Behind her Rosewood Castle stood silhouetted against the sun, casting a long shadow across the green summer grass. Before her the future was stretched out on a winding dirt road, cut into the land like a scar. Between them was the Rosewood guard, the sun reflecting off their armor like stars as their horses danced and stamped. Lea tightened her grip on the reigns, her steed trying to rise into a rear, feet lifting and settling on the ground.
“Tonight, we re-write the rules, old girl,” Lea whispered. “You’ve got to listen or we won’t push through this with our lives.”
“Lady Rosewood, surrender and keep your life.” Randal Welwald’s voice was as soft as it was in her childhood, but this was the first time it threatened her life.
“I will not join you craven traitors!” Her horse jumped forward, but Lea pulled head forcing her into a tight circle.
“Wintergreen’s war is done. Jefferson Greytail has won. I have no wish to kill you, but you cannot leave.”
“Wintergreen saved Rosewood when she was falling, now we raise our swords against them. I’ll not abandon Wintergreen in their time of need.” And I certainly will not marry Jefferson Greytail’s arrogant son, Lea grinding her teeth together at the thought. The alliance was cruel enough; the marriage was salt in the wounds.
“Your father wishes for your safety, stand down Lea Rosewood.”
Lea knew her father’s orders; he’d shouted them at her the weeks before; she would marry young Rigney or her life was forfeit.
“I place my safety in the hands of Wintergreen.”
“The Wintergreen line has ended.”
Liar. Arcya Wintergreen still drew breath, and she could still bare children to carry the name. Arcya’s cousin Cyril Kingsmill carried Wintergreen blood in his veins, and he still drew breath. The Greytail’s held the east and the west, but all of the north and most of the west were still loyal to Wintergreen. If Rosewood bent to Greytail, Wintergreen would lose the south. Not if she could help it.
Ten guards blocked her path, and she knew the name of every one. She held no desire to kill them, but if it came to that her sword rested against her hip. The road stretched for three miles before reaching Tracey woods, from there it was a two weeks ride to Wintergreen, if you followed the Lindon river.
Old girl was slower than the steeds of Rosewood’s guards. She’d never outrace them to the forest. Behind them rose the Palatine mountain, she could ride to Wintergreen from there, but it would take months. In that time, rumors of her wedding to young Rigney would spread, the south would rise for Greytail, and her journey to Wintergreen would be for nothing.
Why had they followed her? She had been acting ill for two weeks now, and no one showed the foggiest wisp of doubt. Her absence had not been noted at the Kinsella feast, yet it was.
“Lady Rosewood,” A childhood friend of hers stepped in front of the other soldiers, facing Miles as an adversary made her heart ache. “Shouldn’t your loyalty lie with your family, your house, your home?”
“Would that it could,” Lea was running thin on options; fight or flight. “My loyalty rests with what is right, no matter how hard it is.”
His face fell but he fell back into the line with the others.
Their faces were grim, and most could not meet her eyes.
They’re going to kill me. The realization stung, but she had no time for sentiment. She had to act, even if it was desperate. There was one mile of open valley standing between her and a real chance. Old girl wasn’t as fast, but she was still strong and had much endurance. If they would make it to the Tracey woods, she’d shake them. Old girl was used to galloping among the trees, the other steeds were not.
She pulled old girl up into a rear, her feet kicking out at the sky. She nudged her forward with the press of her thighs, gaining a few precious steps closer to the woods. The guards didn’t suspect a thing, old girl had been prancing this entire time.
“Even old girl knows better,” Randal frowned, “She knows not to leave home.”
Lea gently pushed old girl to the left of the guard, where the woods would be. She danced over there as if from her own according. The guard fanned out slightly but didn’t press forward, still unsuspecting. She had a clear path now.
“You ready, old girl?” Lea lips barely moved as she spoke, but old girl’s ear twitched towards her. She knew those words, it’s what Lea always said right before they ran.
She touched her heels into old girl’s side. The mare bolted, like a leaf sucked into current. She rushed past the Rosewood soldiers before they steeds had time to run. The land turned into a blur was old girl stretched into a four beat gate, her belly closer to the ground.
Behind her she could hear the pounding of hooves on grass, the thunder of the earth. She knew they might fire at her, but shooting at a gallop was hard, and the wind was in her favor. The only arrow she had seen had landed several paces to the side of her before the wind drove it into the ground.
The sun shone on her back as the wind tore at her hair screaming in the distance. The faded light turned the sky into violet reds, pinks, and oranges. She dared to look behind her to see Miles was gaining on her. She could remember how often they raced for pleasure towards the Tracey woods, jesting and betting on who the victor was. He won most of the time, his steed being younger and faster, and his prize being a kiss on the cheek. She took a deep breath and gave old girl another kick, she responded with a burst of speed. The other Rosewood guards were falling behind them.
Rosewood castle, home, was growing smaller as they ran. Their shadows ran before them like long-limb wraiths, matching them pace for pace. Up ahead trees were sprouting from the ground, freedom, a change. The Rosewood guards saw the forest as well, as more arrows trying to crawl against the wind.
“Almost there, old girl.”
The woods rose above her tall and proud. Swerving old girl to a hard left, they plunged into the woods just as stars began poking into the sky. The leaves blotted out the light and the world around her was cast in darkness. Old girl leapt over a fallen truck as they weaved between trees still standing.
The Rosewood guard ran into the forest with a snapping of twigs and leaves. Lea weaved old girl in a nonsensical pattern. Losing them was her first priority, finding and following the Lindon river was next.
Fingertips brushed against side, and knew it was Miles. She kicked old girl in the side, but she couldn’t go any faster. She gathered the reigns in one hand, reaching for her sword with the other. Her fingers wrapped around the hilt when a hand wrapped around her arm. Pulled off balance, she fell from the saddle.
The ground met her with an unforgiving smack, pain laced up her side before her head smacked the earth. She pushed herself up to see Miles pointing an arrow at throat. Old girl had stopped running, and stood next to Miles steed, shaking. She didn’t understand why Lea fell, or why they were running away.
“Are you going to kill me?” Lea voice was dry. She kept her hands pressed against the dirt, her body inches from the ground.
The bow shook, but the string was taunt. “You didn’t leave us with much of a choice.”
“Everything is a choice, Miles.”
“Like abandoning your family and friends?”
“Like breathing oaths and turning traitor? Rosewood owes Wintergreen their allegiance.”
“Wintergreen saved Rosewood centuries ago, and Rosewood stood by their side in many wars. It owes Wintergreen nothing.”
“Are you saying after a friend helps you once the loyalty should be forfeit? Or are you suggesting when a friend truly needs you, to turn tail and run to the safer side? Rosewood has helped Wintergreen for centuries, as has Wintergreen helped us, why break that now?”
“Because Wintergreen is lost! Please, Lea, please.” The string loosened just a fraction.
“Arcya is still—”
“She is no man. She cannot produce an heir baring the name Wintergreen.”
“And why not? A woman carries the blood the same as a man, they have just as much right to the name. She is Wintergreen born not wed. Besides, Cyril Kingsmill has Wintergreen blood as well. The line is not lost.”
He let the arrow rest against his saddle. “Lea, we have orders. Please, I,” He looked down, “I don’t want to kill you.”
It was enough. She jumped to her feet and swung onto old girl’s back. They stared at each other, neither willing to move.
“Goodbye Miles.” She dug her heels into old girl’s side, and the trees rushed past them.
She waited for an arrow to punch through her chest, but it never came. She turned to see Miles leading the others in a different direction. She wanted to stop and call out to him, take him with her, but he was loyal to Rosewood, and she was loyal to honor. Swallowing her grief, she pressed old girl forward.
Beams of moonlight broke apart the forest’s shadows before she hear the babble of Lindon river. She followed it all night and most of the morning, before breaking to eat. After the sun slipped below the horizon, golden shafts of sunlight striking in between the trees, she stopped to sleep. She was up and moving before the moon was gone. The river was her guide, and the sky let her know time passed. After it nine days her body started to ache, and old girl’s step were slow and clumsy. It rained the next day; the water was cold sucked the heat from her bones. The temperature dropped the deeper north she went, and soon a light snow wept from the sky. The trees lost their leaves and the branches grew bare, naked limbs rattling against each other like bones. The woods thinned and a layer of ice covered the river.
Snow covered the ground like a blanket when Wintergreen castle rose into view. It was dark grey stone, with moss clinging to it’s sides and winding up it’s towers. The windows looked like dark voids, but she’d never been happier to see it. She tapped old girl’s sides, and the mare slowly ploughed forward through the snow.
Lea’s feet were frozen when the sentry demanded to know her business, and she could feel old girl shivering underneath here. Old girl needed a stable and a blanket, Lea needed a fire and hot food, neither had time for the sentry. She handed him her ring and his eyes widened before he led her to a grand hall.
“Lady Wintergreen, Lady Rosewood is here to see you.”
Fire set the room in deep shadows, but Lea could see her friend’s face light at the site of her. “Lea!” The two hugged; and pulled away smiling. “You’re so cold!”
“In case you didn’t notice, it’s snowing.”
Arcya laughed, “It always snows in Wintergreen.”
“We thought Rosewood alliance was lost.”
Lea turned to see Cyril Kingsmill casting a long shadow on the ground.
“You did, but you not mine.”
He smiled, “Your presence keeps Wintergreen hopes alive.”
“I intended to turn that hope into victory, Sir.”
Arcya grabbed her hand and squeezed it, “Together then, Wintergreen will see victory, and I promise after you will sit on Rosewood’s throne.”
“As she should,” Cyril nodded grabbing her other hand, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Lea smiled, “So am I.”