As they passed a deserted crossroads, the larger of the two looked over his shoulder. “Hurry, the sun is almost down. We must reach shelter before nightfall.”
Suddenly the tired mare under him slipped and stumbled. Its legs collapsed, and it rolled to the ground, hurling its rider further up the road. The second rider pulled up on the reins and turned around.
The fallen man grudgingly got to his feet and straightened the sword at his waist before shambling over to his downed horse. He looked back at his companion who pushed back the hood of his cloak, to reveal the smudged, sparsely bearded face of a youth.
The man spit the dirt from his teeth. “Go on, go on. I’m well.”
The youth urged his jumpy, lathered horse forward. His large eyes danced from side to side above his quivering lips. “Are you quite sure?” he asked in a thin voice.
“I’ve taken harder falls in the lists.”
“Yes, an old warrior like you must be quite used to it by now, but what of your mount?”
“She will survive. Old warrior? I am not an old . . .” The large man stopped and grinned. “Go on, I will follow immediately.”
As the smirking youth turned his horse back up the road, the warrior brought the mare to its feet and inspected its legs. “Confound it!”
The youth again stopped his horse. The grin had escaped his face. “What is it? Is she lame?”
“What, this old battle-nag? Too stubborn for that, but she is wounded and look . . . she’s spilled our provisions.”
The large man tied a cloth around the mare’s injured foreleg and bent to pick up the bread, fruit, and gold coins scattered across the road. He put a handful of coins into a purse and was reaching for a small loaf of bread when the cry of an infant erupted from his companion.
The dismounted warrior shot a fretful look to the younger man and then glanced about. As he eyed the woods, his free hand drifted onto the hilt of his sword. “Confound, it’s nearly dark!”
The youth shifted in the saddle and pushed aside his grey cloak to reveal a very young, very small baby. “There, there, my little prince,” he cooed. “What’s the matter?”
At that moment, the youth caught sight of movement down the road they had just covered. All happiness drained from his face, and his back stiffened. His mount reared up, pawing the air with its forelegs.
The warrior’s mare leapt into the air, kicking and snorting. Her master crouched low in the road with one hand solidly gripping the reins. The man’s sharp green eyes searched the shadowy curtain of the forest beyond the naked blade of his sword.
The youth skillfully forced his startled mount back to the ground then pointed down the road. “He’s found us! Run!” He dug his heels into his horse and charged up the road, cradling the baby.
The man hunkered on the road looked past his bucking mount in the direction the youth had pointed. His eyes fell upon the nameless crossroads, where a low, fog-like darkness crept through the trees. It billowed into view like black ink poured into clear, still water and hovered in the intersection. Thin, wispy tendrils probed in front of it, and into the woods on either side of the road, before melting back into the main body of darkness. Without warning, it shifted and started up the road in the direction of the two riders.
The warrior pleaded under his breath. “God save us.” He yanked on the reins of his horse, demanding her obedience to his control. Then he put his foot in the stirrup, but the beast circled away from him. After a few hurried attempts, he managed to throw himself into the saddle. The frightened creature spun round and round beneath him as he paused to eye the gold coins still littering the road.
The youth shouted over his shoulder. “Hurry!”
“But the gold!”
“But we will need—”
“Leave it! Only the child matters!”
Without another moment’s hesitation, the large man swatted the mare’s rump with the flat of his sword and galloped up the road.