earn us a living for once,” Barlow countered.

Miranda’s mouth dropped open incredulously. “That’s all I ever do!” she cried.

Esseldan fussed in her arms because she had become so upset, and she set him in his basket.

Her voice rose with a touch of hysteria as she insisted, “I am not staying here. I am going to hide in the forest until the war is over.”

Barlow laughed. “You’re crazy. How are you gonna live in the forest? You can’t leave those children anyway.”

“I will take them with me,” she said.

Barlow stopped laughing. Narrowing his dark eyes, he threatened, “Don’t you even think that. Those children are mine.”

Miranda now realized the futility of convincing him to leave. She lapsed into silence in order to stop provoking him. Obviously he would not willingly let her leave with the children. His sense of possession over them was much too precious.

Waiting for him to go away, Miranda went to Elendra and started brushing her hair. The girl winced as the brush drew down with unfamiliar force. Unfortunately Barlow stayed, and he bedded down in the stall to sleep off his hangover. The horse in the next stall shifted with agitation at his presence.

“Shut up you nag,” he mumbled.

Unable to tolerate his company even if he was asleep, Miranda gathered her son in his basket and prepared to leave.

“Come on, Elendra. I will show you around Droxy,” she said in as pleasant a voice as possible.

Elendra jumped up, happy to be included. They set off down the alley past the tavern and into the main square. Although Droxy was a small town and fortress, people still flooded inside. Miranda could see people throwing their belongings into alleys and along walls, and then huddling around them much like herself. Chances looked high that she would have company in the stable tonight.

In the increasing throng she was careful to hold Elendra’s hand firmly. The vendors’ stalls already looked picked over, and few people wanted to sell what provisions they had. Miranda purchased any food she could with the few coins the soldier had given her in the night. She concealed the food in the baby’s basket.

“Elendra, do not tell…him about this food,” Miranda cautioned.

Raised to keep such secrets, Elendra nodded sincerely.

If Barlow caught Miranda with the food, he would know that she had received money. He did not tolerate her to have any independent funds, and Miranda had paid the price of discovery before.

Miranda loitered the rest of the day in the square, having no desire to return to the vicinity of Barlow. Several times she contemplated simply walking out the gate of the town, but she was afraid. She considered hiding in the edge of the Wilderness until the conquest was over, but the mysterious menace of the west weighed on her mind like it never had before. The legends about fenthakrabi and ghosts were difficult to dismiss while she watched the refugees crowd into Droxy because they would go no farther.

Barlow had brought her to Wa Gira seven years ago, and every day since Miranda had looked upon the Wilderness and never seen anything but rich untouched forest. She had never heard the calls of the mythic beasts that supposedly prowled there, and she had never felt threatened by the closeness of the Wilderness when she had foraged in the woodland around the village. But the Droxy locals had always warned that anyone who entered the  Wilderness would never come back and she half-heartedly believed them.

Tiredly she smiled. Never returning to Droxy had great appeal.

She stared at the open gate. The old oak timbers looked weathered and dubious. Apparently Lord Doamir had invested little in upkeep over the years. The Lord of Droxy expected no trouble. Bandits posed only a nominal threat, and despite the ominous reputation of the Wilderness, no invaders ever came from the west.

Miranda distracted herself by watching the fighters muster to defend the Droxy settlement. The assembling soldiers also fascinated Elendra, who had no experiences outside the tediously agricultural Wa Gira. The landowners who owed allegiance to Lord Doamir looked grand in their armor, high on their horses. Other men were simply peasants hired to fight, or they had volunteered to defend their homeland. Soldiers in the brown uniforms of Lord Doamir’s house lined up in smart rows, before marching out. Miranda scanned the many troubled faces, wondering if her companion from the night before was among them, but she did not see him.

Altogether the force of Droxy fighters and stray Bosta warriors did not make an inspiring sight. Miranda stared at the stone walls of the town and remembered the flames that had consumed them in her dream. The terror of her nightmare returned and her mouth felt dry. Sadly she looked at her children. They needed her to protect them, and she had to get them out of the path of marauding invaders.

All of her problems had always been at home. Now she felt assaulted from every direction. Fear hindered her from forming any detailed plan of escape, but she resolved to sneak out before the gates closed.

Pulling Elendra along urgently, Miranda returned to the stable. Hopefully Barlow would be in the tavern by now, and she could pack her things and slip away.

Disappointment assailed her when she saw Barlow sitting on a sack of grain. He was recently arisen from his day of napping, and his usual groggy and surly scowl welcomed her. Quickly, Miranda cast down her eyes, composing herself. She did not want Barlow to perceive the guilt in her heart.

Miranda gave the baby to Elendra and told her to play quietly. Although Miranda knew it would be wise to leave Barlow alone until he entered the tavern, she decided to try to get more money. She wanted more food, and besides it was really her money anyway. Barlow had to eat too, and she figured there was a chance of talking him into it. Leaving him high and dry seemed just.

“Barlow, we need money to buy food before it runs out,” she announced boldly.

He frowned, displeased by the subject. “Maybe if you’re a really good girl you can have some money tomorrow,” he sneered.

“No, I need it now. The war will be here tomorrow,” she insisted.

He stood up quickly. “Don’t start with me,” he warned.

“Don’t start what?” she mocked.

Miranda knew it was the wrong thing to say, but her temper often got away from her. Barlow struck her savagely across the ear—a painful blow that sent her to the ground. For being a drunk, he could sometimes strike with terrible speed.

“Or how ’bout you go earn more money?” he said. He reached down and seized her long hair, hauling her to her knees.

Miranda cursed herself for speaking to him, but her need for more supplies had seemed worth the risk. Or maybe she had sabotaged her escape because she was afraid to run away.

“Or how ’bout you earn some money from me?” he hollered.

Recovering from the shock of the pain, Miranda struggled to be free, but his fingers were thoroughly entwined in the curls of her hair. He smacked her again and tossed her toward their stall.

“Get back there,” he snarled. “It’s time you relearned who your master is.”

Miranda scrambled to her feet, knowing from experience that she could not let Barlow corner her in the stable. Elendra darted out of the sphere of Barlow’s wrath. She already had a natural instinct for avoiding her father’s attention. Miranda could see her daughter crying fearfully. She made a hopeless image clinging to her baby brother and watching her mother be abused. The scared children reminded Miranda vividly of her nightmares.

Barlow descended on Miranda, blocking the children from her view. He attacked with extra special viciousness, and Miranda held her arms over her face. When he grabbed one of her arms, she clawed his face mercilessly with her free hand.

Cuts opened on his cheek and Barlow yelled in pain. Shocked by the wound, he released her. Miranda fell back on the gate of a stall, startling the animal inside. Her scratches only made Barlow pause though, and he resumed his attack. Frantically she managed to unhook the gate and swing it toward him. He howled when the gate bottom slammed into his shins, but he slammed the gate back instantly. On the rebound the gate knocked Miranda into the stall.

She landed in the soiled straw and the mare’s hooves danced around her. Satisfied that she was trapped, Barlow opened the gate leisurely.

“Miranda, stop fighting me. You know you always lose. I don’t want to put more bruises on you,” he said.

The horse was intolerant of his intrusion. Although tethered, the horse reared and lashed out with its front feet. A hoof caught Barlow on the forehead. The blow was so wicked, he did not even make a sound as he toppled backwards. Content with the victory, the horse calmed itself and snorted loudly.

In the sudden quiet Miranda picked herself up and lay a thankful hand on the horse’s shoulder. Her lucky reprieve from his assault was unbelievable. For a moment she gaped at Barlow’s sprawled form. He did not move, and a purple arc had sprouted on his forehead.

Tasting the familiar salt, Miranda wiped the blood from her lips. She must not hesitate now. “Elendra, start packing,” she ordered decisively.

The girl stepped into the open. Sniffling noisily, she stared at her father’s unmoving body. That her mother was relatively unhurt pleased Elendra, but she did not know what to think of her father. Cautiously she approached him, wondering if he was alive.

“Leave him alone,” Miranda snapped. “Do as I say.”

Glancing around nervously, Miranda led the horse from the stall. The mare was a handsome animal, chocolate brown with three white stockings and a white nose. Miranda had never stolen, but she intended to keep that horse.

The mare responded to her attention favorably and gave little protest to being bridled. Miranda knew it was wrong to steal a man’s horse and gear, but her necessity exceeded her morals. Hastily she saddled the animal and ran to finish packing. Elendra had achieved little of her assignment. Every moment of preparation cast her in terrible peril. The horse’s owner could return, or anybody could see Barlow’s body and stop her.

As she flung her few utensils into a pack, her hand closed around the handle of her knife. Miranda’s eyes strayed from the shining blade to Barlow.

I should cut his throat, she thought.

A cold desire for retribution chilled her heart, and she might have done it, but the puzzled expression on Elendra’s face stopped her. Miranda could not kill him, at least not in front of her daughter. She put the knife into the pack and tied it closed.

An urgent fear of discovery sank teeth into her nerves, and Miranda could not move with enough speed. She grabbed Barlow’s ankles and lugged him out of sight into the stall. He did not make a sound, and Miranda wondered if he was dead, but she did not check anything beyond his coin purse.

She loaded their supplies and blankets onto the horse, and then grabbed Elendra.

“Mama, is this our horse?” the little girl asked.

“It is now,” Miranda said firmly and placed her daughter in the saddle. Next, she secured Esseldan into his carrying sling and placed him on her back. Trying to mount the horse with such an unwieldy arrangement proved difficult, but luckily the horse did not fight her. Miranda was strong and managed to pull herself up.

The woman and small children were not a heavy load for the horse. Confidently Miranda grasped the reins, as if her last ride had been yesterday, and boldly rode into the square. Actually leaving Droxy would be her most vulnerable time. The owner of the horse could easily chance to see her and raise an alarm.

I will be hard to stop on this good horse, she thought.

The sun had flown west over the cliffs and the dusk would soon be over Droxy. Most of the fighters had departed to take up positions in the countryside, but the gates were still open, allowing the last of the frightened peasantry to enter. Miranda forced herself not to nervously scan the crowd because it made her look guilty. She blended into the tumult of the square and reached the gate without problems.

A young woman with small children leaving the town at sunset made a curious sight to one of the gate guards.

“Young lady,” he called, stepping out to meet her. “Where are you going?”

Miranda shrank inside, fearing her crimes had been discovered, but she was not one to surrender. She tried to mask her guilt with a charming smile, but her swelling lips distorted the effect. In an effort to calm the torrent of anxiety that consumed her body, Miranda told herself that this guard might not know about the stolen horse.

The quick wit of her response surprised even herself as she said, “My sister is supposed to be here. I was just going to ride up the road a bit to see if she is coming.”

The guard did not doubt her words, but he thought of her safety. “It will dark soon, and the gates must close. You may just go out to meet our retreating force,” he said.

“Oh, but I must see. I am terribly worried about her. Maybe she is just up the road and I can meet her,” Miranda insisted swiftly.

“If she has not made it by now, she probably won’t,” the guard said gloomily. “Now turn around. I would hate to see you and your family locked out. You don’t understand how dangerous it is to leave.” He reached for the bridle, but Miranda jerked the reins to make the horse move away. The delay exasperated her when she could see the fields beyond and feel the trouble behind her.

“I am going anyway,” she snapped shrewishly. “Elendra, hang on tightly.”

She rode out quickly, thrilled to have asserted herself. The guard waved a hand after her in disgust, but showed no interest in pursuit.

The gate of Droxy slipped behind her like a great weight dropping off her shoulders. For the first time in two days, she could feel a faint hope. Now that she had left Droxy, maybe her nightmares could not come true.

The open land away from the town welcomed her as if it had been waiting many years for her arrival. Miranda vowed that Barlow would never touch her again, no matter what happened. She discarded the guilt she felt over stealing the horse. It was a good horse, and it was worth one theft to flee war and slavery.

Streamers of fuchsia light followed the sunset, and a beautiful spring night began. The evening refreshed Miranda after being inside the clammy walls of Droxy. The last few refugees straggled by her on the road, and they looked at her strangely. Their dim questioning faces encouraged Miranda. She saw no hope on those expressions.

As soon as she was alone on the road, she turned off and headed into the fields. In the distance the fields dwindled into pastures, and then the forest began. Approaching the very edge of the Wilderness, Miranda became afraid, feeling the dangerous potential within.

A giant oak stood out before the rest of the trees like a sentinel. The limbs of the oak curved and curled gracefully. A sudden gust of wind rattled the many branches of the watchful tree as they passed beneath, and the horse snorted and shook at the bit.

Miranda shivered with fear when they entered the cool forest and the darkness gathered around. Only a faint lavender light still filtered down between the leaves.

“Where are we going?” Elendra whispered.

“We are going away,” Miranda replied vaguely.

That first night in the forest was the hardest. The primordial terror of the woods at night assailed Miranda with a vengeance. Once the black night settled rapidly over the forest, she considered returning to Droxy. She wanted to be with other people, she wanted shelter, but she remembered Barlow and found the courage to stay away.

She could not see where to go and only gently persuaded the horse to continue, letting the mare find her own way. Eventually, Miranda just stopped, fearing the horse would circle back to Droxy. It was much too dark to gather wood for a fire, so she had to huddle with the children under a large tree.

Elendra clung to her mother and whimpered in fear, until Miranda soothed her into silence. Thankfully, Esseldan stayed quietly nestled against his mother. Sensing the unseen nightlife around her, Miranda was glad that the children were not making any noises that could attract a predator.

She wrapped the horse’s reins around a hand and held on all night. The horse would probably sense danger first, and Miranda did not want the horse getting away if something startled it.

Every puff of breeze through the branches made her clench nervously. Listening intently to every sound, she wondered if anything prowled in the darkness. Through the gaps in the trees she watched the stars crawl across the heavens. Monitoring their slow progress gave her hope that the morning would come. Time passed and a chilly dampness settled over her, making her joints ache.

Despite deep weariness, fear kept her alert the whole night, and Miranda witnessed the first gray of dawn. With the murk falling back from the rising day, she rose with relief. Now the forest felt innocent, verdant and fresh, with only a lingering hint of the sinister possibilities of the night.

All the time praising the mare for being good through the night, Miranda packed Elendra into the saddle. Without breaking their fast, except for Esseldan who was now strategically positioned across her chest, Miranda led the horse onward. Stiff and sore after the stressful night, Miranda needed to stretch her legs.

After a short time they arrived at a creek overhung with willows. She chose to rest in this inviting place. With a short bit of rope she contrived a hobble for the horse. Free of saddle and bit, the horse browsed on the drooping willow shoots. Miranda spread a blanket upon the upper bank and cast herself down to nap. Elendra cozied up next to her mother. Encircled by his mother’s arms, Esseldan complained and squirmed, but Miranda had no energy to entertain him.

Her quick deep sleep ended suddenly when distant blasts of trumpet sang through the air and drums rumbled and throbbed. At first she thought it was another nightmare until she realized the war had actually started.

Somewhere across the valley the invading Atrophane had begun to move. Miranda checked the sun, which was still in the east. Her nap had been short and could continue no longer. If she could hear the war, she wanted to be farther away.

The mare had wandered downstream, and Miranda approached her slowly with the bridle. The horse offered some nominal resistance, but eventually accepted Miranda’s will.

Petting the lovely animal, she said, “I name you Freedom.”

Soon Miranda was riding west again, following the path of the creek. The land began to rise steeply, and the creek rushed by in rapids. Freedom sweated up the incline, and by early afternoon topped the first western ridge above the valley. Here Miranda turned in the saddle and looked back. A large column of smoke rose from where she figured Wa Gira to be in the landscape. It did not break her heart.

Horn blasts and drums still echoed across the valley, and Miranda imagined the distant screams.

High on the ridge Miranda enjoyed a panoramic view. Many creeks cut down into the green land. Fluffy clouds drifted above, uncaring of the war below. The world seemed so much larger to Miranda suddenly. How she had ever tolerated her bleak world of servitude below she could not now imagine.

She had not been able to enjoy the view when Barlow had brought her through the eastern hills into Droxy. At that time she had been fourteen and new to slavery. For once, she willingly let herself remember that terrifying time. She remembered her feet slogging through the mud and the rain running down her back. She had been too frightened of Barlow to look up at him after the horrors he had inflicted upon her the night before. She was so sore and so alone.

Miranda halted the memories. My time as a slave is done, she thought.

With a deep indulgent breath she continued westward. She wanted to make a proper camp before the sun sank. The land leveled out into a forested plateau, and the cliffs looked much closer. With the noise of battle left behind, Miranda relaxed and let the songbirds lull her. Flowers bloomed in the open places, and the forest was a fragrant mix of pine and broadleaf. Even without a road, the travelling was easy in the mature wood. Brush only grew where an ancient master had fallen.

Briefly she enjoyed the tranquility of the lovely forest, reminded only once of the dangers of the world when an eagle passed silently overhead.

Before the day waned too much, Miranda made a camp beside a large outcropping of rock by the creek. Nearby a tangle of old driftwood provided a supply of firewood. Building a fire made Miranda feel good. The night would not press so close this time.

Excited to be free of the constraints of the saddle, Elendra ran around collecting twigs.

“Stay in my sight,” Miranda called as her daughter flitted about.

“Yes, Mama!”

Esseldan wiggled and kicked on the blanket next to Miranda. While adding wood to the fire, she idly played with his toes. She wished they had more food, but thinking of Barlow with no food or money made her feel better. Looking up, she did not see Elendra.

Fearfully she cried out for her daughter.

The little girl ran out from behind a boulder carrying some useless looking twigs.

“What?” she replied innocently.

With a sigh Miranda put aside her panic. Calmly she instructed, “Elendra, it is very important that you stay in my sight. You understand that we are on our own out here, right?” Miranda gestured at the virgin forest.

Elendra looked around and nodded.

Miranda opened her arms. “Now come here. Let your mother watch out for you.”

Elendra trotted over and embraced her mother, and then sat in her lap. Out of her pack Miranda removed a stringy bundle and carefully unrolled it.

“This is our fishnet,” Miranda explained. “You know, we are going to have to forage for food this summer, and I am going to teach you to help me.”

Her attention pleased Elendra, who was content to watch her mother fix holes in the net. Miranda mended the net until it grew dark. Once the children were sleeping, Miranda stayed awake staring into the comforting flames. In the darkness she could hear the creek gurgle by. Occasionally she caught the sound of a fish jumping, and this reassured her. Eventually she succumbed to her exhaustion, and she slipped into a deep dreamless sleep, holding her knife across her chest.

With the first twitter of a bird she awoke almost in the same position. When she walked downstream to relieve herself, she saw the tracks of a large cat in the muddy bank. This sight disquieted her, and she decided to move on and make a new camp along the cliffs.

After another day riding westward, Miranda found a cave. At first she hesitated to enter the dark quiet space at the base of the cliffs, fearing a bear or panther might dwell within. But seeing no tracks outside, she mustered her courage and went inside. The cave was tall in the front but tapered to a tight passage that cut deeply into the cliff. It would provide decent shelter from rain, and she could build a fire at the entrance to deter large animals. Only a short hike away was the creek, which met the cliff in a splendid waterfall.

Miranda regarded her situation with more confidence. The cave could prove to be an excellent location to camp at for some time, and no one would look for her there. She had escaped the war, and leaving Barlow had eliminated a mouth to feed. She had experience foraging for food because she had often supplemented her family’s diet that way. She  worried about getting enough meat to fill out their diet, but she planned to fish in the morning.

Evening gathered early so close to the cliffs, and Miranda built a fire. Elendra wandered the outskirts of camp, climbing on boulders. Eventually she jumped down and joined her mother.

Leaning on Miranda, she asked, “Will that net really catch fish?”

“It has before,” Miranda replied.

After a thoughtful pause, Elendra said, “Mama, I saw something.”

Miranda stopped tending the fire and looked up. “What child?”

“Smoke in the forest, like maybe from a campfire like ours,” she answered.

“Show me,” Miranda instructed. She got up quickly and followed her daughter.

Their camp was at about the level of the forest canopy and gave them an excellent vantage point. Elendra pointed southeast over the treetops. A thin line of smoke rose out of the forest, and it had to be from a campfire.

“Who could it be, Mama?” Elendra wondered.

Watching the cliff shadow consume the lower forest, Miranda shook her head. “I do not know. Maybe it is more people escaping the war. In the morning I will go see who it is. Right now it is getting too dark.”

That night Miranda did not dwell on her fear of being alone in the Wilderness, but rather she feared who was with her in the Wilderness. The next morning she delayed her fishing in order to go examine the nearby camp. Initially she wanted to observe the camp undetected in case the people were hostile. To do this required stealth, and Miranda could not take the children. This decision came to her hard because she dreaded leaving the children, but she had to know who was out there. She hoped they were more refugees and they could all camp together for greater protection.

When Miranda explained that she would depart for a couple hours, Elendra gasped and seized onto her mother’s skirt. Terrified, the girl begged her not to go. Miranda let her throw her fit and then knelt to console her daughter face to face.

Brushing Elendra’s black hair out of her teary face, Miranda said, “I have to go and see. Maybe they will be friends, and we will be better off. I will not be gone long. Now you and Esseldan will hide in the cave until I get back. And I will be back.”

Elendra hugged her miserably. “Mama, I’m so scared,” she cried.

“I know, I know. But you are getting to be a big girl, and you have to watch your brother. Now you can do that, right?” Miranda said.

The girl nodded reluctantly.

“I will be back before noon,” Miranda promised cheerily.

Advertisements