Chapter Seventeen

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          Ohtar carefully scanned the horizon over and over again, giving a third whistle. Something was clearly wrong. No proud white stallion came galloping majestically into view leading his herd of joyfully whinnying horses. Something was very wrong. Estela saw the bewilderment and worry in his eyes for his beloved animals. The others glanced at one another nervously. Ohtar finally moved them on at a hurried pace.

They traveled on until the sun was high in the sky before they came in sight of something which Estela had not seen for so long that it was like something from a distant dream (or nightmare, rather): a road. It was a lonely dilapidated old road winding through rocky foothills, but a road it was all the same. They rested by it, mostly for the benefit of Estela, but she had learned to push away the guilt that she felt at these times. They then followed the road into the hills, the occasional car whizzing past them, making Estela shudder. As the foothills ended, they began to pass farmhouses now and then, some with people who could be seen going about their business, and Estela suddenly had a thought.

"Runniendal!" she whispered to her friend. "Do you think I'm...well, invisible like you now?"

"I don't know," she replied, then giggled. "You would look odd to everyone else, though, wearing all our clothes and weapons. But I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

Estela nodded and faced forward once again. Suddenly, she saw looming up ahead many structures clustered in what she realized was a city. As they neared it, the people, cars, and buildings grew more and more numerous, and Estela realized with shock that she must indeed be invisible, for she received no inquisitive stares, or, in fact, any notice at all from any passing people. This disquieted her and yet pleased her at the same time.

They passed through the city without mishap. Ohtar and the others seemed in a hurry to get through it, but Estela observed the sights and sounds with mixed feelings. Part of her envied all the people she passed and longed for a normal life of oblivion to the invisible realm of warfare to which she was now bound apart from the rest of mankind.

As they reached the edge of the town, Estela stopped and looked back. That part of her which she had ignored those many months longed for the ignorance, the simplicity, the ease, the peace of the life she had once had...and loathed. But was it really peace? Could there ever be peace while the invisible war of light and darkness raged around her? She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and turned away, catching Ohtar's eye. She took long purposeful strides to catch up with the others.

And she did not look back.

The sun was sinking in the West, coloring the clouds gold and crimson and setting the treetops afire. The company was once more in a wild deserted land with the black silhouettes of a mountain range just visible in the distance.

"They are evil mountains," Ohtar told her ominously. "Morimool's stronghold lies beneath them. Even now his armies march forth from its dark caverns. We must be vigilant."

Ohtar was peering into the distance when he suddenly glanced at Gilithiel with an uneasy look in his eyes, and he quickened the pace of the group. Estela didn't even bother to look for what they were seeing for some time, having learned all too well the keenness of Elven eyes. It was not for several minutes that she saw the silhouette of a large shape lying still on a rise ahead of them. Suddenly Ohtar broke into a run. No one tried to go after him, and Gilithiel turned her face away in grief. When they finally drew near enough for Estela's mortal eyes to take in the situation, she rushed forward toward Ohtar's kneeling figure.

Before him lay a great white horse with three ugly black-feathered arrows protruding from its side. Estela squeezed her eyes shut, pushing out hot tears, unable to bear the sight of the beautiful animal's blood-stained coat. She stepped forward and clasped Ohtar's shoulder tightly, just as he had done for Belegorn at Malkawa's death. She knew, just as he had, that she could not comfort the grieving warrior, who stared disbelievingly at the fallen beast at his knees. He was stone-faced as always, but his eyes overflowed with horror, sorrow, and fury.

Estela forced herself to look up, and her mouth dropped open in shock at the sight before her eyes. Strewn about the field below them were the bodies of horse after horse, fallen under enemy arrows. She clasped her hand over her mouth to stem a cry of utter horror, and heard Runniendal gasp close behind her. They all stood stunned by the atrocity before them for several long moments. Finally, Ohtar slowly rose, Estela's hand slipping off his shoulder, and walked among the bodies, whispering the names of each of the animals, which he had loved as children. Estela moved to follow him, but Runniendal caught her arm, and she understood her friend's look. They left Ohtar in peace until he returned and gave a quiet emotionless command.

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