*cue scary music* :P
Oh, I should warn you...this one ends with a cliffhanger too. }:)
The Journey Continues
I awoke to Steven gently shaking my shoulder. William was saddling the horses and I sat up, realizing that someone had laid a blanket over me where I slept over by the log sometime during my sleep. I pulled it around my shoulders, the chill of the fog that had enveloped the forest during the hours we slept seeped through my dress and made me shiver.
“Come, we must go,” Steven urged softly. “The princess is only getting further away.”
I nodded, rising to my feet stiffly. My hands were almost too cold to hold the reins, but after I breathed on them for a few minutes, the feeling returned and with it the sharp pain of reality.
Steven led us through the swirling mists, finding a path only God knows how. I followed his lead confidently, trusting him and God to leading us safely out of the forest. The prayers, which had stopped only during my sleep, now continued as I dedicated almost every thought to pleading with the Almighty for our safety and the safety of Princess Christine. More prayers were added as I thought of my brother, and for the king as he led our men in battle with someone who held his daughter as prisoner.
Only God could help us all out of the mess we were in. And so I prayed.
Two hours later, Steven pulled his exhausted horse to a stop. Lather coated its sides which were heaving with every breath the beast struggled to take. The boy jumped from his horse and took off the saddle and blanket and began walking his beast around in circles to cool it down.
I followed his example, but slid from Duke’s saddle instead of jumping. It was a good thing I did, for my legs felt like jelly, and I would have crumpled into a heap on the ground if William had not caught my arm and steadied me.
“Are you all right?” he asked again.
I simply nodded.
“We can slow down if we need too,” he said.
I shook my head. “No, the princess’s life is in danger right now. I’ll manage.”
“Brave girl,” I heard him mutter to himself as he led his unsaddled horse over to where Steven’s was tied. I had to smile to myself. William didn’t give compliments to just anybody.
Quickly, I unsaddled Duke, speaking to my horse in soft tones and rubbing his muzzle affectionately. With his things mostly off, I led him to the tree the other horses were tied to and added his reins to the knot.
William came over to me and handed me some bread. “I’m afraid that’s all we have for now,” he apologized. “Steven and I can’t risk hunting right now and possibly alert those who hold the princess captive.”
I nodded, taking the bread gratefully. “That’s fine. I understand.” I whispered a prayer over the sparse meal and ate it, suddenly famished. Fresh meat would be wonderful, but I knew it was a wise decision to wait until after we rescued the princess. Especially since we were entering into enemy territory now.
A light rain began to fall and William sent the sky a worried look. We saddled our horses and began the next leg of our journey that would take us through a mountain pass. Steven again took the front and made his way up the path that was beginning to grow more and more rocky and steep. I took my place in the middle and tried to focus on finding safe ground for Duke to climb on and help him not trip on the loose rocks that Steven’s horse occasionally sent down our way.
The wind had been steadily getting stronger, and the rain began falling harder. I blinked the water from my eyes and pushed my wet hair back from my face. Patting Duke’s broad shoulder, I encouraged him to keep up his spirit. We would get through this together. Lightening flashed somewhere nearby and thunder ricocheted off the mountainsides. Even Duke who usually wouldn’t startle at anything was shocked at the sudden noise and jerked his head backwards, nearly pulling the reins from my hands.
I felt raw skin open and begin bleeding. Wincing, I kept my hold on Duke’s reins and whispered fervently to him. “Hush big boy, you’re all right. Noise never hurt anyone. It is only thunder. You’re going to be all right. It’ll calm down soon. No need to worry. Steven and William know what they’re doing. You’re going to be all right. We’re all going to be all right. It will stop soon.”
Only it didn’t. The rain and wind seemed to work together against us in order to stop our efforts to rescue Princess Christine. Lightening lit up the darkening skies around us, some of the bolts landing too close for comfort. Thunder bellowed angrily at us as we hunched over our horses in order to be closer to the ground. It was no good. I knew we would have to stop eventually.
From the back, as if he had read my thoughts, William hollered towards his younger brother that he would need to find shelter, that we wouldn’t be able to keep going in this storm. Steven hollered something back, but the wind tore the words from his mouth. A moment later he disappeared from our sight, the rain effectively hiding his figure from my water-filled eyes.
“What did he say?” William yelled at me.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I think he must have found somewhere for us to wait out this storm.”
“Follow him!” he ordered.
I obeyed. But suddenly, Duke stopped. I nudged him with my heels, squinting through the thickly falling rain in order to see what he was balking from.
“What’s the matter?” William asked over the wind and thunder.
“I don’t know!” I answered in like manner. “Wait a moment. I think I see something. I’ll have to dismount Duke and lead him, he’s refusing to move.”
“Meg,” I heard the concern leaking through William’s voice, “be careful. Horses sometimes have more sense than humans when it comes to surviving out in the wild.”
“I will,” I promised, sliding from Duke’s back and wincing at the pain that shot up my cramped legs. I carefully walked in front of Duke, and pulled on his bridle. “Come on,” I whispered, “you know you can trust me Duke.”
The horse’s soft brown eyes pleaded with me. He remained steadfast, his hooves seemingly anchored into the solid rock beneath them. I sighed, frustrated by this turn of events. All I wanted was a place I could dry out and sleep for a few hours, maybe even eat a little more bread, and my horse was refusing to let me have even those simple pleasures.
I looked past my horse at William, who sat outlined against the mountainside on his horse as another lightening bolt struck the mountain and teeth-rattling thunder shook the ground beneath our feet. I made a decision. “All right Duke, have it your own way. If you don’t trust me to lead you, then you can lead me.” I gave my horse his head and he appeared to understand what was wanted of him. He nickered softly and began walking carefully sideways before walking forward again.
All of a sudden, a wind took the rain directly in front of me away for a moment and I saw, with a shriek of horror, a huge chasm open up at my feet. Had I taken one step more, if Duke had let me lead him a few more feet, we would have both fallen and died. I shouted a warning to William, who followed my advice and now stood on the moderate safety of a ledge that was about three feet in width but stretched beyond what I could see, due to the falling rain, without ending.
“Well, that was cutting it close,” William said. “Good thing you saw that pit.”
I laughed nervously. “You have Duke to thank for that,” I answered. “If he hadn’t been stubborn…” I trailed off with an expressive shudder.
“Well, like I said before…” William stopped his words of wisdom mid-sentence and gave me a look of horror.
The same thought crossed my mind at the same time.
I knelt by the gash in the mountainside and screamed the boy’s name. Nothing. William joined me as we called out for the younger boy who had led us all safely thus far.
Help us God, I prayed earnestly. Please have Steven be all right. Please give him back to us alive. Please don’t have him…
“Milady!” I heard the call, faint but there all the same.
“Where are you Steven?” I called out again, this time in frantic hope.
“I’m on a ledge about ten feet beneath you,” he answered. “I-I think I broke my leg in the fall. My horse is dead,” he added in a sorrowful voice.
As William tied a rope to Duke’s saddle, I whispered my grateful thanks to the Almighty. Broken leg or not, he was alive and I thanked Him for sparing Steven’s life.
William tossed the rope down to where Steven said he could reach it. A few seconds later, a scream of pain split the air along with a crash of thunder. We froze, the rope swinging in the black nothingness.
Steven’s voice drifted up to us, but he sounded weaker. “I can’t stand up,” he said, competing with the wind to be heard. “The rope can’t reach me where I’m laying down. One of you will have to come down and carry me up.”
I admired Steven’s ability to kill his pride and make a request like that. William immediately began tying the rope around himself, but I stopped him.
“I’d better go down,” I said.
“You?” William’s eyes were full of disbelief.
I folded my arms stubbornly. “I’m lighter,” I told him. “And Duke would have had a hard enough time pulling Steven up without adding another man to the mix. He’s used to carrying me.”
Rain fell in rivers down my face, neck, and into the soaked fabric of my dress. I was hard put to not shiver in the cold wind and somehow portray weakness to William when I needed him to believe me strong.
My teacher finally sighed, untied the rope from around himself and helped secure it around my own waist. “Bring yourself and my brother back up here,” he ordered gently. “I’d never be able to live with myself if anything happened to either of you.”
I gave him a curt nod and lowered myself down over the edge of the precipice. The absence of wind was immediately apparent as I sank slowly deeper into the darkness. I could hear Steven panting somewhere beneath me.
“Steven?” I asked the shadows.
“Milady?” Disbelief mixed with the pain in Steven’s voice. “Why are you coming after me? I thought William would…”
I interrupted him. “He was going to,” I stated, my already raw hands being scraped in other places now as I was lowered towards Steven’s place of safety. “I didn’t let him though. I knew Duke would have been hard put to take both your weight. I’m lighter, so here I am.”
William yelled down at us, “Lady Meg, the rope has no more slack. How close are you to where Steven is?”
I strained my eyes in the dark, as if by sheer willpower they would be able to pierce through the gloom that separated me from Steven. “I can’t see,” I answered upward.
“You’ve got about six more feet to go,” Steven said morosely. “You’ll have to untie the rope and jump.”
Terror seized me. Sweat dripped off the end of my nose and onto my folded hands, the salt stinging the raw skin. I would have to jump in the dark, without being able to see, to where I knew not. With only Steven’s voice to guide me.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I whispered, my eyes squeezed shut in fear.
Cloth dragged across stone and Steven spoke again, his voice softer as if he could sense my terror and confusion. “Can you trust me?” he asked.
Above me, William began praying for me. Out loud. The wind stole the words away before they reached my ears, but somehow, I felt comforted all the same. With astonishment, I realized I almost felt safe hanging over a pit, a few feet from certain death, and the only thing keeping me there was a thin rope. But God was in control. And I found peace.
“Yes, I can trust you,” I whispered, somehow answering the quiet voice of God and Steven with the same words.
“Then untie yourself carefully, keeping one hand on the rope at all times,” Steven instructed patiently.
The terror that had gripped me now melted as I focused instead on doing as Steven told me. Pain tore through my hands as I fumbled with the knot with one hand while holding onto the rope as though it were the only thing that was between me and death…which, upon reflection, it was.
The meticulous job was finally completed, and I now held onto the rope with both hands. I felt extremely exposed as I lay against the rock face, praying with all that was in me for Steven and my safety.
“Done?” Steven asked.
I nodded, then realizing he couldn’t see the affirmative motion, said, “Yes.”
“You’re directly above the ledge,” Steven informed me. “Slide to the bottom of the rope, and then come straight down.”
I felt the rope burn past my fingers as I let it pass through them. The end came and went. In a moment of breathless intensity, I was alone in the darkness, falling.