It was no great distance between where Eleri had left Dewines and the Dead Oak, so she covered much ground quickly. However, it wasn't long before the first tell-tale signs indicating she wasn't alone in the forest made her wish the distance was even smaller. It was the baying of hounds.
The priestess stopped and listened, trying to gauge how far away the tracking party was and from which direction the noise was coming from. In her heart she knew it was Arwell and his men. They were coming from the south and heading towards her. Pren's false trail may have distracted them for a while, but now it appeared they were back on track.
She set off again. In her mind, she processed where she was in the forest and the best route to the Dead Oak. Keeping that in the forefront of her thoughts seemed to calm the priestess. As she moved between the trees, she implored the Green Lady and the spirits of the woodland to keep Arwel's men away from her.
With a quick look upwards, and a glimpse through branch and leaf above to the sky beyond, she guessed it was now mid-morning. With any luck, she would be at the Dead Oak, and through it's otherworldly doorway by noon.
She was perhaps halfway to her destination when she noticed that the barking was getting considerably louder. Her pursuers were getting closer. Eleri picked up speed, breaking out into a run across flat ground, but slowing down as she climbed or descended a hill. Breaking her ankle or leg would only help those hunting her.
When she came to the next stream, she decided to walk into it and follow its course upstream, in the hope that it might confuse the dogs and conceal her scent, if only for a short while. Even the shortest of delays would be in her favour, and by breaking the trail, they would waste valuable time determining whether she had travelled up or down stream, and for how long.
The priestess would liked to have continued walking in the stream, but she had restrictions herself and could not afford to walk too far out of her way. Climbing up the short but steep bank, she almost slipped when the sound of a great number of birds taking flight from the treetops caused her to look up sharply. Something had disturbed them. A ferocious barking confirmed her worst fears. Arwel's men were not far behind her. At a guess, they had reached the stream and lost her trail, the hound barking in frustration or confusion, or so she hoped.
She moved as quickly as she possibly could go now, fear driving her onwards. The Dead Oak was not far away, but it was on a minor path through the woodlands, meaning her position would no longer be screened by dense forest. Yet there was nothing for it; she could neither alter the cover around it, or move it elsewhere to somewhere safer.
Eleri was running now, all caution gone. She scrambled up a steep incline, using her hands as well as her feet to maintain her momentum. As she crested the top, she could see the Dead Oak through the trees ahead. Her goal was in sight. Quickly chancing a glance round, she still couldn't see her pursuers, and it had been sometime since she had heard one of the dogs bark. Perhaps her trick at the stream had worked? Perhaps they had travelled downstream in error?
Just as she got to her feet, a hound started yipping excitedly. Her respite was over. Eleri took a deep breath, and then slipped and slid down the other side of the hill, trying to manage her descent as best as she could at the speed she was going. Once at the bottom, she could clearly hear the sound of people moving in the forest, though she had yet to see them. She didn't have time to stop and look over her shoulder or scour the trees. She simply had to trust that they were not yet close enough to catch her.
From the bottom of the incline, she could no longer see the Dead Oak, it now being obscured by the vegetation between where she was standing and the narrow path. But, she knew in which direction the ancient husk of the tree was to be found and started towards it, weaving in and around tree trunks as she went.
When she estimated she was halfway between hill and oak, she retrieved the knife from her boot, thankful that Dewines had restored her possessions to her. Would Pren have done the same if they had not been taken from him? Eleri wasn't sure; he made no mention to her of having confiscated them in the first place, let alone that the sorceress had been able to snatch them from him.
The forest was suddenly all noise and activity, resembling market day at a trading post rather than the sacred woodland of the Green Lady. There was no time to spare. She sprinted across the area before the footpath, only halting in the last remnants of cover open to her, to ensure the coast was clear before she made her final dash to the Dead Oak.
Just as Eleri made to break cover and dart across the pathway, noise sounded from her right. A twig snapped, and then another, before the distinct rustle and crunch of leaf litter carried on the air. She turned, knowing in her heart that this was no animal from the forest, but the sound of a man. She looked away, judging the distance to the Dead Oak and back again. Could she make it before she was spotted?
She didn't have time to decide. Looking on, with her heart beating furiously in her chest, the sound of movement got louder. The branches directly in front of her began to shake as whoever was on the other side of the thicket attempted to get through them.
With wide eyes, Eleri watched as a man pushed leaves and branches aside and exited the bush, almost stumbling over the priestess as he did so. It didn't take long for her to recognise his face, for it was one she had seen only the night before, on Midsummer's Eve.
Thanks for taking the time to read this chapter. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please consider voting for it. Poor Eleri. She has no luck. A few more minutes and she would have been through that doorway in the Dead Oak, across The Veil and into the Borderlands, wouldn't she? And who is it who's found her? All comments and votes are greatly appreciated. Chapters for "Oathbreaker" will be posted every weekday, so please add the story to your library / reading list so you don't miss the next one, or like my page on Facebook for updates: https://www.facebook.com/Sammi-Cox-1697023080547692/
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Oathbreaker (Oathsworn Book 1)Historical Fiction
|| The Wattys Shortlist 2018 || Added to Historical Fiction's "Historical Fantasy & Fairy Tales" reading list || #1 in Celtic - October & November 2019 || * * * 'Be my wife.' The words were so quiet, Eleri wondered if she had really heard them. 'P...