Tears in a Dry Land Ch. 02byYgraine©
The journey was not fast, but it was relentless.
Hours before sunrise, Sofia was roused from deep sleep to dress in boy's clothes, her long hair hidden inside a silk cap and wound around with cloth to protect against the wind and dust.
Four magnificent horses stood in the courtyard, laden with food bags and bedrolls, but harnessed only with the finest leather and light, racing saddles.
Once mounted, they left the city as quietly as they could, the small postern gate easily opened and shut behind them. Two days they rode along dusty trails before taking a small ferry across narrow straits leading to a gentler land. They skirted around villages, taking vague trails to avoid being seen. They watered the horses in irrigation ditches where they could, stopping only for brief snatches of sleep.
Every bone in Sophia's body ached. Many times she fell asleep in her saddle, swaying precariously before being caught by one of the men, who would put her before them, holding her safe with one arm while they managed both their horse and her own with the other.
Yunan would not stop near any town or village. He was convinced someone would recognize him and be able to pass this information on to his pursuers. So far they had seen no signs of others travelling after them, though they cast frequent glances behind and anxiously scoured each skyline for puffs of dust or smoke from a careless cooking fire.
This was a long-settled land, full of cultivated fields and small towns. The further they travelled from the town where she was kept prisoner, the more Sophia was able to look at her surroundings.
At first everything seems to be covered in mist, but gradually her vision cleared. With his usual tenacity, Yunan spoke little but occasionally he would ask if she recognized this landmark, or that village.
Once they saw washing hanging to dry on bushes by a stream. Without thinking, Sophia remarked on the colour, mentioning it was a favourite with her sister. Yunan noted what she said, but did not press her further, wanting her to come back to herself in her own time.
As dusk set in around the fifth evening, they begin a long slow climb up a twisting trail which rose from a low-lying valley, over a series of stepped, concealed hills, each one masking the next highest. By the time the plodding, weary horses carried them to the summit; it was dark with stars burning white in a black sky.
Sofia was so tired, she could hardly keep upright on the horse, the only sound the echoing of the hoof beats in her ears. As she became aware of the stars, she remembered seeing them from a high window. Some of the stars hung low in the sky, seeming to form a strange constellation ahead of them hanging, wavering - almost yellow, rather than the blue-white of their peers.
As they draw closer, a darker black shape began to bulk in the blue of the sky, the yellow constellation resolving into bright guard flares and torches set about the battlements of a fortress, tucked back here, all but hidden on this summit, secure in its view of the countryside around, but disguised by another stepped hill rising some small distance behind.
A crack of yellow light appeared in the blackness, etching contours of a gateway. Huge oaken doors, bound in bronze, creaked open, the brightly lit courtyard in the interior, welcoming them.
Yunan turned to her, "Do you remember this place?" He saw the eyes behind her headdress were wide and fearful. He somehow sensed whatever memories were being evoked were still jumbled and confused, but remembered fear surrounded her and she shook her head in answer to his question.
They rode into the courtyard, the iron shoes of the horses chiming on the cobbled stones. They were greeted by many smiling and some grave faces - servants or friends, Sophia could not tell. All of them were dressed in fine clothes, but there was none of the usual clamour that would be expected at such an arrival.
If these people were surprised to see this group arrive without warning in the dark of night on lathered horses, none spoke of such things aloud. More it seemed a usual occurrence, some stepping forward to hold the horses' heads, while others brought trays of wine and sweetmeats to greet the new arrivals.
Yunan slid down from his horse then helped Sophia to dismount. Her legs felt stiff and wooden. It seemed no effort for him to lift her into his arms and set her on the floor, steadying her when her legs threatened to dissolve under her.
"Welcome to my stronghold in this country." Sophia heard his words and knew she must make a suitable reply, but her voice was thick with fatigue and she could only whisper. "May the walls sink into the mountain side and the ravens ever call your enemy's confusion."
She heard no other command, but suddenly a group of serving women appeared at her side - dark-eyed and quietly considerate. They invited her to accompany them to her quarters, which was easier said than done, but their arms supported her, almost carrying her into the stronghold.