Philomena emerged from the tunnel into the forest, still buzzing with tension. Cervin had paid a confederate to give them access to the poachers' road, and they had slipped through without seeing any guards, but she knew it wouldn't be long now before Valdon ordered the search to expand wider than the city. They had to get out of range of the bloodhounds before then.
Cervin didn't waste any time. He set them travelling north east until they reached a stream bed, then they waded upstream for several leagues before emerging on the other side.
They were tracking towards the Danuva River, which flowed from deep in the continent, winding around Breg and then turning south. If they reached the Danuva and crossed it, then the hounds would have to comb the bank for their scent, which could take days, and with any luck Valdon would assume that their plan was to take a barge inland to Reuz, instead of continuing north on foot to Jovan.
Cervin travelled last, directing from the rear and leaving Rainhart to clear their track as best he could. They didn't talk, being too focused on straining their ears for the sound of baying that would suggest that the hounds had picked up their scent.
Philomena shrugged to try and rebalance the satchel she carried slung over her back. Her shoes, stockings, and the hem of her skirt were still wet from the creek, and they clung and rubbed, raising blisters.
She thought with a flash of mortification of how she had stumbled during the hunt, and Rainhart's stinging words. Philomena gritted her teeth and kept walking.
In front of her, Holle walked with her head down, while Tancred had stopped several times to adjust his shoes. Rainhart, she noticed, had wound his fingers in Briga's coat and was letting the wolfhound pull him along.
It was a week and a few days' journey to Jovan. Once, when she had been a sturdy girl used to long days of work and chasing Luca around, she might have been more prepared for it. Once, she had been immune to the pain of blisters or overworked muscles.
They were taking a break when Cervin sat up, tilting his head. Philomena realised that Briga had adopted the same listening posture. "We need to move on now," said Cervin in a tense undertone. "I can hear dogs."
Philomena snatched her satchel, throwing it over one arm. She bunched her skirts in the other hand and followed Cervin at a jog.
She could hear the others behind her, pushing through the foliage: stealth sacrificed for speed. Her lungs burned, and the muscles from the arches of her feet right up her legs began to shout with pain, but fear drove her on, planting her steps in Cervin's footprints, one before the other, branches springing towards her. Ducking some, while others scraped at her clothes.
When Cervin stopped, she almost stumbled into him, and wheeled backwards. Tancred pressed his palms against her back until she got her bearings.
"We'll go along the bank," said Cervin. He waded ankle deep in the water and sidled along the bank, turning the awkward position into a quick side-step. Philomena followed, grimacing as the brackish river water seeped into her shoes once again.
They all heard the shout and a dog's bark. Philomena sucked in a shuddering breath through lungs that didn't seem to be working properly.
Finally, they reached the crossing point, where a long rope was strung across the river. Philomena looked around. "Where is the ferry?" she whispered.
"There isn't one," said Cervin. "We use the rope to get ourselves across."
"Blessed few," said Philomena, eyeing the current. "Is it deep?"
"Deep enough," said Cervin. "Come on, we need to get going."
They all looked at each other for a moment, then Holle puffed out a breath and said, "I'll go first, shall I?"
YOU ARE READING
Philomena is a child of the empire, traded to faraway Deusetats to seal an alliance and marry a prince: the handsome but arrogant Prince Rainhart. However, politics is never simple. On the eve of Philomena's wedding, the king is brutally assassinat...