Chapter 41

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Eleri was tiring. Sleep, the deep, restful kind that allowed you to feel restored on waking, had been in short supply. When was the last time she'd had a good night's sleep? Before Celyn returned from the north country? Or perhaps the night they had announced their intention to marry on Midsummer's Eve, the night their plans had been blessed by Brenin, their tribe's king? The night before King Arwel of the Riverlands had come into their lives and ruined everything with his dark heart and mysterious purpose.

The going was slow due to the treacherous and always changing terrain under foot, but as Eleri's exhaustion increased, she found even the moderate pace they were travelling at too much. Her eyes struggled to remain open. On more than one occasion she had almost stumbled off the edge of an open crack in the ground, only pulling back in the breath before the disaster occurred.

'Cigfran. I must stop.'

'No. We cannot. We must push on.'

'I cannot go on. Not until I've rested.' As she spoke, the priestess wobbled on her feet, before dropping to her knees. 'I'm sorry, Cigfran.'

The bird circled overhead once, scrutinising Eleri. The raven must have come to the same conclusion as the priestess because she didn't bother to prolong the argument. Eleri expected a repetition of how dangerous the Borderlands were, and how mean and cruel the Helwyr, but Cigfran said nothing, only sighed.

'Unfortunately, I think you are right, child,' the raven finally uttered. 'You do not look at all well and we still have a long way to go. I fear you won't make it in this condition, and I, alas, cannot carry you. Let us find a place where we can stop and you can rest in safety.'

Eleri nodded, grateful that Cigfran was being so understanding. She would have voiced her thanks, but she was simply too tired to open her mouth and speak. Getting back to her feet was struggle enough, but somehow she managed it.

Cigfran led Eleri towards one of the wider cracks in the ground, one which had collapsed partly on one side so that it's lower than the surface floor could be reached from above by a series of ledges. As Eleri began her descent, the raven warned her that the stability of these black rock shelves was unknown, so she would have to tread carefully. With due care and attention, she made it down unscathed.

This lower level was not that deep, perhaps a head taller than Eleri herself. As soon as she reached the bottom, she removed her cloak to use as a blanket, and laid down.

'When was the last time you ate or drank anything?'

'I can't remember,' she answered, sleepily. 'I have a little food, and a small water skin here.' She fumbled at her belt, searching out the said items, but failed. 'Wait! They're not here,' she lamented, panic-stricken. What was she to eat now? What was she to drink? How could she keep her strength up?

'The magic of The Veil must have destroyed them.'

'But why?'

'I cannot be sure, child. Perhaps to ensure the living do not cross it.'

Now she knew she couldn't eat or drink, Eleri suddenly felt terribly hungry and thirsty. She covered her face with her hands, not believing that this quest of hers was beset with yet another obstacle.

'Do not fret. Even here in the Borderlands there are things to eat and drink. Not many, I grant you, and not pleasant tasting either, but it is that or starve and thirst. Rest for a while here, Eleri, while I go and see what I can find. You should be safe. Close your eyes and when you next open them, I hope to be able to offer you something sustaining.'

Through sleepy eyes, Eleri watched as Cigfran took flight and flew along the roofless passage before rising higher and out of sight. With a mighty yawn, the priestess lay down, and fell instantly to sleep, to dream of the mouth-watering and thirst-quenching offerings Pren had tempted her with as part of her fae-gift test.

When she woke, Eleri at first didn't spot Cigfran for the bird was perched on the top edge of the rock wall, probably keeping watch. She sat up, stretching, feeling better but by no means good. Her empty stomach growled, protesting at being empty.

No doubt noticing the movement, Cigfran hopped down the rocky handholds in the stone until it could land next to Eleri.

'How long have I been asleep?'

'A good long while. Where you're from it would have measured half a day. As promised,' the raven indicated with its beak, 'something to eat.'

On the ground was a pile of small pitted spheres, dark red in colour. They looked dry and tough and completely unappetising.

Eleri wrinkled her nose at them. 'What are they?'

'Does it matter? You are hungry and now have food. Eat. Eat!' Cigfran encouraged.

The priestess picked up one of the spheres. It felt hard. 'What do you call them?'

'Caled berries. And no, you're not going to like them, and yes, they are going to taste horrible, and yes, they might even make you feel a little bit unwell, but no, they are not poisonous. Eat them or go hungry.'

Cigfran's description did nothing to persuade Eleri that she actually wanted to eat the berries. So, she stared at the one in her hand instead.

'There is nothing else, child. You will not make it out of the Borderlands if you do not eat, but that is your choice. I will now go and get you something to wash them down with.' The raven then took wing, not waiting to see if Eleri would eat or not.

The priestess' stomach growled again. She knew she couldn't afford to be fussy. If this was all there was to eat, she would have to eat it. As she put the first caled berry into her mouth, she hoped the drink Cigfran would return with would make up for the food.

The first berry she spat out. And the second. The third she managed to bite into before spitting it out and gagging. However, the fourth one she could just about chew and swallow, as her mouth got used to the stinging bitter taste of the fruit. The more of them she ate it seemed, the more of them she could stomach.

By the time Cigfran returned, the pile of caled berries had been halved and Eleri was in dire need of a drink. However, when the raven handed over a folded leaf full of liquid, which the priestess downed in one go, she coughed and spat and choked. The water was even worse than the berries.

When she had recovered from the effects of the drink as best as she could, Eleri stood and replaced her cloak around her shoulders. In a hoarse voice she said, 'Come, let us go, Cigfran. The sooner we leave this cursed land, the sooner I can have something to drink that won't make me want to keel over and pass out.'

'And the sooner you can be reunited with your warrior, Celyn.'

'That too,' Eleri mumbled. 'That too.'

*

Thanks for taking the time to read this chapter. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please consider voting for it.

Poor Eleri. Food and drink in the Borderlands sound as dire as everything else we have learned about this land between The Veil and the Land of the Dead. This quest of hers is really testing her resolve.

As always, 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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