Kaselyn glanced toward the forest's edge again worriedly, hoping and fearing to see the cause of the dull but constant pounding that resonated through the trees, echoing around her as she and Rhen sprinted. A fallen branch she didn't see cracked into her shin, and she bit back the yelp as she managed to keep her balance and move on. To her left she caught glimpses of gold and brown, other felines like Rhen who were willing to aid. Aid me how? she thought to herself.
If you have so much free time to think, watch where you're going, instead. Rhen's thoughts smashed into her mind. She clenched her fists, but moved on. He was right. If she stopped, she would definitely find out the source of the clamor at the forest's edge. They were close to Ardale. That much Rhen had told her, perhaps to give hope that they would reach it. Unscathed.
She knew otherwise though, and the sudden movement to her right as a pair of horses crested the hill they'd been behind confirmed it. The forest ended at Choel's border. The couldn't hide in it much longer, anyway. More horses came into her view as they joined the first. By the rumbling of the ground she could tell there were still many more still hidden.
Halt! Again, Rhen's voice, and she obeyed him before she even thought about the consequence. She panted, speaking directly to Rhen in her mind.
Why? We won't survive this! We can't! But she saw the cats moving around her toward the forest's edge. Rhen himself stepped to her right side, putting himself between her and the cavalry gathering at the hilltop. The Kraon themselves. She'd seen them before from atop the relative safety of the town walls, savages skirmishing amongst themselves only a short distance from where she'd stood. She noticed a few of their dogs standing amongst the horses as well, red eyes gazing directly to where she stood.
"Come out, child! We know you're there." More ornately dressed than the rest, Kaselyn immediately singled him out as the captain, even before he'd spoken. She was amazed at their discipline, at the way the horses stood unyielding, even as the cats began to emerge from the treeline. They growled and hissed threateningly. Rhen stood still, the final barrier between them and her. She closed her eyes, trying to think.
A moment passed and, before she thought of anything, the sharp hiss of steel as they drew their weapons brought her out of her trance. She opened her eyes, unable to do anything else. It was the cats that attacked first, knowing that they were severely outnumbered but still willing to make every second count. They were already at the front of the line by the time their swords cleared their sheathes. The dogs they ignored—the horses were a greater threat, and the men atop them greater still. She watched, unable to move, unable to even blink, as the first few horses fell beneath the razor-sharp claws of her protectors.
And the troop recovered. Three cats fell instantly as they were pierced by a dozen thrown spears each. Two more fell from sword blows as the men on horseback next to their fallen comrades swept their blades down in vengeance. They didn't die, though. She could still hear their voices in her mind. "Stop," she whispered, her throat constricted to where she could barely breathe. She knew they didn't hear. No one but Rhen would have been able to hear through the carnage. The remainder of the felines backed off a bit, ringing the horses as much as they were able. The two cats' agony penetrated her mind, though. Penetrated, and then was overwhelmed as the Kraon roared a battle cry and pressed forward. The fallen cats were crushed into the ground, silencing their voice as their lifeblood flowed into the earth, their bodies mangled beyond recognition by the shodden hooves of an entire troop of horses.
The next few minutes of her life would be forever etched into her mind. The felines, refusing to give ground, were slaughtered. At least one horse fell to each, but it did not slow them. The ground became tinged with blood, and even in the night it reflected the near-full moon. Rhen pushed her back, directing her back into the forest. There was nothing they could do. She felt the last cats fall, some to dogs, some to sharp steel, and knew that it was over. And Rhen, as well, as he collapsed into her, knocking them both to the ground. She grasped his fur and found it wet, already covered with his own warm blood. He lay on top of her, gasping for breath, his lung likely pierced by the javelin that stuck out of his side. We tried... he said slowly, tilting his head to look at her. She cried out in agony, putting to voice everything she had felt from the cats, from Rhen.
"Come with us, little fatespinner." The captain, still on his horse, his armor still shining, looked down at her, one gauntleted hand held out toward her. "We have much to do...."
She snapped awake, screaming. Her eyes stung. She clenched her fists and felt fur. Wet fur. Screaming again, knowing that it had not been a dream, it took a full minute for her to comprehend that Rhen was speaking to her, pleading. Calm down. Please calm down. You'll bring them all to us. Please! He punctuated the last with a soft roar.
She felt sick again at his roar. Shaking uncontrollably, she buried her face in his side, realizing that the wetness she felt was from her own tears, cried as she lived in her nightmarish dream. She sat that way for a long time, refusing to move, babbling incoherently her thanks that Rhen was still alive.
* * *
Rhen grew silent as she sobbed, uncertain of what to do. He wanted to know why she'd started crying in her sleep, what had frightened her so much that she'd awoken in panic, but her current state of mind was so fragile he didn't want to move, let alone try to converse with her. So he lay there, unmoving, alert for any predator desiring to investigate a scream in the night, waiting for her to recover.
* * *
The sun filtering through the canopy brought Kaselyn back to her senses. She opened her eyes to gaze at Rhen's soft fur, matted and still damp from tears. She craned her neck, wincing at the pain of sleeping awkwardly, and saw Rhen watching her, eyes alert and ears swiveling slightly to catch any noise.
So my charge awakens at last, Rhen stated, tones of relief audible even in her mind. She nodded slowly, standing to stretch her protesting muscles and glance around. Everything was the same as it had been last night.
Except me. She kept that thought close to herself, hoping that Rhen didn't catch it. He already looked worried enough. She would never be the same after last night, after seeing.... She shook her head softly. Better not to even think about it. Better to never think on it. "We should go," she said. picking up her small pack and her walking stick.
Rhen stood as well, shaking a few loose twigs from his coat. "Yes, we should. The sooner we get to Ardale, the better."
"We're not going to Ardale. Not yet, anyway." Must change. "We'll head to Mouridon first. I need supplies."
It's out of the way, Rhen commented, his tail twitching in irritation.
"But still closer. Let's go. The sooner we get there, the sooner you can be rid of me." She stepped around Rhen and strode briskly away, leaving Rhen to stare at her back, wondering what had changed the woman so much. A long journey he said again to himself.