Drustva, Western Galla - 465 HE

The night was unusually quiet. There were very few creatures stirring in the woods; the long shadows created by the silvery light of the moon gave the world an eerie cast. The stable, too, was dark, the only human presence being a young stable boy sleeping deeply in the loft amongst the hay; below him, the horses shifted in their stalls.

Cautiously blending into the shadows, a cloaked figure crept around the corner of the building. Eyes the colour of emeralds flicked around the quiet yard alertly before their owner turned to the entrance of the stable and stepped inside. The shape darted from stall to stall, peering at the occupants within. At the sight of a hardy-looking black mare the shadowed figure paused. The mare swung her head to the doorway and slowly stood up to greet her late night visitor.

The figure's soft, feminine voice gentled the wary horse and the mare snorted in recognition, nuzzling her owner gently. As her owner stroked her jet-black face, the mare nipped at her with her strong teeth. Her owner barely flinched, thinking it her mare's way of reprimanding her for her absence. Instead, she stroked her horse's silky nose with the ease of familiarity. "I'm sorry, Fier, I missed you too," she apologized, her voice heavy with unshed tears.

With quick practiced movements which spoke of years of experience, the shrouded woman checked over her old friend for injures and missing shoes. Finding the mare well cared-for, the woman saddled her and led her out of the stall by the reins, pausing to raise her eyes to the loft when the stable boy muttered in his slumber. A small sigh escaped her lips and she pressed onward into the stable yard.

The silvery moonlight illuminated the face underneath the black hood, revealing her to be young but careworn, her unexpressed grief standing starkly evident in her vivid green eyes. With a wince she placed her foot in the stirrup and hauled herself up into the saddle, she spared the stable behind her a final glance before spurring the horse southwards into the mountains, leaving the village of Drustva behind her.

***

With the road stretching emptily southwards, Elena could no longer distract herself from replaying the horrific scene over and over. Ducking a low hanging branch as she roughly brushed the wetness from her face, the sounds of her family's screams echoed in her ears. She had more pressing issues; grief could come later. She had to reach Tortall and warn them of what was secretly going on in Galla, of her cousin's terrible betrayal. She had to get aid.

Pressing one hand painfully to her side, she drew it back and hissed through her teeth at the sight of the dark stain of blood on her fingertips. She debated stopping and trying to treat her wound herself, but the horrors behind her lay too close; her impulse to flee far surpassed her need to stop.

***

At the peaceful border between Galla and Tortall, not far from the river Drell, a guard sleepily ambled over to the barrier blocking the road. He was eager to get back to the warm fire of the guardhouse and his cup of ale, but the sight of the cloaked rider atop his large black horse sent a chill down his spine. "Ho there! What be yer business at this late hour, Sir?" he asked nervously.

Drawing nearer he squinted, trying to see the face of the rider, but before he could succeed a chilled pale hand pressed two gold coins into the guard's palm. "I was never here," said the hooded figure.

His eyes widened slightly as he realized that the hooded horseman was a woman. Somehow he managed to maintain his composure, giving a small bow before lifting the barrier aside. "Of course, my lady; a safe journey to yer."

He watched as the shadowy rider galloped into Tortall, and with a shiver the guardsman tucked the coins away, making the sign against evil on his forehead and sending a silent prayer to the Gods for a quiet night.